Was this 1950s cafe also Austin’s first gay bar?

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 Local
The Manhattan Deli has been identified as a gay-friendly cafe with a gay bar in the backroom during the 1950s and ’60s. Contributed by Austin History Center ND-52-107-01

A living witness puts a 1950s Austin gay bar, perhaps the city’s first, in a backroom on Congress Avenue.

Some background: Readers loved this photo from the 1950s. Even more, they loved guessing the name and location of the Austin cafe.

READ MORE: Do you know this Austin cafe from the 1950s?

Austin Nelson, whose family design firm operates out of 905 Congress Ave., persuasively argued that their building had been the pictured Manhattan restaurant and deli.

READ MORE: A winner in the 1950 Austin cafe mystery.

A few weeks later, we stumbled on another astounding coincidence. We were interviewing activist and journalist Randy Wicker, who was a radical student leader at the University of Texas during the late 1950s. He also is gay.

American-Statesman: So was there a gay bar in Austin back then?

Wicker: Oh yes. It was in the backroom of a deli on the avenue. A couple of blocks south of the Capitol.

It wouldn’t by chance be the Manhattan deli?

Wicker: Yes! Yes! That was it!

Did you enter through the alley?

Wicker: No, you walked right through the restaurant. The backroom was very small. It held maybe 18 people. You knew everybody there, except on (Longhorn) game days, when it would fill up and there would be some fresh faces.

By the way, Wicker’s description of the treatment of UT’s LGBT community in the 1950s is harrowing. For instance, one could be dismissed out of hand if the administration knew for a fact you were gay. If they just suspected you were gay, you were called into the dean of students’ and given a choice: a lie detector test or a quiet withdrawal from the university.

Later, we confirmed from other sources that, all through the 1960s, the Manhattan was identified as a gay-friendly restaurant and that the backroom bar was still active.

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