Feature image by NoSystem images via Getty Images
On a recent episode of the research and education oriented arts and culture podcast I co-host, Fat Guy, Jacked Guy, I brought attention to something I think more people should care about and that’s been on my mind a lot: the gradual disappearance of lesbian bars here in the U.S.
LGBTQ history is an area that I considered myself very well-versed in, but when I began the research for that episode, I realized I didn’t know as much about the contemporary reasons (and excuses made) for their disappearances as I thought. I’ll admit my own experiences with lesbian bars is amateur-ish at best. I don’t have a long, personal history of going to lesbian bars, because of some of the reasons I’ll get into here, but also because of where I grew up and have lived my whole life.
I came out as gay to myself and to my friends when I was 14-years-old, and in response, some of them ended up coming out, too. Being young and queer in 2002 was a truly surreal experience. Although we were able to use the internet to gather resources and make some connections to other young queer people, there wasn’t really an easy or accessible way for us to truly learn more about ourselves, about the history of people like us, and about being queer in general. Often, we had to listen to people from BOTH SIDES, not just the far right or the moderate left, openly question and debate whether or not queer people deserved to be as protected under the law as they were. We had “allies,wp_postsof course, but that didn’t make things much easier when your high school history teachers were allowing kids to openly debate the merits of “same-sexwp_postsmarriage in class. 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.
My queer friends and I did have one slight, unusual advantage, though. Not too far away from where most of us lived, there was and still is a small “gay villagewp_postscalled Wilton Manors situated just north of downtown Ft. Lauderdale (actually, we did an episode on this, too, if you’re interested). Wilton Manors is 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 a larger group of guys. There weren’t a lot of people of varied gender experience, either, which I guess speaks to both the time and the way the neighborhood used to be. But it was what we had, and by the time we were old enough to drive, we were hanging out in the coffee shops and, eventually and illegally, hanging out in the gay bars of Wilton Manors as much as we could.
There was one lesbian bar in Wilton Manors, but by the time it gained popularity, our trips to the strip were getting more and more sparse. By the end of the early 2000s, there were tons of clubs and parties at clubs that were definitely borderline queer but open to everyone popping up in South Florida. Overall, they were “coolerwp_postsand 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. Those spaces were much different from what I’d experienced back home. People were more radical, more gender exploratory, more punk, more like me and my friends. After that trip, 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.
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 it isn’t. It’s an everywhere problem.
Before we get to the end though, I think it’s important we take a step back and examine how we got here in the first place. Let’s jump into some dyke history, shall we?
A short history of the American lesbian bar
I think it’s important to situate the development of the lesbian bar within the broader context of American social history. As we all know, cis women have never enjoyed the same freedoms as men, and in the first half of the 20th century especially, there weren’t many places outside of the domestic sphere where women could come together with other women. So, you can imagine the empowerment that comes with being in a space devoid of cis men, which lesbian bars frequently were. Since the inception of the lesbian bar, these spaces have 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. In these spaces, women of all ages were able to come together and build community and camaraderie in a way they couldn’t in any other place. This is not to say that lesbian bars have always been sites of resistance against white supremacist, heteronormative culture, but I do think it’s important to point out that community formation and support was an important part of their function in queer culture and society, even if the members of that community weren’t as revolutionary as we wish they were.
