Real Life Late-90s Lesbian Spaces in the South Where the Drive-Away Dolls Could Have Stopped

The minute the news dropped last year that Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen were cooking up a lesbian road trip movie, I along with all the cinephile queers I know were theorizing on what the film could possibly be about. When we finally got to see Drive-Away Dolls during its opening weekend a few weeks ago, I can confidently say none of us expected that, exactly, and I mean that in a good way. Beyond the obvious strengths of the film — some of which Drew Burnett Gregory wrote about in her reviewDrive-Away Dolls, which is set in 1999 and spans in location from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, presents something some viewers probably aren’t used to seeing in mainstream media: the fact that lesbians and queer people existed and exist in the South. A crazy idea, I know, but one we must nevertheless contend with as a community even when so many seem content on pigeonholing queer stories in New York City, Los Angeles, and other major cities.

In the film, our main characters, Marian and Jamie, go on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee that includes stops in North Carolina and Georgia. And while they’re stopped, Jamie, the more adventurous and promiscuous of the two, is determined to hook up with whichever locals will have her. In North Carolina, they visit a lesbian bar called The Butter Churn. In Georgia, they stop at a chain pizza restaurant where they meet a bunch of lesbians on a soccer team who invite them to a hook-up party later that night. And finally, when they make it to Tallahassee, they visit the hilariously named She Shed to make the final drop of the film and grab a few drinks. If you’re obsessed with Southern LGBTQ history like I am, you were probably trying to remember whether or not lesbian nightlife was as accessible in the South as the film made it seem.

Cooke, who has been out since before the time the film is based, told David Magazine that in the early late 1990s and early 2000s, she was spending a lot of time at Meow Mix and Cattyshack, two lesbian bars in NYC that are now closed, and that was where the inspiration for the lesbian bars in the film came from. Of course, Cooke and Coen created those fictional places as a tool for their narrative, but it also complicates this matter a little more for viewers, particularly those who don’t think there’s much going on down here by way of queer culture. If you Google “Butter Churn bar,” it will lead you to a restaurant named The Butter Churn in Arcana Pass, Texas, and if you Google “She Shed bar,” it will lead you to a hundred articles about how “she sheds” are the new “man caves.” If the film sparked your curiosity and you think to Google “lesbian bars in the South,” that’s not very straightforward either, especially because most of the news about lesbian bars currently is about them closing down.

Mostly, what I knew about lesbian nightlife in the South in the 1990s and early 2000s before watching the film was that it definitely existed, but similar to how it has always been, queer nightlife in the South during that time was mostly controlled by gay men and centered on clubs and bars created by them and for them. There are a ton of reasons for this, one of the main ones being the difficulty of securing capital to run a business as a “single” woman or group of “single” women. But even if it was rare, that doesn’t mean what Cooke and Coen created in Drive-Away Dolls was entirely a fantasy. There were places for lesbians and other queer people to go in the deepest of the Deep South in the 1990s and early 2000s, including some that are on the various routes Marian and Jamie could’ve taken from Philadelphia to Tallahassee.

Being from Florida, I know how easy it is for the history of queer and trans people to be lost to time, and I think it’s an important part of our fight for liberation to buck against that where and when we can. Using these routes as a guide, I’ve done the research and come up with a list of places that could easily be equivalents to the film’s Butter Churn and She Shed.

And just so it’s clear: The geographic South is defined as all states south of the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River. That means the South includes: Alabama, Arkansas, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. I won’t be covering all of these places here, but I know some people have a tendency to argue that places like Virginia and Florida aren’t “the South,” which is incredibly and demonstrably false not just geographically but also culturally. And since Marian and Jamie stopped at actual brick-and-mortar locations, I’m (mostly) only including actual places as opposed to various LGBTQ nights or pop-ups.

Anyways…let’s get into it.

Possible Stop #1: Richmond, Virginia

Known around these parts as Autostraddle’s Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s hometown dyke bar, Babes of Carytown has been open since 1979, which is an actual feat considering most lesbian bars close or have closed within the first few years of opening. Kayla has written about this before, but not only is Babes a classic dive bar with pool tables and everything, but it also, for some reason, has a beach volleyball court in the back. I’m not saying Drive-Away Dolls needed a scene where Jamie challenges a local dyke to a game of beach volleyball at Babes, but it could’ve been cool.

Possible Stop #2: Durham, NC

I imagine that Cooke and Coen did a significant amount of research as they were writing the script to Drive-Away Dolls, and I imagine that’s why The Butter Churn was part of their North Carolina stop. North Carolina has historically had an incredibly robust LGBTQ community, with  a lot of queer rights activism in the South stemming from work activists in the state were doing. Feminary, a southern feminist writing collective, was based there, and WomonWrites, a Southeastern lesbian writers conference, was founded there. And it wasn’t short on places for lesbians and other queer people to gather, either.

Not exactly a bar, but certainly a place that seems worth stopping for, Francesca’s Dessert Caffee was founded in 1985 and was one of the first three businesses in Durham to identify as lesbian-owned. Unfortunately, it’s now closed, but in its day, it served as a gathering spot for locals and Duke University students.

