If you’re lucky enough to have a gay bar in your city limits, it might be that it’s a mixed bag of genders and identities. It might be the only one (or one of very few) that caters to only the LGBT crowd. Even in bigger cities, lesbian-only bars are an anomaly. Sometimes they are short-lived, sometimes they broaden their scope to be more inviting to other patrons so that they have more regular business, and sometimes they’re just unofficial hangouts based on proximity to other gay-owned establishments or neighborhoods.
I love small town gay bars. I love them more than the Chicago gay bars I’ve frequented over the decade I’ve lived in the city. My favorite thing to do while traveling is to hit up the lesbian (or gay, if it’s not big enough for a lesbian-specific) bar and see what it would be like if I lived there. (I really enjoy playing this game with my partner: If you had to pick one person here to date, who would it be? It’s even more fun if you have only three women to choose from that particular night, which can be the case.)
No matter how tiny the bars, or how crappy the music they play may be, I will always love their existence. Going to a foreign place and knowing I can find one bar that will welcome me and make me feel some sense of acceptance is an experience I don’t know I could have anywhere else. But strangely, I visit gay bars when I’m traveling way more than I do in my own city, and this could very well be threatening the well-being of the places where I live, or the places where you live if you don’t happen to frequent he lesbian club nearby.
Out writer June Thomas penned a piece for Slate this week called “The Gay Bar: Is It Dying?” She begins with describing the scene at the Stonewall Inn this weekend after New York passed marriage equality. It’s a legendary place, that’s for sure, but so many bars like it have come and gone over several decades, much like the city’s gay bookstore — the case in a lot of cities.
June explains why a friend of her said she enjoys going to lesbian bars:
to make sure the woman I might be hitting on was in fact a fellow lez. If she were straight, she was on my turf, and it was too damn bad—an occupational hazard of hanging out in a dyke bar.
Obviously lesbian bars create a sense of automatic community, and offer the satisfaction of having women that are most likely all gay (and possibly single) all in one place. So what are the reasons they aren’t surviving? June argues that technology has made it easier to find and meet available partners, without having to survey them first in the wild. Also, she says she’s in a long-term relationship with her partner so she just doesn’t find a reason to go out as much anymore. That’s typically a reason most lesbians would tell you that girl bars don’t survive: We partner up and stay home with our cats.
When NYC’s famous women’s hang Rubyfruit was first on the edge of closing in 2008, owner Debra Fierro said it was due the economy and the changing generations. From a New York Times article:
As one longtime customer, Alisa Wiles, said recently, “A lot of the lesbian crew moved out to Brooklyn.” Or as Jillian Bradley, a 70-year-old veteran of the lesbian nightlife scene who owns a downtown escort service, put it, “Those girls are now dead or on blood-pressure medication.”
In a companion piece to the Slate article, Thomas asked some famous LGBT figures to share stories of their first experiences in gay bars. Writer/publisher Radclyffe shared this tidbit:
The bar patrons were very different from us in their appearance, their comportment, and their ideology. Over the course of my three years at SUNY-Albany, I became a frequent patron of the bar. These women were my community, despite our social and class differences. Ultimately, we came together around the quintessential lesbian activity—softball. I would not give up that experience, despite my fears and the challenges, for anything in the world. When I recently moved back to upstate New York, one of the first things I did was try to find the bar to show my partner. Sadly, it is gone, but the memories of my first lesbian home have not diminished in my heart.
There seems to be a similar sentiment that going to lesbian bars is big part of most coming out experiences — at least it used to be, when more women waited until they were at least 18 to explore the feelings they’d been taught were wrong and unspeakable for their entire lives. But now that we’re in a more-accepting world where some gay events and places can be seen as “too gay” or “so lesbian,” what is a lesbian to do?
Gay bars are a huge part of LGBT history. So many things have happened because of their existence, from the Stonewall riots to famous lesbians meeting their infamous lovers. There are so many stories to be told and things to learn about that took place in lesbian bars, and there could be more to come. In the spirit of your gay ancestors, tip your lesbian bartender (or go-go dancer, because that seems to be the modern day expectation).