Sisters Nightclub Closes, Leaves A Hole in Philly’s Lesbian Nightlife and Our Hearts

Feature Image via VisitPhilly.com

The walls closed in. My heart thudded up against my ribcage, suddenly too large for my chest. My lungs felt like they had collapsed. I both wanted to hide, and wanted desperately to be seen. It was 2008, I thought I might be gay, and I had gone to the only lesbian bar in Philadelphia in fearful hope that someone else might be able to figure things out for me. I didn’t get the answers that night, but I was still saddened this week to learn that Sisters Nightclub is closing.

5,000 square feet and three stories of girl-on-girl-on-bar (via VisitPhilly.com)

5,000 square feet and three stories of girl-on-girl-on-bar (via VisitPhilly.com)

On Monday, General Manager Denise Cohen posted notice of the closure on Facebook:

How do you say goodbye to something that has been part of your life for so long – a dream – a passion – a love … I have worked within the Gay & Lesbian community for 24 years with 17 of them at Sisters … today with much sadness no actually with a broken heart I am announcing that Sisters Nightclub is no longer in business.

All future events are cancelled except for the Big Gay Boat party hosted by DJ Deejay on August 25. It takes place off site at Moshulu, a four-masted sailing ship; the beloved Gayborhood nightclub and bar itself will open its doors no longer.

Denise Cohen at Sisters via sistersnightclub.com

Denise Cohen at Sisters (via sistersnightclub.com)

My personal experience with Sisters was brief, but it made a big impression on me. I went exactly once while it was open, and I stayed 30 minutes, tops. I was so nervous that I walked around the block twice before I worked up the nerve to go inside. At the door, I paid the bouncer a $5 cover for a DJ I never managed to hear over the sound of my own heartbeat in my ears. I sat at the horseshoe-shaped bar, downed two Blue Moons, and attempted to surreptitiously inspect everyone in the bar without landing eye contact. I timidly peeked upstairs and downstairs, then fled for the parking lot, having spoken to no one but the bartender. She had to ask me to repeat my drink order, I spoke so quietly.

All in all, I considered the night to be a great success.

The laid back pool area intrigued me, but I just wasn’t ready to interact with other humans in 2008.  via sistersnightclub.com

The laid back pool area intrigued me, but I just wasn’t ready to interact with other humans in 2008. (via sistersnightclub.com)

As you may have guessed, Sisters really wasn’t my cup of tea. Lesbian bars terrified me as a questioning 21-year-old; even now, as an out bisexual in New York City, I still don’t feel entirely at home in them. But the point of my adventure that night wasn’t to feel comfortable; it was to explore. I had questions that I couldn’t even give words to, let alone ask out loud. All I wanted right then was to be around some lesbians, watch them living their lives, and see how it made me feel. Sisters allowed me to do exactly that, and I feel so thankful that it was there for me when I needed it.

How did I ever avoid making eye contact while sitting at this bar? (via sistersnightclub.com)

How did I ever avoid making eye contact while sitting at this bar?
(via sistersnightclub.com)

The news of Sisters’ closure comes at a time when many ponder the death of the lesbian bar scene. Like some of Autostraddle’s smart and wonderful commenters, I find the assessment a tad hyperbolic. As Liz mentioned, queer dance nights are plentiful, and they do tend to skew female. Have you been to Truck Stop in NYC or LA lately? Dyke Night in Boston? They’re thriving – although it’s true that they serve a slightly different function. Honestly, I’m not sure Hot Rabbit is something I could’ve worked up the gumption to explore at 21, although others do it all the time. I probably would have figured something else out, but it stings a little to think that the door on the experience I had is closing, even if not fully.

Molly Webb, a patron of the bar for the past year, points out that while there are many spaces where queer women are welcome, there’s a unique sense of community built within lesbian-specific spaces. She recalls the reliable cast of characters that would show up every week. “My best memory of Sisters would be the certainty of Thursday nights, and that everyone would be there and someone would sing ‘Closer to Fine’ on karaoke. It was just stability in our lives,” she says.“Sisters was the only stable space dedicated to just dykes and queer ladies. There’s a definite hole in the Philly queer scene now.”

On Tuesday, Molly staged a funeral to commemorate Sisters and the loss of lesbian-specific space in Philadelphia. A gathering of 15-20 people showed up to write their goodbyes on Post-it notes, put lipstick kisses on the door and leave plastic flowers in the door handle. They are looking to put together a discussion group, but Molly says, “It’s nebulous right now. … I don’t think that there are any definitive or limiting suggestions on the table right now.”

