Long before tea was something Kermit the Frog drank in memes, or you were spilling it (i.e. opening your fat mouth), tea dances were the center of gay social life in queer spaces around the country.
Back2Stonewall has a perfectly pride themed history of the tea dance and how it became synonymous with gay culture for nearly 3 decades.
By the late 60s, gay men had established the Fire Island Cherry Grove and also the more subdued and “closeted” Pines (off of Long Island, in New York) as a summer resort of sorts. It was illegal at that time for bars to ‘knowingly sell alcohol to homosexuals’ and besides many of the venues there were not licensed as ‘night clubs’ or to sell alcohol. To avoid attracting attention, afternoon tea dances were promoted. Holding them in the afternoon also allowed those who needed to catch the last ferry back to the mainland to attend.
The proscription against same-sex dancing was still in effect and gay men were not allowed to dance together by law, so organizers were forced to institute ‘no touching’ rules. The only way it could happen was in a group. The line dance was born. Dances like the “Hully Gully” and “The Madison” allowed men to dance together as long as there was at least one woman involved. It became the rage in the Pines. The dancing was monitored by someone up on a ladder with a flashlight and megaphone to observe, if the men got too close the light would be shined on them. The dance would be featured in the 1970 film “Boys in the Band.”
“In 1967 Tea Dance went to 7 days a week during season.“
By the 1970s, B2S says that gay male fashion looked to the blue and working classes for their sartorial choices and “tea” had become “dainty” sounding.
“Real men drink beer.” Every Gay [apparently] in the 70s.
There is a real excitement that jolts through you when you read the stories of the era. When you went out for the night with your friends and had no idea who you might meet or have sex with. Yet, still, “the popularity of the tea dance waned. And while it still survives in Fire Island and a few gay bastions like Provincetown it is all but gone and those few remaining are shadows of their former selves.”