50 years later, New Jersey rights a historical wrong: AG Grewal formally apologizes for office’s role in shutting down the state’s gay bars

TRENTON, NJ — As Pride Month drew to a close, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal took steps to recognize an ugly moment in the history of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office: the systematic targeting of gay bars by the Office’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control between 1933 and 1967, according to a June 29 press release. To right this historical wrong, Grewal apologized for these historical practices and issued a directive ordering ABC to vacate 126 enforcement actions that suspended or revoked the licenses of liquor establishments during that era because they served LGBTQ patrons.

These actions mark the first time the Attorney General’s Office or ABC has formally apologized for their role in these actions, which occurred prior to a landmark 1967 New Jersey Supreme Court decision holding that ABC could not suspend a liquor license simply because the licensee allowed LGBTQ individuals to congregate at the premises. In addition, Grewal and ABC Director James Graziano announced that ABC would both expand its current antibias training to root out any implicit bias or discriminatory enforcement efforts and undertake a broader review of the agency’s historical practices to determine whether any other communities were subject to discriminatory enforcement actions.

“For too many years, New Jersey failed to live up to its professed values of diversity, inclusion and respect as it relates to our LGBTQ-plus community,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “While we cannot undo the injustices of the past, today’s action by Attorney General Grewal demonstrates our commitment to recognizing the harms that have been suffered and acting to provide support to New Jersey’s LGBTQ-plus residents.”

“The Attorney General’s Office is charged with furthering justice in New Jersey, and yet, for more than three decades, our office fell far short,” Grewal said. “The time has come to acknowledge this failing, to apologize for what happened and to make sure it never occurs again. We are committed to righting this historical wrong and strengthening our relationship with New Jersey’s LGBTQ-plus community.”

“To be clear, today’s ABC is committed to according respect, dignity, fairness and appropriate due process to all parties and persons before it and will not discriminate — or by extension allow licensees or permittees to discriminate — against protected classes or the public,” Graziano said. “We join Attorney General Grewal in acknowledging and condemning the harm our agency caused to members of the LGBTQ-plus community and offer our sincere apologies to the generations of individuals impacted by it.”

In Asbury Park in June, Grewal and representatives of ABC gathered with Garden State Equality and other community leaders to install a memorial at the former site of Paddock Bar, which was subjected to three different enforcement actions by ABC between 1957 and 1960.

Those actions, like others targeting gay bars, were based on two ABC regulations issued shortly after the end of Prohibition: Rule 4, which prohibited licensed liquor establishments from allowing “female impersonators,” among others, on their premises; and Rule 5, which prohibited licensees from operating their business “in such a manner as to become a nuisance” — a term that, until 1967, for these purposes included allowing the “congregation of apparent homosexuals” at the establishment. In 1967, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in One Eleven Wines & Liquors Inc. v. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control that ABC could not use its enforcement authority to target gay bars simply because they served LGBTQ patrons. However, since then, neither the Attorney General’s Office nor ABC has formally apologized for its actions prior to the 1967 ruling.

To address these failings, Grewal ordered ABC to take the following actions, with the support of and in consultation with Graziano: issue a special ruling that formally vacates all 126 ABC enforcement actions issued prior to 1967 that relied on Rule 4 or Rule 5 to suspend or revoke a liquor license because the licensee served LGBTQ patrons; post on the agency’s website the records of all 126 actions vacated by the directive, to ensure that the historical record is available to the public; expand antibias and cultural diversity training for ABC investigators and attorneys, with a focus on interactions with the LGBTQ community, to ensure that the agency’s staff treat all New Jerseyans with dignity and respect; and conduct a full review of the agency’s historical records to determine if the agency’s enforcement authority was used to target any other marginalized communities, with a report to the attorney general due no later than Oct. 15.

“We are immensely grateful to the attorney general for his historic acts of restorative justice today,” Garden State Equality Executive Director Christian Fuscarino said. “As the Garden State’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Grewal is uniquely positioned to not only acknowledge past government persecution of LGBTQ establishments and community members, but also to correct that past wrongdoing and be a significant part of the decades-long efforts to bring equity and legal protections to New Jersey’s LGBTQ community.”

“This unprecedented action by Attorney General Grewal represents a profound and meaningful acknowledgment of the unfair discriminatory treatment visited upon the LGBTQ community in the past by state law enforcement officials,” said Thomas Prol, a founding and current executive committee member of Garden State Equality, and the past president of the New Jersey Bar Association. “The very people who were supposed to protect my community were actually the ones who led the charge in persecuting us — often viciously so — and (those persecuted) lost their jobs, homes, friends and families by those devastating actions. Attorney General Grewal and his senior staff should be commended for taking this deep dive to explore these terrible law enforcement practices, expose the truth and reconcile with members of the LGBTQ community.”

A full list of the 126 enforcement actions vacated appeared as an appendix to Grewal’s directive. Local establishments and licenses on the list were:
• From Elizabeth, Billy’s Tavern, which had its license suspended for 190 days on Sept. 11, 1961; Blue Room, which had its license suspended for 85 days on June 22, 1961; Pop’s Tavern, which had its license revoked on June 8, 1967; Silhouette Lounge, which had its license suspended for 55 days on Jan. 8, 1963; Woody’s Tap Room, which had its license suspended for 80 days on July 12, 1966; and the license of Jessie Lloyd, which was suspended for 120 days on Dec. 27, 1954, and again for 43 days on May 14, 1956.
• From Roselle, Helene’s, which had its license suspended for 40 days on June 29, 1961.