In Autostraddle’s The State of the Lesbian Bar, we’re taking a look at lesbian bars around the country as the possibility of extinction looms ever closer.
Phase 1, both the oldest standing lesbian bar in America and the last to remain in the nation’s capital, closed abruptly this month “for renovations.” The owner has confirmed it will reopen, but speculation remains over whether this is the end of brick-and-mortar lesbian spaces in DC — especially since, in the process of closing, he fired his longtime staff without notice and has yet to release a reopen date.
The bar is 45 this year, and it’s hard to imagine a Washington, DC without it. In fact, a Washington where there is no Phase 1 looks a lot like other major cities across the United States — it has no lesbian bar at all.
“If Phase 1 doesn’t open back up, it will definitely be an end of an era,” said Eboné Bell, Managing Editor of Tagg Magazine. “So many women made long-lasting relationships and memories at this venue.”
Indeed, it’s rare to find someone who — despite its location in the southeast quadrant of the city — has never been to Phase 1. As someone who came out in DC, I can vouch that going was like a rite of passage. (I can also vouch that the drinks were amazing and the karaoke night was a wild ride.) Phase 1 was where I finally got to be me — the new, shiny, lesbian me. I got to be raunchy, regular, and a little wild. I could dance provocatively without worrying men were looking on. I could watch women wrestle in jello, which was life-giving. And I could count on seeing familiar faces at the bar, being recognized as queer no matter what I wore, and feeling connected to something bigger than me every time I opened its heavy doors.
“How tragic is it that I only ever jello wrestled once?”Anna Kark, a self-described “standard hip young lesbian,” asked me in our interview. “What a delightful experience. Both of us fit what I like to call the ‘girly but burly’ category — pretty hair and even prettier triceps. I got her on the ground a few times, and it was a solid tie in the end because she twerked and I didn’t. No hard feelings, only fond memories and a deep sadness that the scenario may now never be recreated.”
“Before I was a Managing Editor of Tagg Magazine, I was a young lesbian trying to figure herself out,” Bell said. “Phase 1 played an important role in welcoming me into the queer women’s community.”
“I practically grew up in that bar,” an anonymous employee told Tagg about the abrupt closing. “I’ve dedicated so much of my life and time to that place.”
Should Phase 1 be gone forever, it wouldn’t be the first time queer women in DC lost a sacred public space. Lace and Phase 1’s nightclub location in Dupont Circle closed in late 2013. And prior to my own tenure as a professional lesbian in the nation’s capital, the community mourned the loss of countless others. Maintaining a bar, after all, means maintaining a business. Certainly, none of us expected these to last forever — but the thought of a DC without any lesbian bars is sobering in more ways than one.
“I think this is the crucial element of all of this: we have a history,” Michelle Carnes, who completed ethnographic fieldwork on Black lesbian strip club shows in the DC metro area for her phD, told me. “It’s not always been written down or honored as important. But just like spaces don’t close out of nowhere, they didn’t emerge from nothing either. It’s important for us to know our history — it makes us human, it makes it harder to dismiss us or uproot us when we have a claim to the city. Queer people are a people of a place and time, and we have as much right to space in the city.”
Feminism has taught us that the personal is political — and though it’s easy to think of these losses as minor dents in our community, what they represent is a sacrificing of our own shared space. The downfall of lesbian bars across the nation isn’t an isolated event; it goes hand-in-hand with the shuttering of LGBT centers, bookstores, and other businesses — and it’s an unintended consequence of the mainstreaming of the LGBT movement. Often, that mainstreaming erases anyone who isn’t white, male, or wealthy from the LGBT movement’s history — and it erodes our ability to claim space and, thus, claim that we matter.
“If marriage equality is your goal, preserving bathhouses probably isn’t your priority,” Carnes said. “But to me, these spaces represent a place of freedom, a place away from judgment, a place of belonging, a place of pleasure and community. We’re losing them and we must take that loss seriously, what we’re accepting in trade culturally, think about whether it’s worth it. To me, it’s worth it to stand up for these spaces. I don’t think we fully understand what we’ve lost.”
“It is incredibly challenging to create queer space in DC,” Alex DB, who co-hosts Bodywork, a queer dance party, with fellow DJ Abichula. “There are mainstream gay bars and parties, much like any other major city would have, but there is increasingly less space for those who may not fall into, or actively reject that category. I think for the most part we have a strong, tightly-knit community of queer woman DJs and partystarters, and I am so grateful for that. We run the gamut musically, we’re fun as hell, we give a shit about our communities and about each other. But we often find ourselves against the odds, no matter how successful or popular we become in our craft.”
Abichula echoed her. “This scene is made up by so many talented, wonderful, passionate people,” she told me, “and it’s mindblowing that we have so few physical spaces where people actually want us to throw parties. We are here, we are so god damn queer, but where is the space to express that?”
