The Rise and Fall of America's Lesbian Bars

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tags: historic preservation, urban history, LGBTQ history, nightlife

Writer and social commentator Roxane Gay chuckled while describing her first visit to a lesbian bar—Panic Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I was 21,” she says, “Maybe 20.” Gay describes the bar, which closed this fall, as a dive, and summed up why it was special: “It was just cool to go, and know that there were other lesbians in the world.”

Bar manager Jo McDaniel has similar reminiscence of Phase 1, an iconic lesbian bar in Washington D.C. ‘s Capitol Hill neighborhood that closed its doors permanently in 2016. “It was a force,” she says of the establishment that was once the longest operating lesbian bar in the country and where she tended bar. “Losing such an institution was incredibly difficult for D.C.” Upon learning of the bar’s unexpected closure, patrons expressed their shock on Facebook. “Wow! I thought that I would never see the day that Phase 1 would close down,” wrote one. Another declared, “There is no place left.”

D.C. is far from the only city to lose its beloved lesbian bars. Across the country, nightlife spaces dedicated to queer and gay women have been closing at a staggering rate over the past 30 years. (The Panic Bar shuttered for good in November after first closing temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic.) In the late 1980s, an estimated 200 lesbian bars existed in the United States. By 2019, researchers believed only 15 remained.

Gay, who lives in Los Angeles, says she doesn’t understand why there are so few bars—L.A.’s last one closed in 2013. “It doesn't make sense that a city of this size, with a lesbian population that is significant, has no bars,” she says.

Despite their ever-decreasing numbers, lesbian bars still matter. More than a safe space for people of marginalized genders—including transgender and nonbinary people—to gather, these bars figure strongly into queer history. “They’re community centers, they're fun places to meet other lesbians and/or bisexual women. And they can be sexy spaces,” says Gay. “I think that they're vital.”

While numbers began dwindling before the pandemic began, owners and patrons of the remaining lesbian institutions are now even more worried for their futures as nightlife and service industries have been hit especially hard by regulations designed to minimize the spread of Covid-19. After initial closures, some bars were allowed to reopen over the summer, but most never returned to maximum capacity. The onset of winter and a second wave of infections have left watering holes in limbo. Some are closed again, others have seen reduced service hours and many are left to wonder how they’ll weather the cold months when outdoor service is difficult, if not impossible. These fears are compounded for lesbian bars, which cater to a more narrow demographic and take in less money, because women, trans people and nonbinary folks tend to have less “leisure dollars” due to pay inequity and discrimination. Shelley Brothers, who’s co-owned Seattle’s Wildrose for 20 of its 36 years, says they’re committed to fully reopening despite financial worry. She and her business partner took part-time jobs this year and, for the first time in two decades, were forced to lay off employees. In the spring, most of the remaining lesbian bars launched GoFundMe campaigns to help pay bills and support staff.

The idea of losing these bars catapulted two Brooklyn filmmakers into action. In October, Erica Rose and Elina Street launched the Lesbian Bar Project, a nationwide fundraising campaign to help the bars stay afloat through the pandemic. In total, the project’s month-long efforts raised $118,000, to be split evenly among 13 bars. (Texas’ two bars—Dallas’ Sue Ellen’s and Houston’s Pearl Bar—opted out of the donations to help the others.) Now, as they ride the second wave of Covid-19 infections, with reduced staff, reduced hours and newly implemented safety plans, the bars are thankful for the project’s aid. Money from the Lesbian Bar Project will go towards two months of rent for Denver’s Blush & Blu, which reopened earlier this month at 25 percent capacity.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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