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The Next Generation of “Lesbian Bars” Is Here. What Should We Call Them?

August 10, 2023

Story: Rax Will

art: Rymie


The Next Generation of “Lesbian Bars” Is Here. What Should We Call Them?

August 10, 2023

Story: Rax Will

art: Rymie

Amid a queer nightlife renaissance, a new crop of venues grapples with the best language to describe themselves—while some eschew definition entirely.

It’s opening night at The Ruby Fruit in Los Angeles, a “strip mall wine bar for the Sapphically inclined” per the bar’s Instagram page, and the city’s first lesbian bar since the Oxwood Inn shuttered in 2017. Upon arriving at 5:30 p.m. sharp with my t-boy bestie, A.C., I spot an ex of an ex in a packed crowd, then, a moment later, another ex of that same ex. 

I should not have been surprised to see so many familiar faces. When it opened in February 2023, The Ruby Fruit was the only lesbian bar in Los Angeles. Mere days later, Honey’s at Star Love opened in East Hollywood, bringing the total to a whopping two—a surprising statistic given that L.A. is the setting of The L Word, and, anecdotally, one of the gayest places to call home.

The scarcity of women-owned queer spaces is an issue across the country, not only in Los Angeles, but there are stirrings of a lesbian-bar renaissance and queer-bar awakening as more and more spots open. There is a stumbling block, though: What exactly should these bars call themselves?

For many owners and patrons, the term “lesbian bar” is fraught, irrevocably tied to an unsavory history of racial quotas and turning trans patrons away at the door. Bonnie & Clyde’s, a well-known lesbian bar in New York City that opened in 1971, was said to have an “unspoken race-based quota at the door,” according to artist and archivist Gwen Shockey. Owners of Henrietta Hudson, founded in 1991 in New York’s West Village, removed the label of “lesbian bar” in 2014, opting instead to describe it as “a queer human space built by Lesbians.” Although “queer bar” has filled the void as a gender- and sexuality-inclusive term, to some people from older generations, the word “queer” still evokes a history of violence. Today’s queer spaces are appealing to a wider, more gender-expansive clientele partly because they acknowledge that no one gender is singularly capable of harm.

When deciding how to describe their bar, The Ruby Fruit’s co-owners, Mara Herbkersman and Emily Bielagus, tapped a panel of cis and trans friends and lovers to weigh in. They ultimately landed on “sapphic.”

“‘Sapphic’ is sexy. It evokes sex. We’ve always tried to prioritize sex and pleasure and sexiness in the branding, in the art and in the language of the space. We’re talking about who we fuck at the end of the day,” says Bielagus. “It’s implicitly what everyone has a problem with. Anyone who has a problem with queer people is always having a problem with who we’re fucking and how we’re doing it. And so, let’s talk about it.”

Queer Lesbian bars

Erica Rose is a documentarian and co-creator of the Lesbian Bar Project, a video series that chronicles and celebrates the country’s few remaining lesbian bars. But even the series’ founders had a discussion about whether to use the word “lesbian” in its title. “The lesbian community has always been filled with nonbinary people, trans people, pansexual people, bisexual people, and we might have just not had the language or the awareness to really be accurate about that 10 or 20 years ago,” Rose says.

Recently in Los Angeles, two fledgling queer spaces grappled publicly with language. In mid-2021, now-defunct pop-up Hot Donna’s emerged on the scene as an “intersectional queer woman focused clubhouse for fun, exploration + acceptance! trans friendly + body positive + created by gender expansive folks,” per its Instagram bio. The pop-up ultimately sputtered out, leaving questions about where community-sourced fundraising had gone, and illustrating that attempts at inclusive language don’t necessarily create an inclusive space. Lucky’s Lounge, a bar open only for one weekend in September 2022 with aspirations to open again, was taken to task in the comment section of its Instagram account for calling itself a lesbian bar. When they clarified their space as a place for “non-men attracted to non-men,” they inadvertently alienated trans men and bisexuals. In both instances, the more words the bars used to describe themselves, the greater the branding nightmare and community infighting.

In Chicago, Gen Xers Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle founded Nobody’s Darling as a women-centered bar that caters to BIPOC clients, though you won’t find that language on its website or social media. Some journalists have dubbed the space a “lesbian bar,” but the duo doesn’t explicitly call it that. They remember the exclusionary practices of many white lesbian and gay bars in Chicago, and aim to create a home for BIPOC queers on the city’s North Side, a historically white area. 