Whatever the future may hold, Sisters will not be forgotten. Although the physical location may be locked (and the Post-it notes now removed from the door), there’s a beautiful internet love fest going on for anyone who wants to join in the reminiscing at Denise Cohen’s Facebook and Sisters Philly’s Facebook.

Sisters’ 10 year anniversary party. This week, the bar closes after 17 years. (via sistersnightclub.com)

Sisters’ 10 year anniversary party. This week, the bar closes after 17 years.
(via sistersnightclub.com)

Avatar of Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Brooklyn. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair.

Laura has written 56 articles for us.

8 Comments

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    thanks for this, laura! this is a symptom of a bigger problem in the philly lgbtq social scene and it needs to be talked about. also super thanks to molly for sharing her thoughts and the event (which i’m very sad i missed. maybe it’s time to rogue post-it the door tonight, hmhm)…

    i just rang in my birthday at sisters on the 9th. i was the one in the sleeveless sweatshirt singing justin bieber like a lit fool. i’m going to miss those drink ticket specials on thursdays SO. DAMN. MUCH. and there was a buffet. only a lesbian club would think of karaoke, drink tickets, and a fucking buffet. brilliance. i am still kind of in awe that it’s gone. sisters was the punchline of a lot of lesbian jokes at bryn mawr, but it was also a goddamned rite of passage. where are all the baby queers going to go for their 21st now? where are their friends going to drag them and dare them to hit on 40-somethings at the pool table now? is there sometimes a weird divide between queers and lesbians in the philly social scene? absolutely, but my genderqueer ass still loved sisters.

    i know we have great nights in philly like cutnpaste and stimulus but the thing about having queer parties that float around is that they make it hard to build a stable social community. i feel like i see a lot of regulars at cutnpaste (hello to all of you by the way) but it’s more of a ‘stare from across the room as you adjust your black lipstick’ party than it is a ‘sit down next to someone or have a conversation about community’ party. and that’s great, there’s room for both of those kinds of social situations in philly. actually there’s a shit ton of room because there’s nothing else filling those gaps, which i guess is the problem. sisters was a space that was always there, all the time, a hub or a center. even if it wasn’t always full, even if you were one of three people at the bar watching football, it was a community space. the gayborhood is entirely gay man space. woody’s, voyeur, fucking icandy…they’re great, and they’re fun, and you feel like you’re in 2004 when you enter them, but they’re dominated by gay men and they’re run by gay men and almost all of their events (minus nights like stimulus or cutnpaste) are for gay men. sisters was all we had. it’s why when i talk to queers who are moving to philly who say they want to live in the gayborhood, i point them west or north or south. the gayborhood ain’t really our territory, and it sure isn’t a place that feels like our community anymore (and isn’t that a micro version of the macro lgbtq problem, really?)

    my friends and i have been saying for ages that our big goal down the line is to open a queer space that’s a bar and a nightclub and a community center and all sorts of good things, but is primarily a space for people who aren’t gay men. anyone have one million dollars they’d like to invest in this dream? sugar mamas, etc. please form a queue.

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      “i know we have great nights in philly like cutnpaste and stimulus but the thing about having queer parties that float around is that they make it hard to build a stable social community. i feel like i see a lot of regulars at cutnpaste (hello to all of you by the way) but it’s more of a ‘stare from across the room as you adjust your black lipstick’ party than it is a ‘sit down next to someone or have a conversation about community’ party”

      yup, that’s exactly why my bff and i stopped going to stimulus. don’t get us wrong, we love dancing and being surrounded by hot queer girls, but sometimes we want to be in a space where we can actually have a conversation.

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    i was never a huge fan of sisters (although i did meet my wife there so it will always be special!) but i was so saddened to hear of its closing. after a few years partying at 12th Air Command and Woodys, i remember how awesome it was to finally be able to go to a place exclusively for queer and gay women once i finally turned 21! i really hope a new space opens up soon!

    whenever kate opens her space ill def be there :)

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    Kate, I couldn’t agree more about the gayborhood in Philly. The first gay bar I went to was Woodies and it just didn’t work for me, iCandy was better but overall the queer spaces in Philly are for men. Sisters was a last haven, I don’t know of another place in Philly that is for queer women and that truly saddens me.

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