This piece was first published in 2016 under the title, “Why We Still Need Lesbian Bars in 2016.”
“What price acceptance?” might be the totem of the LGBT community in the 21st century. The minority community, which is actually comprised of multiple communities, is like any other minority community in the United States determined to garner equal political, social, and economic rights while maintaining its idiosyncratic culture. “Assimilation” is a double-edged sword of cruel optimism: We want to be treated the same and given the same opportunities as others, but we bitterly fear the erasure of differences—cultural differences that establish our communities—in the quest for equality.
The promise of acceptance has transmogrified into a resentment of assimilation, and, for lesbians specifically, a lamentation about the nationwide plague of shuttering lesbian bars. Lesbian bars, like any type of commercial establishment, have come and gone over the years. (The one exception seems to be Henrietta Hudson in NYC, the owners of which, I was recently told by co-owner Lisa Cannistraci, just signed a new 15-year lease.) Call it “gentrification,” or what you will; turnover is nothing new when it comes to business.
Beyond gentrification, lesbians, like those women interviewed in this summer’s viral documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, have rationalized the seemingly en masse closure of America’s lesbian bars and other spaces as a consequence of living in the Digital Age. “I think that the ways that we interact are so different because of the Internet; the ways we can meet each other are very different,” one of the coordinators of the Last Call: New Orleans’s Dyke Bar History Project told Broadly host JD Samson in the documentary. “So, you know, these bars, which functioned as people’s homes, it was like the place they met everyone. You don’t necessarily need that anymore.”
“The Internet has made a profound change in the way that we meet each other,” Rutgers’s professor Arlene Stein corroborated in the documentary. The symptom of the Digital Age that pervades all our lives—gay, straight, or in-between—is that we live our lives in a bifurcated fashion, working daily to erase the seam or tether the disconnect between our virtual selves and our physical selves. Younger generations of lesbians and queer women don’t fully mourn the loss of lesbian spaces because they believe those spaces are found elsewhere online—on social media, from Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to dating sites and apps specific to the lesbian community.
Lesbian bars and similar community spaces for queer women are, however, not just for sex. They are spaces where we can go for safety, for solace, and—especially for those of us disowned by our biological families because of our sexuality or gender identity—for community.
More important for the longevity of a subculture is making sure a community is intergenerational—which does not happen online. In an article at the Daily Dot, for example, actress Jen Richards claims to have never seen “two high femme women together.” If there were more intergenerational lesbian spaces, maybe she’d see a few of these couples, especially considering that in the 1990s lesbian clubs like the Clit Club and Cafe Tabac were overflowing with delicious femme lesbians. Or maybe they’d meet an older lez who’d tell them all about a magical show called The L Word.
That said, there is no doubt that online spaces are critical for LGBT youth who seek community when they are unable to come out at home. These online spaces function as a democratic forum that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into—they are safe havens and sanctuaries especially for those youth not living in socially progressive cities like New York or Los Angeles, who do not have the socioeconomic means to join a community in person.
Yet, online spaces can never be substitutes for the real thing. Virtual and physical spaces are wholly different when it comes to interpersonal engagement. Bodies matter—the presence of bodies affects our emotional registers of empathy, compassion, and intimacy. The durations of our exchanges on Twitter or of our right-swipings on our preferred dating app are short-lived. We immediately move on to the next thing, the next potential fuck.
As I noted in a piece at Quartz, “recent studies have suggested that as we have progressively moved our lives online we have become less empathic. Sara H. Konrath’s 2010 study through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that a statistical decrease in empathy tellingly coincides with a broad ‘increase in social isolation.’” One might conjecture that we see online interactions as temporary, ephemeral, and, therefore, are less likely to participate in online forums and social media with compassion, or thoughtfulness.
There is a quotient of truth to the adages “people are more than they seem” and “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” We certainly cannot create a diverse, rich, intergenerational community without realizing that we as humans fundamentally come to know other humans through all our bodily senses.
Knowledge, intimacy, and community depend on more than sight alone. This is especially true of spaces built around unseen communities; unlike gender, sexuality is not readable (you cannot tell what a person does in bed by just looking at them). To meet online, in the glittering realm dominated by the visual, is simply not enough to sustain and foster a rich intergenerational community.