“People need to understand that equality doesn’t have to mean sameness,” Alex added, touching on how the mainstream LGBT movement has led to an end for self-segregated spaces like Phase 1. “We are becoming more ‘normal’ in the eyes of the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want or need places to let our freak flags fly for a minute. Some of us don’t even want to be perceived as normal. I think queers are pretty perfect how we are.”
“There are accessible places you can still go to see baseball around here. Where am I gonna get my queer lap dance?”
“Spaces for anyone outside the box are at risk — not just here in DC but everywhere,” Carnes said. Citing the formerly formidable chunk of LGBT and BDSM bars that once filled southeast DC, she pointed to gentrification, a tourism agenda, and the Internet as causes for the ruin. “Venues for people who want privacy, to be left alone to be who they are with others in a safe environment — they tend to stick together. Southeast [DC] used to be that place — warehouse-style dance clubs, Bound DC used to be down there, Capitol Ballroom, Tracks, Wet/The Edge, Nation, the Crucible. There was a lot of real estate down there dedicated to people being free to be themselves, sexually or otherwise. All the venues together represented a formidable presence and no one was interested in Southeast so no one bothered us for some years.”
Until they did. That formerly formidable chunk of non-normative space eventually gave rise to a high-rise apartments and office buildings and a new stadium for DC’s not-much-heralded Nationals.
“Southeast started to be consumed, slowly at first — and then, all at once with the stadium,” she remembered. “When you go down there now, you’d hardly believe what used to be there. But under the new coat of paint and shiny windows, I remember what was there and I miss it. I refuse to go to Nationals Stadium. You’ll never see me there. I had an amazing lap dance right around where home base is now. I hate the Nationals and I hate the stadium. There are accessible places you can still go to see baseball around here. Where am I gonna get my queer lap dance?”
Of course, the people who lose out the most when LGBT spaces are attacked are the ones who find themselves “othered” most frequently. In DC, the contrast between a booming gay men’s industry and a dying lesbian scene is stark. A 2013 article in The New York Times, The Gayest Place in America, cited the statistic that 10% of DC residents are LGBT, and makes its case for the city’s thriving “gay and lesbian” scene with stories of retailers, gyms, parties, drag shows, bathhouses and bars aimed at gay men only.
“DC has one of the most segregated queer scenes I’ve seen in any city I’ve lived in,” Emily White told me. White, who currently lives overseas, was a DC transplant by way of Portland, and noted in our interview that DC’s scene for queer people was monopolized by men. She was, of course, right. Most spaces billed as “gay bars” are filled with gay men, and target them so distinctively that women may not even feel welcome. For women and even men of color, the divide grows even further in a city where diversity is a popular keyword but not as popular a business strategy.
What this means is that the only people truly losing out when brick-and-mortar spaces close are, of course, the others. It’s now gay women who lack community, although gay men can find it across town at Cobalt, Nellie’s, Town, the new Town patio bar, and The Eagle. Gender non-conforming folks, of course, aren’t considered at all in a scene designed this way, and thus the only spaces that they can count on are pop-up parties at locations that may not be as safe as a consistently queer locale.
“Creating an alternate superqueer reality, even if just for one night, feels like a breath of fresh air.”
But for those who are attempting, now, to sustain social events or spaces for a broad base of queer people or even just queer women — and in a climate where lesbian bars nationwide are being pushed to the brink of extinction — it isn’t inspiring to watch the oldest one standing fall down.
“It was the oldest running lesbian bar in the country! That’s a big deal! The fact of it is, I can no longer say to myself, ‘I am going to go to a place that is engineered specifically for queer women.’ I have to consult various calendars and the phases of the moon to see what Lesbian Night is available that particular evening and whether or not the space is safe,” Kark said. “At Phase, I knew that at any given time: I would not be the only queer lady, there would be four men maximum and I wouldn’t have to deal with them, at least one cute bartender would be in attendance, if something bad happened to me there because I was gay or because I was a woman — people would be on my side. ”
“In a city with high property values and skyrocketing rents, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain spaces for those of us on the fringe: queers, freaks, weirdos, whatever you want to call us,” Abichula told me. “Obviously transplant-queers like myself don’t have the worst of it; DC’s long term black community experiences the worst effects of gentrification, and anything we say must be prefaced with that. But beyond this, most spaces that are opened by and for queers (or at least are welcoming to us) either end up catering to the mainstream, or going out of business.”
What many of my interviews touched on is the new dynamic in nightlife for queer women looking for queer spaces in the District. Although all of DC’s queer women collectively mourned last year’s end to SHE/REX, a monthly girl-on-girl party that provided (in my own personal estimation) approximately 100% of us with a chance to get some and get down, the space was quickly filled or bypassed completely by countless other recurring and one-off parties for girls looking to meet girls, or even just queers looking to meet other weirdos.