It’s widely accepted that the first lesbian bar to open in the U.S. was Mona’s 440 Club in San Francisco, California in 1936. According to Nan Alamilla Boyd’s book, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, Mona Sargeant and her husband, Jimmie, originally established Mona’s as a “bohemianwp_postsspot to take advantage of the ending of prohibition and the ever-expanding culture of tourism growing in the San Francisco area. It was mostly open to writers, artists, and sexual “deviantswp_postsof any flavor but quickly became well-known for its mostly female staff, clientele, and popular drag king shows after Mona and Jimmie noticed a desire for more clubs of this persuasion in the area. 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.wp_postsMany of the performers at Mona’s were butch women, often performing to a mixed audience of butch and femme women, “straightwp_postswomen, and gay men. Mona’s clientele was interesting because it was frequented by lesbians and also by supposedly straight women whose husbands were away at war. Many of the performers at Mona’s were butch women, like the legendary Gladys Bentley, often performing to a mixed audience of butch and femme women, “straightwp_postswomen, and gay men. Mona’s 440 Club stayed open — eventually changing ownership to Ann Dee who changed the name to Ann’s 440 Club — until the late 1950s. And while it’s certainly true that Mona’s broke barriers and influenced the opening of bars like it across the U.S., calling it the “first lesbian barwp_postsis actually somewhat historically inaccurate.
Because the Prohibition of the 1920s drove all bars to go “underground,wp_poststhere’s a lot of queer bar history that either wasn’t well-documented or is just not very well-known. Mona’s 440 Club might have been the first official lesbian bar, but the first-documented bar-like hang out for lesbians, Eve’s Hangout, actually opened 12 years before Mona’s 440 Club in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Eve’s Hangout wasn’t technically a bar because it wasn’t allowed to be, but it was established specifically as a “tearoomwp_postsfor women (of course, it was more specifically for lesbians), immigrant writers and artists, and Jewish people. Eve Addams, a Polish immigrant to the U.S. and the founder and operator of Eve’s Hangout, opened the tearoom at 129 MacDougal Street in 1925. Unlike Mona and Jimmie Sargeant, whose sexualities are unknown and probably heterosexual regardless of the fact that they opened Mona’s 440 Club, Addams was an out and proud lesbian looking to create safe spaces for women like her here in the U.S. Eve’s Hangout frequently “hosted after-hours, locked-doors meetings, where women-loving women could share their experiences without fear of censorship or discrimination.” Supposedly, Eve also hung a sign on the door of the tearoom that said “Men are admitted but not welcome.wp_postsIt didn’t take long for the Hangout to become one of the most popular spots in the area, drawing the attention of not only queer people but also the local police. Eve’s Hangout was shut down in 1926, and, tragically, Addams’s work at the Hangout and in the community led to her eventual arrest, deportation, and death at Auschwitz in the early 1940s.
Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, more lesbian bars opened in big cities (and some small towns) all over the U.S. Most of these places were male-owned because, unfortunately, women couldn’t be trusted with handling their own money and property until the 1970s. Many of the lesbian bars that opened 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 benefactors 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 one of the few places women could go to get loans or to rent property for their businesses. I don’t want anyone to be confused in thinking that the Mafia is some progressive organization. The truth is, they didn’t care what these women were doing as long as they got their kickbacks. But the relationship between the women who ran the bars and the men in these organizations was certainly interesting. Of course, because they were interested in keeping these businesses open, they often paid off police to stop raiding the bars and other members of the community to keep quiet about the bars’ locations. As we know, this didn’t stop raids from occurring but it is so wild to imagine a Tony Soprano type paying off part of the NYPD to keep some place called Kitty’s Hideaway (or something similar) open.
While lesbian bars were often a refuge for queer women (and some men), it doesn’t mean they were safe and welcoming spaces for everyone. Lesbian bars during this period were usually 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, even in places like New York City and San Francisco, mostly weren’t welcome in these spaces and couldn’t be part of the scene. For Black queer women, house parties — which was actually showcased in episode six of A League of Their Own — were the main way they were able to gather and celebrate themselves and each other. In the 1950s, the lesbian bar scene shifted somewhat with more bars being opened for working-class lesbians in big cities, especially. These bars were more racially diverse, but still not free of racism or white supremacist definitions of sex and gender. And although trans people were often part of the gay and lesbian bar scene, they weren’t exactly welcome with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect. Because of the story of the Stonewall Uprising, people have a tendency to think trans people were embraced as members of the community, when the opposite was usually true. In addition to that, at this time, lesbian culture was, of course, dominated by a binary understanding of sex and gender that was liberatory for some and exclusionary for others. 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. But I think it’s important to give a full picture of their evolution into the second half of the 20th century.