Durham also had an alternative gathering space for lesbians and queer people that hosted a variety of activities including dances, live music, game nights, potlucks, and workshops on different skills among other things called Our Own Place.

As far as actual bars go, Durham was home to the Power Company, which was known as “the best gay club between D.C. and Atlanta.” The Power Company wasn’t an explicitly lesbian space, but according to local historical accounts, it was actually open to queer people of all backgrounds. The Power Company was open from 1983 to 2000, and according to a 2020 article in The Chronicle, “the Power Company is most saliently remembered as a place where its frequenters, predominantly young members of the LGBTQ+ community, felt welcomed— often for the first time in their lives.”

Possible Stop #3: Rock Hill, SC

Rock Hill is situated just over the border between North and South Carolina and less than an hour south of Charlotte. Interestingly, I didn’t find much on Charlotte’s lesbian scene, but I did find out that Rock Hill has been home to The Hideaway, an “alternative” LGBTQ+ bar, since 1989. It’s hard to find a lot of information on the patronage of The Hideaway beyond looking at Google and Yelp Reviews (which are from people of various identities, so that’s a good sign) but their website describes the bar like this: “it’s been a sanctuary, a safe space, and a home for alternative souls. Tucked away from the bustling streets, The Hideaway isn’t just a name; it’s a promise—it’s hidden away, waiting to welcome all who seek its warmth.”

Possible Stop #4: Charleston, SC

On the opposite side of the state and still well within one of the possible routes Marian and Jamie could’ve taken is, of course, Charleston. I know you probably don’t think of Charleston as very gay-friendly, and I wouldn’t argue that it’s in the top 10 best cities for queer people or anything. But it has, both now and historically, been home to some LGBTQ+ nightlife spaces.

The most well-known, oldest, and still running gay bar in Charleston is Dudley’s on Ann, which was opened in 1986. In the past, the clientele at Dudley’s was mostly not exactly what Jamie would’ve been looking for in the movie, so that doesn’t really help for our purposes here. What did exist at the time the movie is set, though, is a place called The Treehouse. It is really difficult to find complete information on The Treehouse, but from what I could find, the owners called The Treehouse a “mixed bar,” which meant it was open and welcoming to all LGBT people. According to some online forums and blogs, The Treehouse was opened in the early 1990s and was a hidden, members-only kind of deal for a while, but it wasn’t hard for LGBT from all walks of life to get membership there. A website discussing Charleston’s music scene also describes the “LGBTQ-friendly” Treehouse as being “important in the local rock ‘n’ roll scene.”

Possible Stop #5: Atlanta, GA

I’m cheating a little bit here because, technically, Atlanta isn’t a direct stop on any of the routes. But if I was the one planning the road trip, it would’ve been and we’re just having fun here, so I think it’s fine to include it. My Sister’s Room is not only one of the most legendary lesbian bars in all of Georgia, it’s one of the most legendary queer bars in the world. Period. Opened in Midtown in 1996, My Sister’s Room quickly grew in both clientele and nationwide popularity and is now one of the most well-known LGBTQ nightlife spots in the U.S.

Final Stop: Pensacola, FL

I know what you’re thinking…Pensacola is west of Tallahassee. And you’re right. Here’s the thing, though: north Florida, particularly in the state capital, didn’t have anything close to what Cooke and Coen imagined when they came up with the She Shed. But Pensacola, just a three-hour drive from Tallahassee and a popular vacation spot for many people in north Florida, once had such a bustling LGBTQ party scene that it was nicknamed “U.S.A.’s Gay Riviera.”

Unlike everywhere else on the list, Pensacola didn’t have a single, dedicated bar open for gay men and/or lesbians but queer people were more than welcome at Trader Jon’s, a popular Pensacola bar opened in 1953 and owned by an eccentric Army veteran and his wife who welcomed any and all customers into their bar. The story goes that since there were no other bars in the area, many queer people flocked there to be with each other and meet new people. Eventually, the queer clientele at Trader Jon’s started carving out spaces of their own like the Emma Jones Society, which was first a secret gay club then grew into an LGBT event organizing committee that threw LGBT beach parties throughout the early 1970s. After a crackdown by police in 1974, the Emma Jones Society stopped throwing their beach parties, but in the mid-1990s, a new group of LGBT activists took control of Pensacola’s Memorial Day weekend celebrations by throwing beach parties again and now it’s a city tradition.

Even if this is more than you expected to learn, this is truly just grazing the surface of what lesbian and queer life was like in the South before the 21st century began. There’s so much more to discover and discuss not just close to the Drive-Away Dolls inspired routes I’ve pointed out here, but throughout the rest of the South, as well. You can find records of lesbian and queer bars from the 1980s and 1990s in bigger cities like Dallas and Houston, and you can also find them in places like Shannon, Mississippi. Often, even in the places you least expect, there were lots of queer people there trying to carve out a space for themselves and for their communities. After all, the South is home to 32 percent of all LGBTQ people in the U.S. — the only region of the U.S. with a population of LGBTQ people over 30 percent. And we’ve always been here, whether history wants to remember us or not. Drive-Away Dolls gave people a fictionalized glimpse of what was here, and we can use that momentum to keep propelling our histories into the present.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 94 articles for us.

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