Everything’s Bigger in Texas — Even the Lesbian Bars

all photos by Madison Truscan

The largest lesbian bar in the country and the oldest lesbian bar in the South has been running in Dallas, Texas since 1989. When people think of Dallas, they think of the Cowboys, fried food, or maybe Big Tex, the 55-foot cowboy statue whose head caught on fire a few years ago. But if you’re LGBTQ, you might know — and you should know! — that Dallas has one of the most vibrant and historic queer scenes in the country. One of the first gay bars in the country, Club Reno, opened in Dallas in 1947. The LGBT newspaper Dallas Voice has been published weekly since 1984, the first and largest LGBTQ church, Cathedral of Hope, started in Dallas in 1970, and the first Dallas gay Pride parade was held in 1972.

OAK LAWN in Dallas, Texas
Oak Lawn, a gayborhood in Dallas.

In 2018, Dallas was the first city in Texas to receive an official Texas Historical Commission subject marker to acknowledge gayborhood Oak Lawn’s longstanding history as an LGBTQ community. Oak Lawn, which won Out Traveler’s award for Best Gayborhood in the country in 2014, is home to Cedar Springs Road — aka “the strip,” “the block,” and “The Crossroads,” a stretch of numerous iconic LGBT-owned businesses, restaurants, bars, and clubs. In the late 1960s, Caven Enterprises opened several LGBTQ venues on the block, and queer Texans flocked to the area. By the 1980s, Oak Lawn’s businesses were almost entirely gay-owned and catered directly to the gay community. With the advent of the AIDs crisis, Oak Lawn became a place not only to socialize but to organize politically and to distribute health resources.

Caven Enterprises currently owns and operates five long-running, iconic venues in the Oak Lawn area: Jr’s, TMC, Station 4, the Rose Room inside S4, and Sue Ellen’s, the aforementioned largest lesbian bar in the country and longest-running lesbian bar in the South. As a queer Dallas native, I have spent many weekends at the strip: Roy G’s for brunch, Out of the Closet for thrift shopping, the Rose Room or Hamburger Mary’s (or both!) for unbeatable drag shows, then off to Round-Up then Station 4 for dancing. But my favorite place is Sue Ellen’s.

A sign at Sue Ellen’s.

Before developing my Oak Lawn weekend routine in my twenties, I used to go to the block as a teenager. The Rose Room used to do 18+ nights, so I would head out to Cedar Springs Road to see drag shows. I was misinformed that Sue Ellen’s also had 18+ Fridays, so one night, my friend and I just waltzed in. We were there only briefly before the bouncer noticed us. She kicked us out immediately, telling us we were banned from the premises. I would have been more careful if I had known there were only 16 lesbian bars in the country at the time! There are 33 lesbian bars open now according to Lesbian Bar Project, but those stats aren’t much better. I couldn’t afford to get banned from 50% of the lesbian bars in Texas.

But years later (when I was 21+), Sue Ellen’s welcomed me back. It quickly became the place for my friends and me to grab happy hour drinks on the patio, sing karaoke, and go dancing.

Sue Ellen’s is the oldest lesbian bar in Texas, the second longest-running lesbian bar in the nation, and one of the core five “party at the block” bars. And, of course, it’s massive, with a dance floor, a stage, pool tables, and two patios. Everything’s bigger in Texas!

The interior of Sue Ellen’s two floors during their trivia night event
The interior of Sue Ellen’s two floors during their trivia night event.

Recently, I sat down with the founder of Sue Ellen’s and a few of the current managers of the iconic institution. Kathy Jack founded the bar and has been involved with Caven Enterprises since the 80s. Mindy Robbin and Nikki Hart are the current managers of the bar and have been working there for 22 years and 11 years, respectively. Tracy Nanthavongsa, the director of marketing and technology for Caven Enterprises, joined us as well. We met for the interview at Sue Ellen’s itself; a fitting choice for a venue that I would learn serves as quite the multipurpose community space.

Kathy Jack at Sue Ellen's
Sue Ellen’s founder Kathy Jack.

