‘Strictly no unaccompanied men. A lesbian venue for ladies and their guests,’ reads the sign outside She Soho, the only lesbian bar in London. It’s unusual for a queer space to have a door policy like this. It sounds slightly archaic – ‘Ladies bar, serving men only when they are accompanied by a female escort,’ read the sign on one of New York’s first lesbian bars Café des Beaux Arts, which opened in 1913. This explicit gendering on the door makes the prospect of entry for non-binary, gender-nonconforming, trans men, and trans women less appealing. Though in actuality the space is open to all queer identities, including trans men, and of course sees trans women as women; the prospect of gender judgement, makes She Soho sound like the antithesis of a queer bar.
Having worked on the door at She Soho, which is on Old Compton Street, a bar strip in central London filled with blurry-eyed drunks staggering between bars and kebab shops – it took no time to get it. As tipsy guys repeatedly tried to come in because they “love women,” I had to turn around to double-check that the door sign didn’t in fact say, ‘a room full of available women, please join us.’ Though of course, they’d be mightily disappointed if they ever did get inside, it’s the enigma of the restricted space. “I honestly don’t know what they think they’re going to find down there: lesbian oil baths?” one of She Soho’s managers, Tina Ledger said. Alongside this, groups of women nudged each other towards the bar, as if they’re high school kids and being a ‘lezzer’ is an insult, and guys frantically elbowed their girlfriend’s attention to the venue, as if they’re Indiana Jones and they’ve finally found the lost kingdom of potential threesomes. In a location like this – loaded with lit and horny binge-drinkers – She’s door people have to morph into gender police to preserve the space. This inevitably puts some queer people off.
She Soho aside, there’s fairly unanimous thinking in British & American dyke bar communities that lesbian bars are queer bars owned by women. If they are not owned by women, as is the case with London’s She Soho and Washington D.C.’s A League of Her Own (both are owned by gay guys who simultaneously run gay bars in the area), then all the managers are lesbians and the venue explicitly prioritises queer women. Gary Henshaw, who owns She Soho and gay bar KU, “really sees the importance of a women’s venue,” manager Tina told me, “he completely respects our door policy and our decision making – he never comes here, and staff wonder why – it is literally just because he respects our door policy so much.”
For 32 years Babe’s of Carytown, a cavernous lesbian bar (they literally have a full-size volleyball court out back) in Richmond, Virginia, has been serving the state’s queer community. “We’re a lesbian bar, a lesbian-owned bar,” said Diana, who’s been working at Babe’s since it opened. “Just over the years, it’s become everyone’s bar. It’s kinda cool in today’s world to have everybody here, in one place, getting along. It seems like there’s so much strife on the streets, at least in here you’ve got boys, girls, gays, straights, Blacks, whites, who what who whatever, can come in, have a good time and be themselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, at 23-year-old My Sister’s Room in Atlanta, Georgia, on a cold Sunday evening in November, a family ate chicken wings while bopping to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”; a group of college lesbians lined up on their knees to receive poured glugs of Rumple-Minze; a leather power dyke couple sipped IPAs on an intimate date; and a group of gender-queer folks in leopard print watched a raucous drag show.
Similar scenes of community integration can be found at lesbian bars Cubbyhole, Ginger’s and Henrietta Hudson in New York, A League of Her Own in Washington D.C., Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, Gossip Grill in San Diego and Wildrose in San Diego. I spoke with Lila Thirkield, who ran San Francisco’s lauded lesbian haunt Lexington Club for eighteen years until it closed in 2015 about the distinction between a lesbian and a queer bar. “At the Lexington Club, our tagline used to be, ‘your friendly neighbourhood dyke bar,’ but we actually changed it to your ‘friendly neighbourhood queer bar,’ five to ten years before it closed. So was the Lexington club a queer bar?” Lila said, schooling me gently. “Yeah, it was, with a lesbian core,” I said. “So what really, identity-wise, is the difference? We had trans guys working at The Lex; I’m extremely in-between in my gender identity and I owned it. It was hella queer women but there were a lot of trans folks, gay men hung out; I don’t understand what the difference is,” she said.
