This story was originally published in June 2013.
A crudely made, handwritten, misspelled sign played a remarkable role in the history of L.A.’s LGBT movement. The sign said “Fagots Stay Out,” and it made history at West Hollywood eatery and watering hole Barney’s Beanery.
The sign was installed in the 1940s by founder John “Barney” Anthony, but it was the next owner of Barney’s who clashed with the area’s LGBT community over its presence. That owner was Irwin Held, who died on Monday [in June 2013] at age 87.
For years, Held resisted pressure to remove the sign.
It began in the early 1970s with LGBT community leaders such as Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church, and the late Morris Kight, a prominent activist.
Perry said he was shocked when he first heard about the sign. He confronted Held, who said the sign “didn’t mean anything” and refused to take it down.
Writer and researcher Mary Ann Cherry, who is working on a biography of Kight, said that Kight didn’t feel that strongly about the sign personally. However, in the wake of the Stonewall uprising in New York, Kight wanted to mobilize the community in Los Angeles. Fighting for the sign’s removal became a flashpoint for members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), of which Kight was a co-founder.
“He knew it was more symbolic than anything else,” Cherry said.
Activists put pressure on Held not only through organized protests but also through actions designed primarily to make them a nuisance to the business, Cherry said. “Sip-ins” involved settling into booths for hours while ordering nothing but coffee. In “change-ins,” people queued up in long lines just to ask the staff to make change.
Tension escalated, and publicity followed. It “snowballed,” Cherry said, and it went on for months.
“We’re talking about it today because it was so successful,” said Cherry, who noted how dangerous it was to publicly engage in LGBT activism at that time. “In my mind, all those people deserve a tip of the hat for their bravery.”
The sign briefly came down in 1970 — but then it went back up along with several more signs.
It wasn’t until early 1985 that it finally came down for good. With the newly incorporated city’s adoption of an antidiscrimination ordinance, Held faced hefty fees if he didn’t take the sign down.
Why did Held hold out for so long? Especially considering that he told David Houston, the current co-owner of Barney’s, that he didn’t have a problem with gay people?
A Barney’s history on the restaurant’s website suggests that he wanted to “keep the place close to original, as he had obtained it.” In 1985, Held told the L.A. Times that it was “part of the tradition of the place.”
Although Houston thinks the sign was offensive and that Held’s position was wrong, his perception of Held is not of a homophobe but rather “an old-school kind of business guy” who resented feeling like he was being told what to do.
The removal of the sign was a time of the changing times in West Hollywood — but many LGBT people continued to steer clear.
“I moved to town in 1987, and it was understood that if you were a gay person you didn’t go there — and then that changed,” said Councilmember Jeff Prang, who after hearing Barney’s had new owners sought out a meeting with Houston.
“Here’s a progressive guy,” Prang said. “He had no problem with gay people … It’s a different place — a new, improved Barney’s.”
Rev. Troy Perry, too, would have continued to “stay out,” but to his surprise the new owners extended a public apology. In 2005, Perry went to Barney’s to accept the apology in person. He stayed to eat after, and he’s been back a few times. Forty years after the notorious sign ignited early LGBT activists, Perry sees Barney’s as a “great old-fashioned place” to stop for a bowl of chili.