“By looking at Instagram, you will see exactly what our mission is,” says Riddle, referring to the visual identity of the bar and its many events aimed at creating community. “I think if businesses are smart, they will make sure that they are communicating a message of inclusivity and making sure that people who are marginalized are centered. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a whole lot of explanation.”

The Queer Bar is Dead, Long Live the Queer Bar

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In Brooklyn, the one-year-old Singers also resists overexplaining itself or hanging a Pride flag from its door. According to social media and events coordinator Erik Escobar, everything is calling itself a queer space: the coffee shop, the bookstore—even, he deadpans, the gas station. 

“When you slap the label ‘queer’ [on everything] and start using the word-salad jargon of ‘This is a safe space,’ and ‘this is queer...’ I know they’re intended to be really positive, community-uplifting words, but when you apply them to everything, they lose value,” says Escobar.

Instead, Singers appeals to the queer community through its unhinged Instagram and its now-infamous Twinks versus Dolls Olympics, where a “cigarette race” (in which contestants try to finish a smoke the fastest) has gone viral on various social media platforms several times over.

“We have no interest in creating a ‘safe space’ in that way,” says co-owner Mike Guisinger, alluding to how “safe space” has become shorthand for guaranteeing that an experience will align with guests’ personal values. “We care a lot about creating a safe space where you’re not gonna get assaulted. You’re not gonna overdose here. That’s the kind of safety that we are genuinely concerned about.”

Queer hospitality [is] where we allow our queerness, our experience, to inspire and infiltrate everything that we do: the choices we make aesthetically, the choices we make service-wise, the language we use with people, the language we use with each other.

Three years after opening the celebrated queer bar Friends and Family in Oakland, owner Blake Cole is still wading through her experience as a queer woman in an industry that caters to white, cis, middle-class men. The bar was founded as “a bar for everyone by queer people”—everyone “except assholes,” Cole clarifies. She likes to spread the gospel of queer hospitality, or being welcoming to all with more than just words: This means safety through de-escalation in spaces facing growing threats from bad actors, and gender-affirming protocols like referring to patrons by the last names printed on credit cards so as to not accidentally deadname them.

“Queer hospitality [is] where we allow our queerness, our experience, to inspire and infiltrate everything that we do: the choices we make aesthetically, the choices we make service-wise, the language we use with people, the language we use with each other.”

Cole wants this ethos to be the new industry standard, beyond just queer spaces. “I think it’s really important that the entire restaurant and bar industry at large comes to the table and joins us there,” Cole says. To that end, Friends and Family partnered with the James Beard Foundation for a stop on the bar’s speed-dating national tour, which hosted events in Oakland, Los Angeles and New York. 

Queer Lesbian Bars

While Friends and Family hopes to bring the tour to smaller cities in the future, at least for now, the new wave of queer bars is confined to coastal and wealthy cities. As Rose notes in the Lesbian Bar Project, queer communities in rural parts of the United States are being left behind in part due to limited financial resources and censorship in schools.

Perhaps inevitably, the word “lesbian” is being reexamined, and in some cases, reclaimed by a new, younger generation. Yellowjackets star Jasmin Savoy Brown caused a stir by calling herself a “pansexual lesbian.” Both terms “feel true,” she explained, “depending on the moment and depending on the day.” Bielagus, from The Ruby Fruit, feels we are on the cusp of a sea change, and hopes the word “lesbian” will soon be reframed in the same way “queer” has been by Millennials. She and her staff don’t shy away from calling their space a “lesbian bar.” 

“The word ‘lesbian’ does not have to be inextricably linked to the word ‘TERF.’ And ‘lesbian’ does not mean two cis women in a relationship anymore. People in the queer community are the most comfortable with words and their meanings changing over time,” says Bielagus.

After some orange wine and olive oil cake at the opening night of The Ruby Fruit, my buddy A.C. and I closed our tab and walked down the street to the gay bar Akbar, where we’ve enjoyed many a night out. So much of the division in the queer community, including infighting about terminology, stems from the scarcity our community faces: a lack of financial security, interpersonal relationships or physical spaces. As I sipped my well drink and watched twinks giggle over the jukebox, I made a small wish: that we can all have a place to call our own.

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