The person pouring your drinks, the people on the door, those on a date, congregating in groups, fecklessly making out in the corner and ultimately making money from the space, will tend to be queer women, but there’ll be joined by a whole host of LGBTQIA+ folks and allies, all guests of the lesbian community. Lesbian bars in 2019 are generally emphatic about their ‘queer’ branding. ‘A bar for humans,’ is the tagline of Nashville’s Lipstick Lounge; My Sister’s Room in Atlanta dubs itself “the longest running lesbian-queer bar in America’s south-east”. In Seattle, Wildrose is “a place for women… and all are welcome.” This is partially a desire to be realistic about queer identities. Lesbian bar owners have some of the most uncomplicated opinions on lesbianism, queerness and gender I’ve come across. Through years in queer spaces they know the transience of their own, their community’s and their staff’s identities. Their bars were always intended to be community spaces; offering safety, sanctuary and reasonably priced beer to anyone who might need it. On top of this, there’s an economic need to expand their potential customer base; lesbians are a very small minority, catering to zero-point of the population is an immensely difficult business model to sustain.
Scrolling through gay and queer bars in London, there is no mention, on any of their websites of ‘everybody’ or ‘open;’ active inclusion isn’t something they need to impress. Why lesbian bars need to go that extra mile to assert their queerness is anyone’s guess. The fact that gay men, generally speaking, earn more, drink more and spend more than women, means they are able to fill their spaces without expanding their customer base. The idea that lesbians don’t go out and like to U-Haul – a notion that doesn’t apply to the majority of dykes I know, be they 21 or 61 years old. Similarly, the rise of Tinder, Lex, Bumble and Hinge; writing a quippy bio has surpassed giving the eye across a bar. Or maybe it’s an awareness amongst conscious allies of the dwindling number of lesbian bars worldwide, making them reluctant to take up space in a venue not designed for them.
Despite the very queer and laissez-faire attitude of most lesbian bar owners, there’s also still an assumption that lesbian spaces are more weighted, binary and thorny than gay bars. There are perceptions of ‘the lesbian bar’ as a more restricted or exclusive space, memories of separatist movements in the US in the 70s and 80s, and unfortunate assumptions of TERFiness. I’ve had to convince non-binary mates of mine to come and see how queer most lesbian bars are. I’ve got an “oh fun” from straight friends when I’ve offered a night of karaoke at a gay or queer bar, and an “are you sure?” or “am I allowed?” at lesbian bars. Gay bars are assumed to be open to all – though if we’re honest, lots are undeniably (and unapologetically) dominated by gay men – while a lesbian bar is regarded as reserved, separate, less good and, if I were to get a bit Simone de Beauvoir on it, Other. These are lingering sentiments about lesbian bars that, no matter how firmly the words ‘everybody’ or ‘queer’ are articulated, prove difficult to shake.
When I asked Christa, who bought the Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee 17 years ago, if she was aware of any other lesbian bars or bar owners in Nashville, she said she didn’t know of any, and then pointed out that, “the thing with lesbian bars, lesbian-owned bars, once you put that ‘lesbian’ label on there, it’s unfortunate but it’s the reality, how many lesbian bars are open right now?,” she asked.
Not many, is the answer. Of the 1357 LGBTQ bars in the world in 2017, only 36 were lesbian bars, down from 56 in 2014, according to gay-friendly travel guide Damron. There are even fewer now. Lesbian travel bloggers, Dopes on the Road, counted 33 in May this year, in the few months since then, two of these (Pink Hole in South Korea and Shela Tomboy’s Club in Thailand) are now red-flagged as ‘Permanently closed’ on Google.
As has been widely reported, lots of the most iconic, long-established and superbly-named lesbian institutions of the last few decades have closed, often for financial reasons; community dyke bars are rarely able to withstand gentrification’s guillotine. New York’s Clit Club closed in 2002, Athens’ Fairy Tale went in 2005, New Orleans’s Rubyfruit Jungle peaced out in 2012, Sisters in Philadelphia left us in 2013, Phase 1 in Washington D.C. was 2016, La Moza in Bogotá, 2018.
