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Episode 40: Where Have All the Lesbian Bars Gone?

FGJG Preamble

If y’all didn’t already know, this is a queer and queer-adjacent owned podcast. For the month of October, we decided to focus our content on Halloween and horror films because those things are important to us and because we know they’re important to a lot of people. One of the things we didn’t take advantage of, though, is the fact that October is LGBTQ history month. This episode isn’t an attempt to rectify that or anything, but it was conceived in the spirit of it.

In my other work and in my academic life, LGBTQ history has always been one of my areas of strength. I came out in 2002 when I was just 14-years-old, and although that doesn’t seem like that long ago or like that big of a deal now in 2022, I have to break the news to y’all that it was. I don’t often give myself enough credit for this so I’m going to do it here: coming out in 2002 at 14 was extremely courageous of me. Let me set the scene here for you: in 2002, aside from the impending American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the militant Islamophobia happening all around the country, two of the biggest topics of conversation were whether same-sex marriage should be legal and whether Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is constitutional. Every day of my newly teenage life — and I mean every single day — I had to listen to people from BOTH SIDES, not just the right, question whether or not I and everyone like me deserved to be as protected under the law as they were. These weren’t conversations that you could avoid either. It wasn’t yet socially acceptable to wear your AirPods every moment of the day, and people had little to no qualms about debating about these things in front of others. I know it’s similar today because of social media, but also it isn’t. You can avoid social media. Back then, you couldn’t avoid overhearing your friend’s parents speak as they drove you to and from school. In addition to that, we had very few — almost none, actually — models of what it looked like to be a healthy and successful queer person in mainstream media. Even though I never felt bad or wrong for not being straight, shit was still hard.

When my friends and I were finally old enough to drive, we started hanging out in the coffee shops of Wilton Manors whenever we could. We’ve already done an entire episode on Wilton Manors alone, so I won’t go to into detail about the gay village itself, but it was the first place where I ever saw gay people in real life just acting like their gay ass selves. Men on the streets holding hands, wearing leather and bondage gear, kissing on street corners. Mostly men, though. Sometimes women, but rarely, and usually, it was because they were hanging out with the guys. At 17, I went to my first gay bar ever. I’ve written about this a little bit for Autostraddle, but basically, my friend’s older brother, who was about 23 at the time, helped us get in because the bouncer was one of his on again off again partners. He snuck us in through the back and told us to “act like adults,” urged us not to drink or dance, and told us to avoid calling attention to ourselves. We mostly listened to him but because we all got stoned before we went, the dance floor was too tempting to resist. I can’t remember what time we left, but I’m certain we danced for about 4 hours straight. And it was euphoric. Or at least, it felt that way for a time.

Even though a lesbian bar called New Moon opened in Wilton Manors in 2005, I mostly went to gay bars until I was about 22 because I was always in mixed company with my friends and it’s a weird thing, you know? I had no weird feelings about going with a group of queer and straight people to a gay bar, but I didn’t think I had the right to ask them if we could go to a lesbian bar. So I just didn’t. And no one brought it up, not even my partner at the time. We slowly started hanging out less at gay bars, too. At that time, in South Florida, there were tons of clubs and parties at club that were definitely borderline queer but open to everyone. Overall, they were “cooler” and “younger” leaning than the bars in Wilton Manors and the long-running gay clubs on South Beach, so we started going to these mixed spaces a lot more. I didn’t actually end up going to my first lesbian bars until a couple years later on a trip to NYC, where in one weekend, some friends and I went to both the legendary Cubbyhole and to Ginger’s. I’ll be honest because we’re always honest on this podcast…that was true night out euphoria but in the days that followed, I was pretty pissed. Both bars definitely had a mixed-age groups of people but the vibes were so different than the gay bars and one lesbian bar in South Florida. People were more radical, more gender exploratory, more punk…overall, they were just more like me and my friends. And I was jealous that they had a brick and mortar place to go to every weekend, when we had to follow parties and queer nights that bounced from venue to venue every few weeks or didn’t happen at all. In the last ten years, my feelings and my life have changed a lot but even though I don’t go out in the same way I used to, I still feel that tinge of desire again for a place where I can go often and be with lesbians and queer women and people like me, gender freaks of lesbian experience. Maybe because I’m getting older, I just want to have a place that I can be a regular at and also feel completely at ease.