Jack worked for Caven Enterprises when she founded Sue Ellen’s, and “there were a lot of women coming down to the block because it was the place to be… but there was no place [for women] to go dancing.” The process began in 1987, and Jack was “the squeaky wheel” until the bar finally opened two years later. “We opened in January of 1989, specifically the 19th at 7:05 p.m.,” Jack says, laughing at her own specificity.

Sue Ellen’s is named after the character from the TV show Dallas. The character’s on-again-off-again love interest is JR, and the bar next to Sue Ellen’s on the strip is JR’s Bar and Grill.

The evening Sue Ellen’s opened, there was a line around the block the entire night. Enthusiasm remained high after the first night; the bar was an immediate hit. “Everyone said no one would come; we had to expand five months later,” Jack says. When the bar opened, it was 4,000 square feet. Now, after multiple expansions, the bar has tripled in size. “This bar is a staple now, not just in Texas, but in the country,” Jack says.

Sue Ellen’s is an integral part of the Party at the Block bars on the strip. Party at the block means “you park once and party all night long,” as Jack puts it. “The Crossroads” is “the place where people go to have a good queer time” and “if you fly in and you want to go… to a gay bar, this is where they bring you,” she adds. I know this to be true. A few months ago, a friend of a friend was visiting Dallas and asked me what the queer scene was like. I described my Oak Lawn night out routine: drinks at Sue Ellen’s, drag show at the Rose Room, dance at Round-Up, and end the night at Station 4. He later told me he followed that plan and his gay Dallas night out had been perfect.

When I ask Jack and the Sue Ellen’s team if there are challenges to keeping a lesbian bar open in Dallas, I receive a resounding “no.”The bar has always had an audience of queer people frequenting its doors to play pool, dance, sing karaoke, make new friends, and meet new lovers (and see former lovers, of course).

The bar’s early years took place as the AIDS crisis loomed. In the 1900s, the queer women patrons of Sue Ellen’s worked to support those impacted by the crisis. Three of the women who worked for Caven Enterprises started HOTS, Helping Others To Survive. Jack tells me, “We’d give money and do benefits. These were mostly women and drag queens, who did all that for the guys.” This began a legacy of Sue Ellen’s and the other Caven bars not only being places to gather for entertainment but being places to organize and to work together politically.

The original staff of Sue Ellen’s posing in the early 1990s
The original staff of Sue Ellen’s posing in the early 1990s.

Since the 80s, gay men and women in Dallas have worked together. Which is “unusual,” as Jack explains. “Some of the bigger cities….they don’t party together, and they don’t work together. But we’ve always been different, because that was the only way we were going to get through the 80s and 90s, with everybody that was leaving us. We’ve always been that way. We’ve always had each other’s backs.” This was helped by much of the block being run by Caven — everyone really does work together and party together. “And I’m glad to see that even now, it’s still that way,” Jack adds. Robbin agrees: “We’ve been welcomed in.”

“When we first opened Sue Ellen’s, I had a lot of customers because I’d worked next door at a predominately men’s bar, and I would be standing outside of Sue Ellen’s and they would walk by, I’d say hey Judd, Jeff, Garret, come on in! And they’d be like, we don’t go to lesbian bars. But that quickly changed. They realized, we just want everybody to have a good time,” Jack tells me.

In the 2000s and early 2010s, Robbin, Hart, and Nanthavongsa joined the Sue Ellen’s team. Sue Ellen’s had bands playing five nights a week back then. “Sue Ellen’s was a live music hotspot,” Nanthavongsa says. It was in the mid-2010s that the venue became more of a nightclub space on the weekends. “We embraced our nightclub-ness,” Robbin says. They leave space for quieter events in the upstairs area, where there is a stage and a second patio, and they still have live music on Sundays.

Nikki Hart at the Joy Bar.
Sue Ellen’s manager Nikki Hart at the Joy Bar.

Sue Ellen’s has always been a political gathering space for LGBTQ Texans and their allies. “Bars have always been gathering space for… protest,” Nanthavongsa says. The Crossroads community is not just about LGBTQ people enjoying nightlife; they want queer people to enjoy their whole lives. Caven as an entity works to impact politics directly, such as when they lobbied in Austin for trans and drag rights. They also encourage charities and nonprofits to use their space. They often host political gatherings in their bars, just like in the 90s. During his run for governor of Texas, Beto O’Rourke hosted a well-attended “Get Out the Vote” rally at Sue Ellen’s. “We host tons of charity and nonprofit events. We’re not regular bars, we provide the space for [nonprofits], we don’t charge them, they come in and do their meetings,” Nanthavongsa explains. “We have democratic rallies here all the time. Everything’s free. It’s like a community center,” Robbin adds.