“If I could have kept it open forever, I would have,” said The Lex’s Lila. The bar closed in 2015 thanks to a “landlord who totally screwed me over, and a lot of displacement that was happening in the city,” she said. When she first announced The Lex’s closure – news that shattered San Francisco’s queer community; people wept, others got tattoos of the bar’s entry stamp, many are still in mourning – Lila posted on Facebook: ‘We tried new concepts, different ways of doing things, but we were struggling. When a business caters to about 5% of the population, it has tremendous impact when 1% of them leave. When 3% or 4% of them can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, or the City, it makes the business model unsustainable.’ Lila, like lots of the queer community who lived in San Francisco in the 1990s, was gradually priced out of the area, moving to Oakland or further afield.
Meanwhile in London, Elaine McKenzie, owned Glass Bar, a stand-alone Grade-II listed beaut of a lesbian hangout in central London, for thirteen years, until it closed in 2008. “The landlord tripled the rent and back-dated it,” Elaine told me over a pint in the hetero-pub that stands in Glass Bar’s shell. “They were redeveloping the area, they didn’t want my sort here, what they wanted was what you have now,” she said, surveying the venue, “a blank, generic outlet that is open to all, they didn’t want something that was exclusive, didn’t see the value or need to have something that promotes women’s needs, somewhere that is a safe space.” The need to capitalise on space, and acquire the highest profits from the most number of people led to Elaine’s brick-and-mortar departure from central London. If lesbian bars, for the most part, are queer bars run by women, this makes them a very interesting case study. While they are imagined to be of niche gay interest, they are in fact a model for women-owned small businesses – though the conversation is rarely framed like this.
“How many even female bar owners are there?,” Lila asked pointedly. Online there’s evidence of women making waves in the hospitality industry but bar owners are often sprinkled in with bartenders, supervisors and managers presumably because there simply aren’t enough women behind the spaces. “We need to have the conversation around what it’s like for women to be the owners of spaces and have the capital, mentorship, ability and training in the way that our society is set up,” said Lila. It is now as it was hundreds of years ago, wealthy men own the land; wealthy men decide what businesses operate on their land; wealthy men choose other wealthy men to make the businesses function as they should. Community-minded lesbians are quite far removed from this equation.
I asked Lila if she’d be up for stepping back in the ring and opening The Lex Round II. “The US has changed a lot,” she said, “San Francisco has changed a lot, there’s a huge economic component, it’s happening in major urban areas the world over; it’s very difficult to have space right now if you’re in a marginalised group of any kind or if you’re a small business – when I opened The Lexington Club the economics of opening a bar were vastly different to how they are now. Even if you adjust for inflation, it’s just not the same.” Glass Bar’s Elaine likewise said, “realistically speaking its nigh-impossible, rents in central London start in the hundreds of thousands and I don’t have that lying around in loose change.”
So the older generation aren’t game, it’s the younger generation’s turn to step up, but how many prospective millennial dyke bar owners are there out there? “You have to be a proper business person and be ready to do things like ask promoters to bring their numbers up and compromise on things, make the hard decisions, make the hard calls, do professional and corporate events that you may not really like and be really prepared to play with capitalism. Some people just don’t want to do that,” said GIN, a DJ who’s a key player in the London queer scene, responsible for the creation and development of multiple intentional spaces for QTPOC+ in London. For the majority of young people in urban capitals – all those hustles, side-hustles and hours of our lives exchanged in order to simply pay rent – the prospect of tying yourself to a property, a bar in a good, lucrative location (like getting a mortgage on a nice apartment in the Lower East Side) is frankly, a laughing matter.
So what now, we hang up our dog collars and party beanies for good? We go pyjama shopping while our nocturnal playgrounds crumble before our eyes? No, we do what we’ve always done, whether in a space designated for us or not – we keep the party going.
For decades bars and parties have lived in symbiosis in dyke nightlife. In the first book-length study of a mid-century bar community in Buffalo New York, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold by Kennedy and Davis, lesbians used a combination of speakeasies, bars, backrooms, after-hours clubs and parties as places to form identities, friendships and relationships throughout the 20th Century.
Working class lesbians of the 1930s, 40s and 50s apparently acted upon an ‘irrepressible urge to be with others of their kind, to pursue sexual liaisons and have a good time.’ Those cut off from bars – for various reasons: privacy, safety, economics, police raids and closures – took the party elsewhere, often into their houses. Working class white women started off in bars in the 1930s and 1940s, while women of colour and white middle class women hosted parties. This fluctuated and changed; the community became more racially mixed, different people experiencing dyke nightlife in different ways but throughout time, the lesbian community thrived through their reliance on a network of self-sufficient house parties, gay bars and open-minded straight establishments. Working overtly and covertly alongside gays and straights, men and women, cops and mafia-bosses, we carved out spaces to call our own.
