For years people have mourned the slow death of the lesbian bar. There are only three left in New York, according to the Lesbian bar project, and less than two dozen in total in the United States. The toll of the pandemic on the service sector has not helped. Many LGBTQ institutions closed to patrons in spring 2020; some never reopened.
But as full service has resumed in bars and nightlife has returned, new pop-up sites have sought to fill the void and reimagine what lesbian spaces are for.
Dave’s Lesbian Bar, a monthly pop-up in Queens, is one of them. For its February event – a Valentine’s Day-themed Heartbreaker Ball on February 12 – more than 1,400 people gathered in the Bohemian Beer Hall in Astoria, which had been adorned with pink streamers, balloons and signs indicating the gender neutrality of each toilet. In the upstairs ballroom, guests sang a cover of Muna’s “Silk Chiffon,” a single about women loving women performed by the pop-punk band pomegranate daisy. Downstairs, several guests chanted “Mule, mule!” as a stylist at Hairrari, a gender-neutral hair salon, cut someone else’s hair.
In keeping with the prom theme, there were tuxedos and prom dresses; Outfits inspired by Princess Diana and cottagecore; and lots of spandex and sequins. Several guests had come from the suburbs for the event.
“It feels so good to see so many queer people hanging out,” said Jordan Chase, 26, who was there with a group of friends from Bushwick. “It’s liberating.”
In the 1980s, the United States was home to over 200 lesbian bars. “It was the only place we could hang out,” Deena Updegraff, 61, who dated many of them in her 20s in Southern California, said in a phone interview. “We could just be who we were, with each other, and not get hit on each other.”
In the decades that followed, LGBTQ people began to live more openly, as social acceptance, legal protections, and general representation increased. Lesbian bars, in turn, began to feel less essential, and attendance dropped as operating costs rose. Lots of closed places.
But even those who came of age in the age of marriage equality still yearn for a sense of community.
“We need a bar like this,” said Erica Butts, a 26-year-old performer who attends Dave’s events. “It’s euphoric, it’s a dream.”
In July last year, Kristin Dausch, a nanny and interpreter in Astoria, announced plans to open a lesbian bar in the neighborhood – a bar that would help promote the work of local musicians, self-help organizations and creators through concerts, fundraising events and pop-up markets. Thus, Dave was born.
The pop-ups rely on the help of volunteers: architects, sound engineers, bartenders. “There’s a queer to do anything,” Mx said. Dausch, 34, who uses the pronouns they and them. Donations from each event are pooled to open up a permanent Dave space, which Mx. Dausch hopes to have raced by the end of the year.
Dave’s isn’t the only place to rely on a pop-up-to-brick-and-mortar model. In Los Angeles, Hot Donna’s Clubhouse hosts monthly events, with the goal of opening a venue this year.
“I envision Hot Donna’s as a place where you can hang out, play games, dance, drink,” Lauren Richer, the 33-year-old founder, said in a phone interview. “It’s more of a haven of peace than a bar or a watering hole. It’s so important to have a community space to come together. She created a Instagram account for the brand in 2020 and quickly started receiving messages from people wanting to support the company.
Izzy Grace, 23, volunteered to read tarot at a pop-up last year and has started building a following through her attendance at Hot Donna events. Nate Gaultieri, a 28-year-old TV writer with no bartending experience, volunteered to pick up ice cream at a rooftop summer event, quickly bonding with the Hot Donna crew, though he be the only male volunteer. At the December holiday market, he even left with a date.
“I feel like I live in ‘The L Word’,” Mr Gaultieri joked.
Hospitality consultant Angie Castellanos joined Ms. Richer as a Hot Donna partner last July. She had come to the industry in the 2000s, when places in Los Angeles like the Palms and the Normandy Room were the epicenter of lesbian life. When the Palms closed in 2013, leaving one of America’s most populous and diverse cities without a lesbian bar, she felt a painful absence.
“Queer people need safe spaces. We need a meeting point, we don’t have one because we are scattered everywhere,” said Ms Catellanos, 40. “You want a place where you can go and be yourself.”
But to make this possible, they will need funds. Ms. Richer estimated that she would need a million dollars to open Hot Donna’s full time.
And those upfront expenses pale in comparison to the ongoing costs associated with running a business. At the turn of the millennium, “lesbian bars couldn’t afford the rent,” Jen Jack Gieseking, who writes a book on the history of lesbian bars, said in a phone interview. “People assigned female at birth generally drink less than people assigned male, and we have less recreational spending.”
Mx. Gieseking added that women usually find partners outside of bars: through activism, volunteering, potlucks. But like Mx. Dausch said the crowds in the few persistent lesbian spaces nevertheless suggest a desire for them, as does the proliferation of pop-ups, including Lesbian Social Detroit, She Life in Miami, Somebody’s Sister in San Francisco and GrrlSpot in New Orleans. .
As You Are Bar, a pop-up bar in Washington, DC that will become a cafe and dance club in Barracks Row, is another up-and-coming venue looking to revive the lesbian bar. “We want to stay away from a capitalist profiteering mindset and take care of people,” said Rach Pike, 36, one of the founders. “We are not trying to get rich, but to protect people.”
At Dave’s event in February, Jane Salvador, 34, was painting her friend’s nails with glitter polish she had purchased from a vendor upstairs. “Lesbian bars are dying out,” she said, “and we need as many of them as possible.”
Ms. Salvador’s friend Kort Lee, 32, agreed. “A lesbian-centric space is really special,” Mx said. Lee. “I am a non-binary trans person and lesbian culture is also vast. There aren’t many social spaces for lesbians, and it’s important to keep this history alive, evolving, and thriving.