Some queer party promoters are looking to create a different kind of space altogether. “There are lots of queers who aren’t gays or lesbians — and even some who are — that don’t feel comfortable at gay or lesbian bars,” Abichula said. In creating Bodywork, she and Alex were hoping to create a space for everyone, not just women — and, in particular, for folks who are rarely catered to at all in queer business. “Creating an alternate superqueer reality,” she told me, “even if just for one night, feels like a breath of fresh air.”
glittHER, Bodywork, Bare, the Sunday Tea Dance, and a host of other weekly, monthly, and otherwise consistent parties give us a chance to check out new venues, meet new people, and have a good time — but it’s not possible yet to measure what kind of impact that kind of scene will have on a community that sprouted, at the dawn of time, from brick-and-mortar spaces like Phase 1. It’s not possible for us to know, just yet, how our community will change now that we don’t have a central place to house it.
“As much as I like dressing up to go out, as much as I like my holigays, I would like a queer women’s place that isn’t a Special Event,” Kark told me. “It would be really nice if, after a long day of work, I could just put on my casual spiked heels and go get a drink at a physical location that I know contains queer women in it without arranging my social calendar around a Ladies’ Night days or weeks in advance. Can’t the world revolve around me at least a little bit, at least in this small way?”
Pop-up parties also offer an opportunity to turn “straight” venues into queer ones, although that also increases safety concerns for — once again — the most marginalized of our community in particular. In our interview, Bell noted that it can be fun to check out new restaurants and bars in the city with other queers, but sometimes it’s a risk to venture into an unwelcome space and trust that it will change for just a night.
“I think the brick-and-mortar spaces offer more of a sense of community, and a sense of safety,” she told me. “As someone who has been in unfortunate and harassing situations at “straight” establishments, the sense of safety and being able to be yourself is so important. I think the queer women’s spaces — brick-and-mortar — automatically provide this for its patrons. And usually staff is very aware of these issues. This is something that parties at different establishments can’t necessarily guarantee.”
Kark echoed these concerns. “I’m sure it’s not impossible to build a transient safe space,” she said, “but a physical foundation goes a long way.” She went on to tell me about a situation in which a woman was harassing her at Phase 1, and was asked to leave. “Ideally, bad shit never happens, and of course let’s not pretend that Phase is perfectly equipped to deal with it, but it did make me feel safe to know that neither staff nor clientele would excuse my being hurt by another person. Part of my lived experience — maybe part of being a loud, hyper-femme, gay lady who likes to go dancing and put my mouth on stranger’s faces — is that a lot of clubs, even so-called queer clubs, don’t care when somebody hurts me. Stressing about safety does not make for a sexy night. I’m sure other people have had other experience at Phase 1, but it was one of the only nightlife spaces in the city where I felt safe and sexy, and it really hurts to lose that.”
This isn’t to say that queer pop-up parties are any more unsafe than your neighborhood haunt, or that the people who run them don’t try to keep patrons safe. “No space is going to be perfectly safe or welcoming to everyone,” Abichula asserted about Bodywork, “but we wanna do our best, hear any criticism that people have, and do whatever we can do make it great for everyone.”
Despite DC’s pop-up parties and resilient queer community, the city that ranks consistently as one of the gayest in the country may not have much left to offer queer women. “I’m not sure there is a future for the lesbian bar scene,” Bell said. “I think we are seeing more women’s spaces disappearing with no sign of coming back.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that queer women and folks who fall outside the boxes of DC’s standing scene won’t ever find home again. It just means we have to decide how to build it, how to sustain it, and how to make someone else show up.
“You can’t be all things to all people,” White said at the end of her interview. “Maybe there are iterations of The Planet that work somewhere, but it’s hard for a single business to do a good job at being a bar, a cafe, a venue, and a community gathering space, and maybe we shouldn’t be asking for all of that from the same location, since it usually seems to result in the location being a pretty shitty version of each of those things. I dream of a day when every city could have lesbian bars with no cover, good music, and a decent happy hour, and also have a feminist bookstore where poetry readings happen, and queer women owned cafes and restaurants that don’t have to be a part of any of those other things.”
“To tell you the truth, it is hard to say what is next,” Alex told me. “We have no choice but to keep doing what we’re doing. That sounds more serious than it may be, but we live in a city where at least eight gay or gay-owned bars have closed or been put in limbo in the last two years. That is a very serious and alarming pattern. I love my city and I think we have it better than many other cities, but we need these places. We always have and we always will.”
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in my research,” Carnes told me, adding that she wanted to end her interview on a positive note, “it is that in the face of systemic inequities, homophobia, sex negativity, harassment, the threat of job loss, death — we find places to be ourselves. We’ll make spaces our own under the worst of circumstances, even if just for a few hours. People risk it because that’s how important it is to us to find one another, to feel human, to feel desire and love and express it openly without shame… I am mindful of the resilience of our communities, the unwillingness to accept the message of the city, that there’s nowhere we belong. History tells us that’s not true. We’ll find each other, no matter what. “
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