Though dedicated brick-and-mortar lesbian bars are increasingly hard to come by today, lesbian parties are popping up all over the place. In London, for example, on top of our one lesbian bar (She Soho, the enigmatic man-magnet) we have around 20 monthly, tri-annual and weekly dyke parties.
The current upsurge sparked Daisy Jones, Vice’s managing editor, to declare 2019 a renaissance in queer women’s nightlife. There’s a dyke-centred punk night called Dyke in the Pit, a night called Murder On Zidane’s Floor for lesbian footballers, a queer womxn’s strip party called Juice Box Events and Butch, Please! a night of butch lesbian appreciation. “There is something for everyone now and it’s nice, refreshing, eye-opening and exciting,” said Michelle Manetti, the woman behind Fèmmme Fraîche, east London’s most renowned and longest-continuously running queer women’s club night. “We don’t have that many queer spaces and one lesbian bar, but I don’t think we need them because we have all these queer things taking over spaces. With all these very niche nights, it is about catering to a handful of people, there’s never going to be any profit in that,” she said, “so we run nights specifically for the love of it, as opposed to, I want to make money from this.”
Lila likewise concurs that parties are a place in nightlife “where there can be a lot of real experimentation in a way that you can’t do with a permanent space. They can be temporary, last for 20 years or six months, and speak to something that’s very timely, something going on in that moment. You don’t have to have the capital and the business know-how. It’s really intense to run a bar that’s open everyday, there’s financial responsibility, employees, taxes; it’s not the same – but that’s great because it allows you to be able to do things and try things. If you lose, you lose a couple of hundred bucks, not putting things on the line by having these businesses and signing ten-year leases. There’s less pressure and because of that, there’s a blossoming of things that’s really important, everyone in the community benefits from that,” she said.
Parties have proliferated at an impressive rate of late – this is part pragmatism, part liberation from economic demands, and part the way it has always been. Lesbian parties however don’t happen in a vacuum; they frequently rely on the support of queer venues. Dalston Superstore, the epicentre of queer nightlife in London, hosts more monthly lesbian club nights that anywhere else in the city. Michelle’s Fèmmme Fraîche, Female Trouble (a party of dyke-drag, politics and lesbian in-jokes), Nite Dykez (a lesbian and POC-priority party) and Fanny Packer (a big lezzie collab party) are on the current roster, though they venue’s hosted multiple other excellently-named lez fests (e.g. Lemon Juice and Clam Jam) in the past.
Providing a place for lemon lickers and clam jammers to party isn’t an act of good will to lesbian kind. Dyke parties are an immensely powerful force; our promoters are coming in with serious cultural capital and notoriety within the community. Michelle Manetti is a globally renowned DJ, building her reputation year by year, she’s simultaneously run her House night Fèmmme Fraîche. For four years once a month on a Saturday, Dalston Superstore is choc-a-bloc with BDE, in a night that’s all about “creating a platform” for women and non-binary artists, performers and DJs. Alongside this, on monthly Sundays, Michelle hosts Fraîche Fruit, a free DJ workshop for women and non-binary people. Likewise, GIN and Mica Coco who run House, Funk, Afrobeat party Nite Dykez, also founded DJ collective ResisDance, while GIN manages EartH (a sizable music venue in east London), and has just launched an event called Sex & Rage, for sex workers, educators and activists. Lastly, Celeste Guiness runs Female Trouble, also works in the music industry, is in a band called deep tan and is a defiant trans rights activist.
These promoters are dynamic, community-grounded power dykes, who are using their talents and reputation to consciously create spaces for our community. The difference between now and 100 years ago, is that we have online visibility and presence, impressive careers, collectives, intention behind our nights (POC priority, elevating women/nb DJs, supporting trans people), evolving safer space policies, huge followings, massive music collections, and technical know-how. Dyke space-creators have cultural clout and cultural muscle like we’ve never had before.
