Notable

Keeping the Lesbian Bar Alive

December 11, 2020

Story: Jamie Feldmar

photo: The Lesbian Bar Project

A grassroots campaign is fighting to protect these safe havens from disappearing forever.

A niche within a niche, the category of lesbian bars in America has never had a huge footprint. One report from the 1980s estimates about 200 such spots, a number that has since dwindled to an alarming 15, each of which is now struggling to survive. Fortunately, a new campaign called The Lesbian Bar Project recently raised over $117,000 in an effort to save those remaining, which have acted as unequivocal safe spaces for queer women over the years.

New York–based filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, who partnered with Jägermeister’s “Save the Night” initiative, realized early on in the pandemic that lesbian bars would be some of the hardest hit. “We reminisced about … the last time we hung out in person, at Ginger’s,” said Rose, describing the classic Brooklyn bar. “We had just read about how there were barely any lesbian bars left, and we thought, we cant let this happen.” So the two set about documenting every lesbian bar they could find, Dallas to Milwaukee, and virtually interviewing the owners of each. The result was a 90-second PSA narrated by actress-comedian Lea DeLaria.

In quick succession, a fundraising drive was held, Rosie O’Donnell and Roxane Gay hosted a panel, four previously undocumented lesbian bars were discovered, and over $100,000 was raised, which the bars will split and use for rent, staffing and day-to-day operations. In many ways, the campaign has also given some of the lesser-known venues a platform for visibility.

“Some of these places serve a very particular community, and might not have a big online presence or even brand themselves as lesbian bars,” says Rose. Herz, for example, a bar in Mobile, Alabama, opened in 2019 and serves a primarily Black lesbian community. “They have different needs and different pressures than, say, Wildrose in Seattle,” she says.

A central database now makes each bar discoverable, with a section dedicated to new and newly documented bars. Rose and Street are also working on a series that documents queer spaces and their owners and patrons across the country. “We want to really reflect on what a space means—what it means to feel safe in one, how they evolve, and what they mean to different people in different places,” says Rose.

Lesbian bars have long been overshadowed by their splashier queer nightlife cousins. “I might have fun, but I don’t always feel as welcome at a gay bar,” says Street, who calls lesbian bars fertile ground for intergenerational dialogue. She recalls striking up a conversation with an older woman at New York stalwart Cubbyhole. The woman turned out to be a co-owner of the iconic Stonewall Inn and has since become a friend, an experience Street values as singular.

“As queer women, we’re fighting against multiple barriers, and that’s why our spaces are disappearing,” says Rose, emphasizing that while lesbian bars stand in solidarity with gay bars, the numbers are wildly disproportionate. “The fact there are only 15 bars to serve 8.5 million [queer women], and that they might go extinct? That’s completely unacceptable.”

Lisa Menichino, the owner of Cubbyhole, says her business is down about 75 percent and is adamant that community support is imperative to survival. “I hope this is a serious wake-up call to lesbians that you can’t take these places for granted. You need to support us. We need people now more than ever.”

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