Those parties and queer nights I mentioned are still pretty much a mainstay in South Florida but New Moon closed in 2014, and many of the remaining gay bars are, as they always have been, basically for men. It’s really tempting and compulsory to look at this as a distinctly South Florida problem, but actually it isn’t. It’s just an all over problem. And one that I’m sure many of our listeners don’t know much about, which is what compelled me to talk about here.

Now, brother, even though you’re definitely the most queer-adjacent straight I’ve ever met in my life, I know you don’t have experience in this arena, so I’m just going to blast into part 2 of this thing.

Let’s get into some dyke history, shall we???

Part 2: The Rise of the Lesbian Bar

I want to start by saying something that I think is significant when we’re discussing lesbian bars and gay bars, and I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing gay bars or gay men for not having this as part of the culture of their nightlife BUT it does need to be mentioned. Since the inception of the lesbian bar, they’ve often been more than just a watering hole for queer women. Many lesbian bars throughout the 20th century served as places for women to gather to do community organizing work, to take care of each other, to get healthcare, and to just generally help out the communities where the bars were located. The essays in the book Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance, which I read a long time ago and that I think people should read even though it is outdated, documents this phenomenon pretty thoroughly. As we all know, women have never enjoyed the same freedoms as men, so you can imagine the empowerment that comes with being in a non-male space, which lesbian bars frequently were. As a result of that, many lesbian bars became spaces where women of all ages were able to come together and build community and camaraderie in a way they couldn’t in any other space. This is not to say that lesbian bars have always been sites of resistance to heteronormative culture, though, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I just want to point out that since the inception of the lesbian bar, they have usually served as community spaces more broadly and I think that’s just an important aspect of the history of them.

It’s widely accepted that the first ever lesbian bar to open in the U.S. was Mona’s 440 Club in, of course, San Francisco, California. In Nan Alamilla Boyd’s book, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, Mona’s was originally established as a “bohemian” spot which was basically a coded way of saying this is for the sexual deviants. In archival material from Mona’s bar, including ashtrays printed with the logo, Mona’s advertised itself as a place where “girls could be boys” and from what I’m seeing in my research, it looks like they popularized the drag king show. Many of the performers at Mona’s were butch women, often performing to a mixed audience of butch and femme women, “straight” women, and gay men. And what’s incredible about Mona’s and what makes it different from a lot of the old gay bars in places like New York City is that black women were not only welcome there but they were also allowed to perform in the shows. Mona’s clientele was interesting because it was frequented by lesbians and also by supposedly straight women whose husbands were away at war.

Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, more lesbian bars opened in big cities (and some small towns) all over the U.S. Because we live in hell though, most of these places catered to middle class and affluent white women, and were male-owned. As you know, women couldn’t be trusted with handling their own money until the 1970s, so many of the lesbian bars that opened up in during this period were owned by male landlords and run by their female tenants. This fact is pretty widely known when it comes to LGBTQ history, but one of the biggest beneficiaries of the lesbian bar business was the Italian Mafia. Because banks were reluctant and/or completely unwilling to fund women-owned businesses during this time, the Mafia was pretty much the only place women could go to get loans or to rent property for their businesses. I mention this for two reasons: 1. It’s always so interesting to me how men are so fucking dumb that they don’t see queerness among women as a threat to patriarchy in any way, and 2. I think it’s important to recognize how much more difficult it was to open a lesbian bar than it was to open a bar for gay men. Don’t get me wrong, both of these spaces were under SEVERE ATTACK by law enforcement during this time, but I’m just saying, at least a man could walk into a bank or a real estate office and get what he needed even if the people giving him the loan or the property didn’t know he’d turn around and use it to open a place for gay men.