We therefore have no trouble filling non-queer venues too. Big Dyke Energy, a queer techno party dropped, seemingly from the sky, earlier this year. On their first event they effortlessly sold out a 300-capacity warehouse in South East London, and raved outrageously until sunrise. They also placed great emphasis on accessibility, trained all their staff on queer inclusivity and pronouns, and had their safer space policy written in brail by the bar.
Similarly, this fall, Nadine Ahmed, the lesbian founder of Pxssy Palace (an event that started life as a house party and is now widely regarded as the most lit QTPOC+ party in London), was approached alongside Naeem Davis (from collective BBZ) by Absolute Vodka and Boiler Room to host Lesbiennale London’s first lesbian arts festival. As non-binary POC they wanted to expand, unpack and explore lesbianism from the margins. Lesbiennale was a free three-day event, there was very little press coverage, but it stream-rolled to success through Instagram. The erotic reading sold out, the screening was nicely busy and the east London warehouse party that closed the festival saw a line of hundreds snaking round the block.
Dyke promoters and DJs are flourishing, and of course using their nights as places to play with music, fashions, gender, sexuality and pleasure, but also places to experiment with safety, inclusion, accessibility, consent and prioritisation. With the rise of dyke nightlife comes an evolution in queer club culture. It’s a blessing that dykes can no longer be contained in set bars and permanent spaces. We’re building vast, powerful communities on and offline. And through this, should we so desire, we can create physical spaces for ourselves again – or so was the case in San Francisco.
After The Lex’s closure in spring 2015, San Francisco was dyke-bar-less until December three years later when Jolene Linsangan opened her eponymous queer bar, Jolene’s, which she co-runs with Shannon Amitin, a trans man. Having spent ten years organising lesbian events, Jolene had become a real dyke nightlife activist and cornerstone of the community. Mention the word ‘nightlife’ to any queer person in San Francisco and they’ll ask if you know Jolene. Whether hosting parties for dating app HER or running U-Haul, her Friday night roving party for ‘girls who like girls,’ Jolene had been turning up, creating space and really feeling the lack of permanent venues.
“I needed a consistent space for women’s night on a Friday and a general queer space the rest of the week,” she said, and people fully shipped her mission. Prominent SF queers (drag queens, Women’s March organisers, National Centre for Lesbian Rights staff, queer politicians) helped with city permitting procedures (in the end, the landlord, so down with their vision, gave Jolene’s a “below-market” five-year lease as opposed to the usual ten years), squads of queers came in to help with graphic design, renovations and last-minute handiwork. Thanks to her countless hours in the thick of the community, Jolene’s reputation and connections enabled her to harness the power of her queer community. Jolene’s is now one of the sleekest, sexiest, grandest queer bars in the world right now. The words ‘You Are Safe Here’ are neon-lit at the entrance; queers sip cocktails, play pool, eat brunch in the day. Come nightfall, there are trans, lez, kink and Latinx nights, the baseline rumbles through superb speakers and queers dance with pure joy and reckless abandon. “Every day is the dream,” Jolene said, perched at her bar as crowds filtered in for U-Haul, “seeing people walk in and smile and enjoy their time. Girls kissing each other with no one bothering them. That’s a dream.”
I spoke to Lila about what she makes of Jolene’s, her city’s new lesbian bar. “It’s interesting, when the Lex closed, everyone was writing all these articles about ‘the last lesbian bar in San Francisco’,” she said imitating an excited sports broadcaster. “Everyone was saying that and I was like, hold up, this wasn’t the last lesbian bar, because actually the last lesbian bar, Amelia’s closed seven years before The Lexington Club opened. For seven years there was no lesbian bar and then when the Lexington opened there was just a new one where there hadn’t been one before. This is going to happen again, there is no last lesbian bar, you need to understand the history, there already was, in 1991, Amelia’s and then we came and we closed, and then it was three years and Jolene’s came. Something is always going to happen, we’re still fucking here, man,” said Lila.
Lesbian nightlife death will never be a thing, not when there’s such might, endurance, variety and talent in our scene. For the last 100 years lesbians have created spaces – permanent, temporary, daily and monthly – where we can congregate in peace, comfort and hedonism. It’s just a matter of time before the next Elaine, next Lila, next Jolene harnesses the power of dyke communities – built online, in bars, at parties, in all kinds of venues – and uses this force to create another permanent home for dykes of the night.⚡
Edited by Rachel