Thursday, May 1, 2008

History of LGBT Tucson: The Graduate

One of the first places in the Old Pueblo to cater to Gays and Lesbians was the Graduate Bar located on West University. It closed nine years ago in June but it isn't forgotten. What follows is the story, written by Mark R. Kerr for The Observer and on the place.

For more than 30 years, it was more than just the first watering hole for gays and lesbians in Tucson. But June 6 was "graduation day" for The Graduate, and hundreds of Tucsonans turned out to say good-bye. Dave Huff and Frank Schepis, the current co-owners of the bar, said the owner of the property had sold the land to developers who plan to turn the area into an apartment complex. An auction of various items and memorabilia from the bar, with more than $2,000 raised for two local AIDS organizations, was the highlight of the final call for the club, well known for raising monies for AIDS groups and charities.

The neighborhood bar with the national reputation, located at 23 West University, got its start in 1962, according to Bill Schober, who was the manager of the establishment then called Mr. Jim's. Schober said the place was a beer and wine bar only, since you didn't need a liquor license to serve those. It also didn't have a sign on the front, since Gays and Lesbians weren't out back then -- one could only find out about it by word of mouth.

Mr. Jim's was a place many Gays and Lesbians found support for coming out and comfort in the face of loss, celebrated their relationships and enjoyed the state's first drag shows and other Lesbian and Gay entertainment, especially during the pre-Stonewall era in Arizona. Mr. Jim's was also a place where both Gays and Lesbians got along as a community. Schober stated that was the policy of the place. Always tending bar was a Gay man and a Lesbian. If one bartender favored one group over the other, they were fired. If any customer did the same, they were 86'ed from the bar.

In 1968, the bar could finally afford to get a liquor license and the club changed it's name. Camu's was the first name, which didn't go over well. Later in the year, The Graduate was chosen as the new name. Despite those outward changes, the purpose of the place remained the same. Many groups, such as Partners, the Tucson Knight Owls and Desert Leathermen, were formed at there, and there held their fundraising events to better the Tucson Gay and Lesbian community.

In later years, discussions about AIDS by the first Tucsonan diagnosed with the disease took place at The Graduate, when AIDS was still thought of as a "Gay cancer" by the federal government and long before any AIDS service organization was around. People could get information on various Gay and Lesbian topics, meet their love (and many of those long-time couples were on hand for the last round), find out about lesbian and gay books, see a friend and get a meal -- no, it wasn't just a bar, it was the first Gay and Lesbian community center in Tucson.

In a couple of reports on the area by the Tucson City Government, The Graduate is referred to as "a bar that caters to homosexuals with no sign on the front." The Graduate was more than that, especially to many in attendance who bid on memories at that "graduation day" auction. Now, the little bar on West University is a memory, a good one for the many who came through its doors ... and its infamous plastic curtain.

No comments: