I didn’t go to my first lesbian bar until I was in my early twenties. Whenever I tell people this, they assume it’s because I wasn’t out until then, but actually, I came out almost 10 years before that. In South Florida, where I was born, raised, and currently live, we are flush with gay bars and sporadic parties that “cater towp_postsqueer and trans people without always explicitly saying that, but lesbian bars have always been extremely rare. The one lesbian bar that was open when I was young closed in the middle of the aughts, and the one that opened just two years before the start of the pandemic closed for good in the early days of it. So, even before I came out as non-binary, I spent most of my life going to gay bars or mixed spaces or spaces that were neither because that was what we had and my friends and I still wanted to get drunk, do karaoke, dance, and have fun.
As Krista Burton notes in her new book, Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America, the death of the lesbian bar is a well-documented phenomenon. I have written and spoken on the topic here at Autostraddle and on the podcast that I co-host, and there’s writing on it in every publication from The New York Times to Smithsonian Magazine. The set up for most of the research done on the disappearance of lesbian bars is generally the same: What the hell happened to all of them? And then the same statistic from The Lesbian Bar Project is referenced: in 1980, there were over 200 lesbian bars operating in the U.S. and by 2021, the number of lesbian bars still open and operating was 24. Burton’s book starts out similarly, but doesn’t stop at speculation about why this might be or rely on prior research. Instead, Burton decides that to really understand why there are so few lesbian bars around now, she should visit 20 of the bars that remain open to try to understand why so many of them have closed.
The book chronicles Burton’s year-long journey to each of the 20 lesbian bars she chose to visit, and the knowledge she gained on her trips to each of them. She starts her trips most obviously in San Francisco, at Wild Side West, and New York City, at both Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson (our beloved Ginger’s was temporarily closed at the time of her trip), but then her search takes her to places that I think will be surprising to a lot of East Coast and West Coast queers: Slammers in Columbus; Lipstick Lounge in Nashville; Alibi’s and Frankie’s in Oklahoma City; Yellow Brick Road in Tulsa; Babe’s of Carytown in Richmond; and Herz in Mobile. Before she embarked on the journey, she set specific rules for herself — such as “I would contact the bar owners and try to interview them, settling for an employee or a regular if the owner couldn’t be reachedwp_postsand “I had to approach and speak to at least two strangers at every barwp_posts— which yield surprising and fascinating results for both Burton and the reader. The discussions she includes in her narrative of her visits are easily some of the richest, most important parts of the text, making it worth reading just for that.
Some themes pop up in her discussions with bar owners, bartenders, and people who go to the bar regularly. Many of them seem to parrot a lot of the explanations we get for the disappearance of lesbian bars elsewhere: There isn’t enough money in it, the bars have gotten more inclusive over the years (with many of them calling themselves, as Burton puts it, “lesbian bar[s] that welcomed everybody”) which is obviously a good thing but also impacts who comes and who has stayed a patron, and despite some of the progress we’ve made in our society over the last 43 years, it’s still hard as hell to be a female business owner or try to be one. These explanations aren’t very surprising to Burton (or me) but what is surprising are the responses to these explanations. The people Burton encounters aren’t upset or distraught about how open these spaces have become in terms of people of varying sexualities and gender identities necessarily. They have just noticed that as the world has become more accepting of queer people overall, queer people seem to have walked away from these spaces a bit. In one of Burton’s conversations with Lisa Menichino, the owner of the legendary Cubbyhole in NYC, Lisa says, “I think sometimes a lesbian bar is like an old friend you’ve spent a lot of time with and then drifted away from. Queers think of the bar fondly, and there’s a huge out-cry if one closes, but they forget that in order to have the bar, they need to come hang out there.”
Although the book starts out with a few common questions, Burton’s quest for understanding evolves as she keeps going on her lesbian bar trips. By the time she gets to Herz in Mobile, one of my favorite parts of the book, her exploration changes from trying to figure out why these bars keep closing to truly celebrating and trying to situate these spaces among what she already knows, understands, and loves about queer culture. At Herz, she comes face-to-face with many contradictions she doesn’t expect. As Burton explains in this chapter, Alabama has some of the most draconian anti-queer and anti-trans laws in the country and explains, “I can’t imagine it had been easy to be Black lesbians trying to open a lesbian barwp_poststhere. When Sheila Smallman, one of the owners of Herz and a former chief of police, tells Burton that the bar was actually well-received and widely accepted by the neighborhood it’s in, Burton is shocked and Sheila clarifies by adding what she thinks makes that possible: “We only have two rules in here. Number one: no politics. Number two: no religion, and we mean it!wp_postsThe contradictions she encounters at Herz push Burton to grapple with different, more important questions about queerness and queer culture than she ever intended to, and realizes, “Everyone is someone you can’t put in a neat little box, of course, but it’s something that’s easy to forget. Hertz was special, I decided, not because of what it was, but because it was Sheila and Rachel’s bar, a space they had created for all of us, gray areas included, in a place where it’s amazing a lesbian bar even exists.”
As we move through the bars with Burton, we also move through some stories of Burton’s life as a femme lesbian coming from a deeply religious and difficult upbringing married to a trans man. Burton introduces us to her husband early on, and we get glimpses of her most impactful queer friendships as she travels from city to city and is reminded of certain pivotal moments in those friendships. These recollections and reflections serve as a kind of glue for all of the moving parts of this narrative and help answer the “So what?wp_postsquestion that might be on some people’s minds as they begin the book or try to get through it. Burton, as we find out through the revelations she included in the book, is genuinely invested in the survival of lesbian bars because that’s where she experienced some of the most important moments of her life so far, where she learned to be herself, and where she felt the most comfortable as a young queer trying to navigate a world that doesn’t want young queers to survive it. She also very thoughtfully includes some personal reflections on gender inclusivity and what that means for her and her husband as they visit these spaces and daydream about frequenting them more regularly. These pieces add the emotional weight that might be necessary for both queer and non-queer readers, especially younger ones, to understand why these spaces are so sacred to so many of us and why we lament the fact that there’s so few of them around.
By the time you get to the epilogue of the book, Burton notes that “The trajectory for lesbian bars is finally moving upwardwp_postsand makes it a point to shout out the bars in Chicago and other places that have opened since she completed her trip. It serves as the optimistic end to a book already brimming with optimism about these spaces and their ability to stay open against all odds. Burton might not definitively answer all the questions she originally set out to, but what she does do is give us more reasons to keep believing in the power of collectivity and community and getting together with your queer siblings and partners at your local spot at the end of a tough ass day. At the end of the book, Burton reminds us: “It doesn’t matter what you wear. It doesn’t matter who you came with. What matters is you’re there. The only thing lesbian bars need is you.wp_postsAnd those of us who are able should heed the call.