Throughout this time, as I’ve already said, lesbian bars — outside of San Fracisco — were usually just as racist and less open to trans people and people of varied gender experience. It’s obviously not as well-documented as it should be but queer black women, especially in New York City, mostly weren’t welcome in the lesbian bars of this time, so they weren’t really part of the scene. For them, house parties — which is actually showcased in the new A League of Their Own show — were the mainstay of their scene. And although trans people were sometimes part of the gay and lesbian bar scene, they weren’t really welcome with open arms or anything. In addition to that, at this time, lesbian culture was, of course, dominated by a binary understanding of sex and gender. So, the bars were usually filled with women who identified as butch or femme and not really anyone in between. Relationships between queer women of this time were often also drawn down those lines. Of course, as culture changed, many lesbian bars became sites that were more welcoming of black women and women of color and less binarist thinking of same sex female relationships. But I think it’s important to give a full picture of their evolution.

By 1980, there were over 200 lesbian bars around the country. 200. That’s actually quite a lot. But as of 2021, the Lesbian Bar Project has recorded that there are only 24 left in the U.S.

So, what the fuck happened?

Part 3: Where Have All the Lesbian Bars Gone?

There are a few myths about why lesbian bars don’t survive. And before I get into the other stuff, I think it’s important to dispel one that bothers me a lot. I’ve heard time and time again that lesbian bars don’t survive because “lesbians don’t party like gay men,” and I hate to break it to everyone but this is just wildly untrue. Also, how could you even fucking know? We’re rarely given the chance to. Businesses owned by women simply don’t have the same survival rate as businesses owned by men. Since the early 1990s, lesbian bar after lesbian bar has closed its doors for reasons that are structural and completely unrelated to how frequently people show up in these spaces.

Many studies done on this have found just that: a series of structural and systemic issues that have caused the lesbian bar scene to putter out. According to an article on The Story Exchange, one of the biggest factors is money. Here’s what they say:

“We all know women earn less than men — in 2019, women make $0.79 for every dollar men make — but the disparity can be even more pronounced in lesbian women. Based on a recent study by the UCLA School of Law, LGBTQ-identifying individuals suffer economically across the board with higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes, among other categories. Coupled with the obstacles that women business owners face when it comes to access to capital, it can be difficult for female-owned lesbian bars that rely on female customers to stay afloat.

In cities, which tend to be more liberal than, say, rural communities, the demise of the lesbian bar seems counterintuitive. For example, San Francisco has one of the highest LGBTQ percentages in the country, so it would seem that lesbian bars would have an eager and available clientele. The problem, however, is urban gentrification. Techies and creatives, most of whom are well-paid males, have moved in — pushing out a female demographic that doesn’t earn enough or wield enough disposable income to patronize bars.”

In South Florida, we currently don’t have a single lesbian bar across three counties. New Moon has been closed since 2015, and the only other lesbian bar to open in Wilton Manors, unfortunately named the G Spot, did so about 2 years before the COVID-19 Pandemic and then closed as a result of it.

People cite, of course, other factors about why lesbian bars have closed down over the years. In an article in the Smithsonian on the issue, they discuss that “Lesbian bars have struggled to keep up with rapid societal changes, including greater LGBTQ acceptance, the internet and a more gender-fluid community. With dating apps and online communities, bars aren’t necessary for coming out and connecting with queer women.” And Gwendolyn Stegall states that “much of the queer community “claim that ‘lesbian’ leaves out bisexual women and trans people, who definitely have been historically (or even sometimes currently) shunned from the community.” I definitely don’t disagree that some queer people feel this way. In fact, I think I probably had a bit of a moment thinking this when I was struggling with my gender dysphoria and trying to figure myself out. BUT I don’t know, man. I know it’s REAL that there are lesbians out there who are transphobic and still want like full hetero assimilation, I just can’t get down with this being one of the main reason why this is happening. It just feels like that if this was true, gay bars would be impacted similarly and they’re just not.

To me, it goes straight back to the fact of access to capital. Gay men have a lot more access to capital than lesbians and trans people as a result of the society we currently live in. I don’t think you can untangle that fact from this situation. They have simply always had more money to invest and more money to spend, and it feels like talking about anything else beyond the fact that women and trans people still can’t get what they need is just a distraction.

Part 4: What Do We Do About It?

I don’t fucking know. But I think it would be really fucking prudent, business-wise, for someone to take a chance and open some lesbian bars in big cities.

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