“I remember a space I never knew existed,” says comedian, actor and butch lesbian icon Lea DeLaria (“Orange is the New Black”). “A space rooted in love, and history.”
Her narration plays over a ninety-second public service announcement made up of both archival photos and videos, and recent footage, released last month by a campaign called the Lesbian Bar Project. Neon lights dance across the grinning faces of bar patrons through the decades as they embrace one another, and themselves, in rooms and streets so full of joy that it’s palpable even through the screen.
“I remember the lost spaces,” says DeLaria, as the PSA pays tribute to the scores of lesbian bars that have been shuttered over the years—places like The Palms in West Hollywood, Lexington Club in San Francisco, and Kooky’s, Bonnie & Clyde, Ariel, and too many others in New York City to name.
Since the 1980s, the number of lesbian bars across the United States has been in decline. At one point there were an estimated 200 nationwide, but bars catering to women, and those for queer people of color, are closing at rates up to 20% higher than even other gay bars. At the start of 2020, there were just sixteen lesbian bars left —and in a circumstance becoming increasingly familiar to small business owners across the country, one has already been forced by pandemic-related financial strain to close its doors.
Lesbian nightlife always has been, and always will be, tenacious and ever-evolving. Many themed parties have sprung up in recent years, more versatile and flexible than bars, and dazzling in their own right. Nonetheless, the absence of more permanent spaces, and the history they hold, is deeply felt.
One such space is the Stud, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar. The Stud was founded in 1966 and was known not only for its vibrant atmosphere and iconic drag nights, but also for the enduring community it has been home to. Over the decades, including during the White Night Riots of 1979, and throughout the AIDS epidemic, people have gathered on the sticky floor of the Stud to party, to grieve, and to organize.
The Stud has changed hands and locations more than once, and when rising rent made its future uncertain in 2016, a collective of LGBTQ artists and performers came forward to rescue the space and form the first nightclub co-op in the country. This June, however, with lockdown dragging on and the building expenses mounting, the collective was forced to announce the club’s closing. The Stud had a proper 2020 send-off, in the form of a virtual drag show, and the collective has already begun searching for a new venue. For the time being, though, the Stud is yet another queer space relegated to history.
The Lesbian Bar Project is hoping to deliver the bars that still remain from a similar fate. The group’s public service announcement, co-directed by filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, is part of phase one in their plan to preserve the sapphic splendor of lesbian bars for future generations.
For their purposes, the Lesbian Bar projects defines a lesbian bar as one that prioritizes “creating space for people of marginalized genders; including women, non-binary folks, and trans men,” a mission that’s as inclusive of modern crowds as it is true to the storied history of lesbian bars and those who have frequented them. Over the years, these spaces have been havens of acceptance and community, in particular when compared with the at times overwhelming whiteness and cisness of bars more geared toward a clientele of gay men.
They have also served as hubs of political organization. In this vein, the group’s PSA seeks to remind viewers of the spirit of activism and protest that is intrinsic to the lesbian community, and the LGBTQ community as a whole. “I remember that pride began as a riot,” says DeLaria, and protest footage rolls, including a clip from this past summer’s 15,000-strong Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn, NY.
“Losing just one more of these cherished spaces has devastating consequences for queer people in this country,” says Rose.
As Street describes, the goal of the project is to not only highlight the bars and “cherish the memories of the lost spaces,” but to, “project a future of hope and sustainability within our community.”
In the United States, most small businesses are owned by men—bars, even more so. There’s something lovely and right about Rose and Street, two queer women in the traditionally male-dominated industry of filmmaking, working to bolster these equally rare spaces.
The project’s fundraising website launched on October 28th, in conjunction with Jägermeister as part of their #SaveTheNight initiative to support nightlife through the pandemic, and non-profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas. The project is produced by Lily Ali-Oshatz and Charles Hayes IV, and executive produced by DeLaria, and The Katz Company.
The Lesbian Bar Project, striving to preserve many facets of queer life, also hosted virtual events throughout the month-long fundraising campaign. These included a roundtable discussion, in partnership with Rockland County Pride Center, featuring Roxane Gay and Rosie O’Donnell alongside narrator DeLaria; and a virtual version of the comedy show and podcast Dyking Out, which included Leo Sheng, Sydnee Washington, Ali Clayton, Emma Willmann, Cameron Esposito, Rita Brent, and Mary Lambert.
And there’s more in store. Those gearing up for the dark, socially-isolated binge-watching season ahead will be glad to hear that the next phase of the project, currently under production, involves plans for an episodic docuseries seeking to explore the history and cultural significance of lesbian bars in the United States. Rose said of the project, “I want to use the power of filmmaking to illuminate the rich history…and provide an opportunity for Lesbian Bars to tell their stories.”
And if you’re eager to learn more about the rich present of the 15 venues still open, the Lesbian Bar Project website includes further information about each of the remaining lesbian bars, including a map that shows them scattered across the country like sparse beacons, and photos and statements from their owners.
Rose and Street, both in New York, are longtime supporters of their own local lesbian bar, Cubbyhole. “I like to say that Cubbyhole knew I was gay before I did,” says Rose.
Lisa Menichino, owner of Cubbyhole, shares that, “3/16/2020, due to the pandemic, was the first time we closed in 27 years. We cannot allow ourselves to become an invisible minority,” Menchino goes on. “We must continue to have a presence. We have to find a way to survive.”
Between October 28th and November 25th, the Lesbian Bar Project raised $117,504.50 toward that goal of survival.
“We are elated, and the amount raised definitely exceeded our expectations,” say Rose and Street. “The goal was not only to raise money and give immediate financial support, but to garner visibility for these vital institutions that are disappearing at a staggering rate.”
And in keeping with the proud tradition of dyke nightlife, the bars are already rising to the occasion. “Lisa Cannistraci of Henrietta Hudson is reimagining her space and turning it into what she calls a ‘European Café’ experience,” shared Rose and Street. “Many are galvanizing the support received from the campaign to do their own virtual events, like Jo McDaniel of A League of Her Own D.C. who plans to host conversations with local queer activists and artists as part of an on-going series.”
The great thing about virtual events? You can attend them from anywhere. It’s impressive, but not at all surprising when you consider the history these bars come from. With the funds raised by the project, the bars will be able to not only maintain, but expand the communities that depend upon them, and give them their core. As Rose and Street put it, “The women behind these bars are hustlers and innovators.”