This bar is “family,” Robbin tells me. The Sue Ellen’s team comprises people who have spent huge chunks of their lives dedicated to this community center.

Mindy Robbin posing with a photo of her and the rest of the Sue Ellen’s staff in 2003.
Sue Ellen’s manager Mindy Robbin posing with a photo of her and the rest of the Sue Ellen’s staff in 2003.

The staff speaks fondly of Joy Gordon, the first bartender Jack ever hired. Gordon got the job when she was in her late 50s and worked at the bar until her 70s.

“She always had a line and none of the other bartenders had a line. I thought, is she just that slow, that she can’t keep up? Or is she overpouring and everybody wants a drink from her because it’s going to be stronger? The answer is, well, she always had a joke to tell. She was a jokester. And none of them were super funny,” Jack says.

“I loved them,” Mindy interjects.

“She made everybody laugh. But also, she was overpouring,” Jack concludes. Everyone at the table laughs. Jack goes on to say she let Gordon go, but only a few days later Jack hired her back as long as she promised to stop overserving customers. Jack told Gordon, “Overpouring serves no purpose!” This became Gordon’s mantra.

Joy Gordon passed away a few years ago, but the upstairs bar, Joy Bar, is named after her. On the wall are many of her sayings, including, “Overpouring serves no purpose!”

“Her pictures are huge on the wall, she’s not going anywhere,” Robbin says. The affection this team has for each other and for everyone who has been a part of Sue Ellen’s is palpable.

Joy Gordon’s photos on the Joy Bar wall
Longtime Sue Ellen’s bartender Joy Gordon’s photos on the Joy Bar wall.

The last decade has seen a lot of change for Sue Ellen’s as they welcome in a younger crowd. Lesbian bars are changing “as far as embracing the queer community, the trans community. That’s going to take us into the future,” Hart tells me.

“We’ve opened our doors, it’s not just women in here. It never really has been, but now they’ve found a home here, a lot of the queer community and the trans community. We’re just going to keep growing with them… We’re catering to them as much as we can,” Robbin adds.

A few days after sitting down with the Sue Ellen’s staff, photographer Madison Truscan and I headed to Sue Ellen’s on a Thursday to chat with patrons and witness their “beer pong” tournament. Sue Ellen’s is a favorite of Truscan’s, as well. “My friends and I love going out in Oak Lawn. And we have a routine. We start at Sue’s… you take photos in the photo booth because that’s what they’re known for, that’s why we come here, dance a little bit…. It’s my favorite spot in Oak Lawn,” Truscan tells me. Everyone has to have their Oak Lawn routine!

For around eight years now, Sue Ellen’s has had weekly beer pong tournaments. But it isn’t just regular beer pong; the cups are giant red trash cans, placed in triangles on the dance floor, and the ping pong balls are volleyballs. The tradition began when the Sue Ellen’s staff set up the game outside during a music event. “People played it all day long, it was the biggest hit. So I said, ‘We’ll have to do this again sometime,’” Jack says. “Mindy said, ‘No, we have to do it all the time!’ … I’ve never seen it anywhere else. It’s a lot of fun.”

beer pong at Sue Ellen's
Beer pong at Sue Ellen’s.

As players were eliminated round by round, I chatted with a few of Sue Ellen’s regulars about what they love about the bar.

Mindy Robbin behind the main Sue Ellen’s bar.

Regular Karan Gibson has been coming to Sue Ellen’s for more than 20 years. “The biggest thing is the friends I’ve made along the way,” Gibson says. “My favorite part is I get to come in here and play the jukebox, be the DJ for a little bit! I’m playing this music now.”

