Ceiling soap, an LGBTQ survival essential

This is a story I heard in passing. Gay bars, the story goes, used to nail bars of soap to the ceiling in the bathroom. The reason was because police officers would steal the soap in order to force a health code violation and get the bar shut down. To get around this, bar owners started nailing bars of soap to the ceiling. When the health inspector showed up, the bar owners would merely point to the ceiling.

A lot has changed since the days queer bar owners had to get creative to stay open. We still have a lot of prejudice and discrimination to deal with as LGBTQ people, but unless I missed them, I’ve never seen a bar of soap nailed to the ceiling in the bathrooms of the Coffee Hag.

There is a long history of LGBTQ people facing violence and discrimination because of who we are and who we love. But we have also managed to develop many creative ways to survive in hostile social environments.

Queer bars, an early means of creating community and organizing, and their use of ceiling soap are just a few examples. Some of the earliest well documented examples of gay bars were the London molly houses, which date back to the 18th century.

Code was another method used to survive and create community. The phrase “Are you a friend of dorothy?” became so ubiquitous that, according to urban legend, the Navy started a formal investigation to find an actual Dorothy leading the giant underground queer networking ring. See also: Boston married.

In fact, queer men in the early 19th century even developed and used Polari, an entire language to better communicate and help expose undercover police officers.

Newsletters and magazines were an early means of organizing and disseminating educational information. Now historians can use them to better understand our queer past.

In Mankato, the tools we developed to help survive started with private pizza parties, which became the Mankato Area Gay Consciousness Group. It was the Gay Consciousness Group that led to the founding of what is now known as the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center, the second-oldest campus center of its kind.

In Minnesota, the earliest organization to fight for LGBTQ rights to be formed was FREE or Fight Repression of Erotic Expression. FREE formed in May 1969 on the University of Minnesota campus.

In more modern times, we use the internet and other tools to form ever more complex social groups and communities. Sure, there are a few downsides, such as making ourselves more vulnerable to harassment and such. But overall I think tat the internet and social media have been a net good for us.

I look forward to whatever cool new tools we create for ourselves in the future.

Header photo: A soap dispenser in a bathroom near the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center. Note that it is on the wall, not the ceiling. (Courtesy of Jeremy Redlien)

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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