One of the greatest benefits of being the lesbian daughter of lesbian mothers is that we get to compare notes, obsessively, endlessly, on how our lives have been different because of the generation we came from. In 1981, my mom banged on the one-way mirror at the doorway of Cubbyhole in lower Manhattan, and wasn’t let inside because some man had followed her off the subway.
In 2012, I stumbled drunkenly out of the same bar, arm in arm with my girlfriend, and kissed her on the street for all to see. In my mother’s day, New York’s Christopher Street was a happening gayborhood to which the gay women were occasionally invited; in my day, Christopher Street is a relic, a throwback to the days when the “gayborhood was an idea that meant anything at all.”
You see, for a while, it did. The gayborhood was a place for primarily upper-class white gay men to celebrate their lives. Bars, restaurants, sex shops, health clinics, whole tenements filled with a group who until recently had no access to public space to speak of. The gayborhood was so important, but it was a moment of time. Of course there were women of all races and sexualities; of course there were trans people of color; of course these groups and others were so crucial to making those neighborhoods what they were. They were flawed. They were exclusive. They were the best thing we had at the time.
Now, the very concept of the gayborhood seems tinted with a potent mixture of nostalgia and shame. Something has been lost (specific areas where queer people owned a space like straight people owned literally everything else) but something else has been gained: as society as a whole becomes queerer, as mainstream discourse shifts to include more LGBTQ narratives, we are no longer so ostracized. Straight bars have queer nights; gay bars have ladies’ nights; especially in the cities, many of us no longer have to think twice before taking our lovers’ hand on the street.
Once, we had to have co-ed gay bars, covert operations where a police raid could come at any time, where a man would grab a woman and pretend as hard as he could. The post-Stonewall era gave us a bit more freedom, gay bars and lesbian bars that might have one-way mirrors and secret passwords but that felt more real, more ours. Now, those bars are closing, especially lesbian bars. As it becomes more common to feel safe in any sort of space, as we feel safe dancing with our lovers at any bar or club, we are losing those precious lesbian spaces we had for such a short time.
Should we mourn them? Should we point out that those spaces were primarily for white lesbians anyway, and lamenting the loss of lesbian spaces is a privilege reserved for those few who ever had them? Should we argue that rural and suburban queers desperately need queer spaces near them, and the dissipation of queer communities primarily hurts those marginalized queers we so rarely discuss? These are important questions, each of them with more than one answer. Ultimately, here’s one thing that I know:
I recently moved to a liberal college town in Western Massachusetts, where I’m appalled and bewildered at the lack of lesbian nightlife. My mother and her wife are looking to retire to a lesbian retirement home. When I retire, I will probably want to be surrounded by other lesbians, too. We need spaces just for us. One night a week at a local bar isn’t enough. House parties we organize on the fly aren’t enough. We need our own space. No matter how acceptable we become to the mainstream, we will always want to find one another and celebrate this funny thing we have in common. And it’s on all of us to make sure those spaces exist.
So here’s what I propose: If you’re not about to open your own lady-bar, if that seems a bit out of reach for you, you can still be helping keep gay spaces alive. Start a queer book club, lesbian rock-climbing night, a meet-up group for bisexual unicyclers. I propose that we start a conversation: What do we want our community to look like? Who’s there, and what work do we need to do to make sure they belong? Are there queer synagogues? Queer mosques? Queer cupcake shops? Once we’re really, actively talking about the kind of community we want, it’s easier for each of us to step up and start making it a reality.