When Lala Honeycut first moved from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 19 years ago, she didn’t know many people in Dallas. She went to Sue Ellen’s one night and met Robbin on the dance floor, who introduced her to everyone in the bar. Honeycut has been coming here ever since. Honeycut has many favorite parts of Sue Ellen’s: “The staff, the customers that are regulars that come here and support us… The fact that people enjoy beer pong! And happy hour!”

 Kathy Jack, Lala Honeycut, and Karan Gibson
Kathy Jack, Lala Honeycut, and Karan Gibson at Sue Ellen’s.

“This is a home away from home,” says patron Charlize Baker. “My friends are here. This is a second family, you come in, they know you. You feel comfortable here. It’s just a very welcoming environment… There’s a history here, you can feel it when you walk in…It was scary coming out later in life. I felt right at ease when I first walked in here, in a space I had never been in before. To have that in these walls here, that has a value to this community you can’t put a price on.”

Charlize Baker and Marcia Garcia at Sue Ellen's. // Photo by Madison Truscan
Charlize Baker and Marcia Garcia at Sue Ellen’s.

I spoke with regulars Bama Blackwell and Chris Nelson as well. “I come to Sue Ellen’s because I feel welcome here. People are like, oh you’re a gay man and you go to Sue Ellen’s? Yes, it’s a lesbian bar, but everybody loves me, and I love everybody!” Blackwell says.

“The vibe here is so different from the strip. The strip is all welcoming, but there’s something special about Sue’s…We’ve been playing trash can beer pong here for several years… And the patio is so fun to watch people go by,” Nelson says.

“And say, ‘Hi gays!’ when they walk by,” Blackwell adds.

Before I left Sue Ellen’s that evening, I did indeed witness Blackwell calling out, “Hi gays!” to a group of friends walking to the strip. The friends cheered and waved back.

With each regular I spoke to, the warmth of this community became clearer. Sue Ellen’s is a home away from home for many and has been for decades.

Bama Blackwell and Chris Nelson on the Sue Ellen’s patio.
Bama Blackwell and Chris Nelson on the Sue Ellen’s patio.

Later in the evening, Truscan and I were watching the beer pong tournament when Honeycut called us back to the bar, saying, “Girls, come do shots with us!”

Honeycut and several of the other regulars insisted I try the “signature Sue’s drink.” It is essentially a vodka Red Bull called “The Nerd” because it tastes so much like the candy. Robbin prepared the drinks for us, dropping shot glasses of vodka into beer mugs of Red Bull. The sugary yellow drinks didn’t look too intimidating until Honeycut informed me we would be drinking the full glass all at once, as fast as we could. I quickly learned these candy-flavored drinks were strong. Honeycut finished her drink well before me, then looked on with amused concern. The crowd of regulars cheered me on for a “good effort” even though I couldn’t quite finish the full drink.

So, what does the future of Sue Ellen’s look like?

“Lesbian bars are disappearing off the face of the Earth,” Robbin tells me. “One of my goals is to make us important enough to help and collaborate to get [lesbian bars] back up off the ground. With leadership, that’s the only way I know how to do it.”

“Different parts of the community are coming up with their own things, and I am trying to personally make sure that they all meet each other,” Robbin continues. “That we don’t have six different groups growing when we can have one huge bunch growing.”

“It’s been a great run and, as I say to everybody, I hope it’s here for another 35 years,” Jack adds.

“It’s very important that we don’t die,” Robbin tells me emphatically.

“I felt this when the marriage act passed…” Jack begins. Each of the staff members of Sue Ellen’s nods.

“That is a good memory,” Robbin says, and everyone agrees.

“We had such a great night and I saw people I hadn’t seen in 20 years. It was a time when everybody just came together. There’s always going be a place for a lesbian bar and there’s always going to be a place for gay bars, just because it’s a safe space,” Jack says. “I don’t care if you’re 20 or 66 like I am, you’re always going to feel safe when you come into one of these bars.”

The iconic Cedar Springs Road rainbow crosswalk.
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Audrey Black

Audrey Black is an NYC-based writer and comedian. Originally from Dallas, Texas, she now resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Audrey has written 1 article for us.


  1. I’ve been to Sue Ellen’s a handful of times for queer karaoke when I visit my partner, and it’s clear how special a place Sue Ellen’s is. Love this interview!

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