Queer women tend to look back on our collective history with a mixture of horror and nostalgia. The horror, of course, is for the closet: Women risking their jobs, families, and lives if the straight world found out their secret. But the nostalgia can be located in a place that many of us have never even been: the lesbian bar. It’s dim and smoky, this imaginary bar. It’s a place you find by following the whispers, where butches prowl and femmes slink and you are finally not alone. Its secrecy lends it the glamour of a speakeasy and the defiant glory of a rally. But, as queer women the world over have recently noticed, it’s gone.
One of the first times I visited my current home of New Orleans, I was traveling with a group of queer women and a copy of the classic lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle. We were excited to learn that there was a French Quarter bar of the same name, where we expected to find plenty of like-minded (or at least like-libibdoed) women for drinks and dancing. What we found was a nearly empty bar occupied only by a few hopeful-looking straight men. But a few blocks over, on Bourbon Street, the so-called “Fruit Loop” hosted a never-ending debauch where gay men of all stripes could meet, talk, dance, and hook up. Now, even Rubyfruit is gone, leaving queer women with the question: what happened? Where are our spaces? And who are we without them?
These global questions are getting a local answer from Last Call: New Orleans dyke bar history project. Last Call is an ambitious project that includes performance pieces, a digital archive and—most accessibly to non-NOLA dwellers—a gorgeous and overwhelmingly joyous podcast, the first episode of which can be found here.
It seeks to document the rich history of New Orleans’ dyke bar scene, but in confronting the past, it brings up vital questions about our community’s present and future.
I sat down with two of Last Call’s founders, Rachel Lee and Bonnie Gabel, to discuss the project, our fragmented community, and the debt we owe to the generation of women who haunted these vanished spaces.
AfterEllen: So what is Last Call?
Bonnie Gabel: Last Call is a multifaceted project that is attempting to archive histories and creatively interrogate what was happening in lesbian bars in the ’70s and ’80s in New Orleans.
AE: And how did this idea, that this was something you wanted to document, come to be?
Rachel Lee: So, we have a friend named Alda who I call my dyke fairy godmother. She lives out in Mississippi with her partner of 30 years, Mary Capps, and they love bringing younger dykes into their home, and have sort of a magnetic draw of women coming out from New Orleans and visiting with them and learning the really rich history of feminist activism that they were involved with. They started the first rape crisis center in New Orleans. And so one time when I was out there, Alda was sharing stories about Charlene’s, which was a bar that was open for more than 20 years in New Orleans, and drew people from all over the world, because it was listed in a gay travel guide to the city. She was telling all these great stories about Charlene’s and the scene and what it took for her to get out and go there as someone who grew up in this small town in Mississippi and had never heard the word “lesbian” before she went to New Orleans for college. She just had these great stories and [Charlene’s] was somewhere that I had never even heard of. There aren’t any lesbian bars in New Orleans now.
So I just became fascinated with these places, and Bonnie and I had been talking about doing a queer musical. Well, we’d been thinking about doing a musical about drag kings, and this subject matter came along, and we were instantly put the pieces together that this was the thing we should be researching. And as soon as we asked Alda if she could introduce us to more people who could tell us a few more stories, she pulled out the Rolodex. Suddenly there was a whole roster of people we needed to interview and it became very clear that it wasn’t just a play that we were working on, it was really the history of intersecting communities in these spaces.
AE: What are your plans for the project now?
BG: There’s a lot of different things happening with the project. One is that we just launched our first podcast, and we’re going to be launching 12 more of those over the next year-ish. We’re also going to create a full-length theatrical performance, which will premiere somewhere in the next year, that we hope to perform at some different places and different neighborhoods in New Orleans, and then bring out of New Orleans and to other communities that are also wrestling with this idea of like, how do we connect to the spaces that used to be? What are the spaces now? How do we connect to each other now without spaces? And we’re also doing community events as we go along, so there’s these smaller creative interactions, and there’s also a digital archive we’re creating of all the stories.
AE: When I first read y’all’s subtitle, “vanishing dye bar scene,” I think that rings a bell for everyone in New Orleans because whenever I have queer friends stay, they’re like “What are the gay things to do?” and I’m like “Nothing!” So, what happened? Where did they go? And more specifically, why is there still such a strong and powerful bar scene for gay men?
BG: That’s the million dollar question that we are trying to answer. I think people have lots of different theories. One that we hear a lot is that there’s online dating now. And so you can meet people in a different way. But there’s something that the bars gave that you can’t get from online dating and that’s that they were centers for organizing.
RL: Yeah, there’s a theory that as acceptance has grown and you can be out in more places that there’s not a need for specifically queer spaces, but like you’re saying, there’s tons of spaces for gay men to get together in person, not online. So that doesn’t tell the whole story.
BG: I think the gay male bars [have thrived] versus dyke spaces or spaces for queer women or other people—maybe because it’s harder to run women-owned businesses.
AE: Yeah, I was gonna say, women are already economically marginalized.
BG: Yeah, so dual disadvantages.