30 days. 21 lesbian bars. Three queer people. One epic road trip.
Inspired by NBC’s story on the few remaining lesbian bars in America and The Lesbian Bar Project, Sarah Gabrielli, Rachel Karp, and Jen McGinity took to the road and visited America’s remaining lesbian bars, documenting the stories of each one through an episode of Cruising, the podcast they launched together.
Each brought their own skill set to the team — Gabrielli with journalism and audio-editing, Karp’s artistic production background, and McGinity as line producer and the official driver — driven to beat the map’s ETA each day by as many minutes as possible.
Gabrielli and Karp’s roles during the long drives were to pre-interview bar owners ahead of their arrivals. “The car would be silent with Rachel or I in headphones,” Gabrielli remembers. “Once Sarah even did an interview sitting outside of a burger fry joint off a highway,” McGinity adds. After discovering the podcast on Instagram, I knew I had to interview the trio and get the full scoop about their 30-day lesbian bar crawl.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is the most meaningful story you’ve heard?
Rachel Karp: At Herz, in Mobile, Alabama, one of the bartenders, who goes by Beyoncé, was really afraid to come out to his parents. When he did, his dad didn’t say anything — just told him to get in the car. They drove to New Orleans, and the dad unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a supportive pride shirt underneath, and they had a night out on the town, going to gay bars.
Sarah Gabrielli: From Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee, there’s two women who were best friends, in their thirties, and had barely really considered their sexuality. One of them was on a boat in the middle of a storm and thought that she was going to die. When they saw each other after she was rescued, they were both like, ‘We need to be more than friends.’
Karp: Even more stories have been shared on our TikTok, that’s been cool to see.
What surprised you?
Karp: There are so many lesbian bars in the South. As we talked to more people, it started to make sense that in these more conservative areas or liberal cities in conservative states they’re more needed.
Gabrielli: There’s none in New England, not Los Angeles—
Jen McGinity: Not in Portland, Oregon. But when you think of Portland, you think ‘gay’— at least I do. In my head, I was like, maybe they don’t need a space like that because they can go to other places and feel safe.
Gabrielli: Most of the bars in the South allowed smoking, which we were shocked by.
McGinity: I was really surprised about the ages of people at the bars, which I really appreciated. I feel like in New York, the bars skew really young.
Gabrielli: Most of the bars were so much bigger than what we’re used to in New York.
McGinity: Yeah, some were multi‑level, like Sue Ellen’s in Dallas.
Everything’s bigger in Texas. What was a common thread across the bars you’ve visited?
Gabrielli: Each bar is a home, it’s a family, it’s a community. Especially in the South — this is where people spend their holidays, they have Thanksgiving dinner there. We heard so many times, “This is my Cheers bar.”
Karp: The majority of the bars also serve as community centers. They’re involved in mutual aid, fundraising, and giving back to their community. Henrietta Hudson is doing COVID testing right now.
You also address the thorny histories some of the bars have, like stories of alleged misogyny. How did you approach those episodes?
Karp: We obviously want to support all of these bars and tell the happy, inspirational stories, but we also don’t want to shy away from some of the more challenging subject matter that we’ve encountered, like allegations of racism, or stories of alcoholism.
Gabrielli: We reached out to the managers and say, “Hey, we are including this in the episode and wanted to give you a chance to comment on it.”
McGinity: I’ve been really impressed watching how Sarah and Rachel have dug in, making sure everything is unbiased and transparent. It isn’t one opinion or one side, it’s true journalism.
How has this podcast and experience impacted your identities as queer people?
McGinity: I think I’ve had this somewhat elitist hold on my queerness. I grew up in Rhode Island and came to New York for school and I haven’t left. I’ve been to queer bars in other places, but it humbled me to meet these people and truly understand how important these spaces are to them. I will carry that throughout the rest of my days.
Karp: Somewhat similarly, the New York City lesbian bars and queer spaces have kind of been my only exposure to queer community. To see that there’s all of these places across the country where I could live and be myself was really empowering.
Gabrielli: In the same timeframe of the road trip, I embraced a more of a fluid side of my sexuality and gender identity. Like when we made the website, my pronouns were she/her, and then they changed a little bit in the process. I also started identifying as pan. We met so many people, in every avenue of identity, gathered at a lesbian bar. It was incredible. It was part of my journey in accepting myself.
What are your tips for those who may be nervous going to a lesbian bar for the first time?
Gabrielli: 1. Go by yourself. Rachel and I always had this problem because we would go together and people would think we’re dating. 2. Sit at the bar. 3. Go as soon as the bar opens, because it will be employees or super hardcore regulars who can introduce you to people. 4. Tip really well.
Karp: Across the board, the humans that are running these spaces and are frequenting these
spaces really want to be inclusive.
Gabrielli: You could also bring a microphone and headphones and ask people, ‘Can I interview you about your life?’ That worked really well for us.
Join the road trip by visiting Cruising Podcast‘s website, where you can listen to episodes and follow them on social media.