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.
What the fuck happened?
Where have all the lesbian bars gone?
There are so many myths about why lesbian bars close and/or don’t survive. So many. There are two that I’ve heard more times than I count. The first is, old reliable, “queer women just don’t party the way queer men do.wp_postsWhen people say this, they say it like it’s a scientifically verifiable fact. I don’t know if “willingness to partywp_postscan be measured in any real way, so this just feels like a cop out that people use to hide something much more sinister or difficult to discuss. If we consider the way the society around us works, it makes more sense that being a woman who owns a business that specifically caters to women is extremely difficult. As it is, women already earn less than men, and the more marginalized your identity is, the less you make. This alone puts women at a great disadvantage when it comes to entrepreneurial efforts, but there are also systemic issues that prevent these businesses from staying open or opening at all. From the advent of the lesbian bar, men have had to play some kind of role in their operations, so we can infer what it means when men aren’t involved. Businesses owned by women simply don’t have the same survival rate as businesses owned by men due to a variety of factors, including obtaining bank loans to help keep their businesses afloat when they need it. This means that, 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 in The Story Exchange, one of the biggest factors is money:
“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, named The G Spot (I know, I know), did so about 2 years before the COVID-19 pandemic and then closed as a result of it. Of course, I don’t know the individual stories behind these closures, but I do know about how much the neighborhoods and the cost of real estate have changed down here in the last seven years, and their closures track with the reasons given in the article mentioned above.
As I said, people cite other factors for why lesbian bars have closed down over the years. In an article in the Smithsonian, 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.wp_postsAnd Gwendolyn Stegall states that many queer people “claim that ‘lesbian’ leaves out bisexual women and trans people, who definitely have been historically (or even sometimes currently) shunned from the community.wp_postsI 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. It’s also very real that there are lesbians out there who are transphobic and heteronormative, which impacts the way spaces are created and patronized. But I don’t think we can say that this is actually a factor in whether or not these businesses survive because although gay bars have faced some similar criticisms, their existence isn’t threatened in the same way, and they don’t suffer the same rate of closure. In fact, if I’m using my neighborhood as a small case study for these phenomena, all of the gay bars made it through Covid, and two new ones even opened up in the midst of it.
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 do as a result of the structure of our society. 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.
And I’m not interested in being distracted. The Lesbian Bar Project certainly managed to bring some attention to the issue over the last two years, but similar to how these bars have been disappearing over the years, that attention seems to be fizzling out. I don’t disagree that some of the spaces that have historically catered to lesbians are outdated in terms of their concepts and inclusiveness but I do think there is still a need for places outside of the internet that specifically cater to queer women and trans people. In the last ten years since my friends and I followed queer nights from place to place, my feelings and my life have changed a lot. I don’t go out in the same way I used to, but 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. I have a lot of wonderful people in my life, but sometimes, I just want to go out and have a drink surrounded by people who truly, truly get it.
I don’t think it’s a secret that many LGBTQ people feel as if they don’t have a strong network and/or unified community of other queer and trans people in their local areas — I know I feel that way, at least. These spaces have historically been the sites of not only connection and celebration but of resistance and taking power for ourselves. They’ve been places where we can dance all night and then rally together in the morning to fight back against the powers that are trying to destroy us. I often wonder how much different the world would be if we still had these spaces of so many possibilities, these spaces where we could meet friends or make new ones, fuck in the bathrooms, do drugs safely, drink, host writing groups or knitting circles or open mics, listen to live music, have afternoons to engage in resistance studies together, plan radical actions and have the organizing space to act on them, take care of each other in a variety of ways, or just grab a drink after work. I wish we were still willing to fight for these spaces, and I wish we could experience them together as Addams and so many others like her were years ago. We not only deserve them, but we desperately need them.