Lesbian Bar Death – What the Loss of Our Spaces Means for Lesbian Culture

on

The Loss of  the Lesbian Bar – Reflecting on the Past, and Facing an Uncertain Future 

In April/May, I attended Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs and ClexaCon in Las Vegas, both for the first time. The Dinah is a well-established lesbian party – the biggest one in the world, in fact – and ClexaCon is in its second year. Both were an amazing time in different ways, and are different types of events. The similarity is that both are large face-to-face gatherings of lesbians, which doesn’t happen nearly enough anymore with the demise of lesbian bars and club culture.

I came of age as a lesbian in the late 1970’s and 1980’s in Boston and New York City. I was in my late 20’s and 30’s. The centerpiece of lesbian culture was the bars in both cities. Boston had ‘Somewhere’ on Franklin Street and ‘Prelude’ in Copley Square. Both bars were more than just places to dance and hook-up; they were social meccas for lesbians. There were two floors at each with well-worn pool tables. Women talked, found friends, and found comfort among their own.

Reflecting on the Past and The Community We Once Had

In 1980 I became a Special Agent for the FBI and I started my FBI employment in Boston. At the time being gay could get me fired. Homosexuals were deemed security risks and could not be granted the required top-secret security clearance required to be FBI agents. If you made it through the background investigation without being found out, you still went to work every day knowing you would be fired if your sexual orientation became known to the Bureau.

At the time being gay could get me fired. Homosexuals were deemed security risks and could not be granted the required top-secret security clearance required to be FBI agents.

I was afraid to go to bars, and my girlfriend was a great pool player who loved Prelude. One night she said “we’re going.” So down the stairs and up to the club entrance I went. I was nervous and walked up to the bar to get a drink, sure that the FBI would spot me – and that’s just what happened. Another female agent was sitting at the bar right where I had made my way in through the crowd. We looked at each other, laughed and became friends. We even worked cases together.

After I left the Bureau to play rock and roll guitar in the NYC punk clubs I was a regular at Fat ‘Cat’s’ on West 4th Street where Nancy Bell, rumored to be Lilly Tomlin’s former girlfriend, asked me to light her cigarette. It was a big deal. I performed and hung out at ‘Peaches & Cream’ on the upper east side and occasionally at The Duchess in the west village. I can still remember when the Cubbyhole on Morton and Hudson opened for business. On its third night of operation, a woman I met at the Duchess asked me to go to this new bar with her. We hailed a cab and off we went.

We found friends and lovers, and the sense of community was strong. We learned about our history from women like Storme DeLarverie, the drag king who threw the first punch at Stonewall on June 27, 1969, changing your life for the better even if you weren’t born yet.

Cubbyhole was wall-to-wall women, shoulder-to-shoulder and it didn’t stop for years. There were young women, older women, women of all skin colors. And we had fun. The very long line for the restroom was a great place to strike up a conservation. We found friends and lovers, and the sense of community was strong. We learned about our history from women like Storme DeLarverie, the drag king who most likely threw the first punch at Stonewall on June 27, 1969, changing your life for the better even if you weren’t born yet.

The Lesbian Bars Are Gone, So Let’s Hold Tight to the Spaces We Have

In doing some research for this article I found pages and pages on Google with links to articles about the death of lesbian bars. Sadly, it’s true. Most are gone. Dating apps are often pointed to as the reason. The assimilation of lesbians into the straight world is often mentioned. Yes, many straight people are entertained by Ellen and know a lesbian at work or who lives down the street. However, a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I was called a “queer liberal” when I objected to a middle-aged white male cutting ahead of me in line, so I am not sure we are “accepted” by straights universally. You can rest assured I didn’t let it go.

That informal network of lesbian bars gave us a sense of community and connection. The first thing most of us did in a new city was find the lesbian bar because we knew we’d find ourselves. An app just isn’t, and can’t ever be the same.

We’ve lost our lesbian bars and our club culture and we are not better for it because we’ve lost our personal connections to each other. With what is coming our way if Trump appoints the next Supreme Court Justice, or if we find ourselves with President Pence should Trump be impeached, we will need our community more than ever. But where will we find it? That informal network of lesbian bars gave us a sense of community and connection. The first thing most of us did in a new city was find the lesbian bar because we knew we’d find ourselves. An app just isn’t, and can’t ever be the same.

At ClexaCon and The Dinah I felt that sense of community for the first time in a long time. I spoke with women I didn’t know, we exchanged stories, bought each other drinks and had a good time with others like ourselves.

ClexaCon was held at the Tropicana and one had to walk through the casino to get to a small Starbuck’s for morning coffee. On Saturday the line was long with lesbians, and the straight folks who were headed to the casino walked past us, often staring uncomfortably. A young woman was standing behind me in the line. After she got off her phone I was able to engage her in conversation. I pointed out the shocked looks on the straight faces walking by and told her they’ve never seen us in the majority before. She watched for a bit, laughed and agreed.


Susan SurfTone is a surf/rockabilly musician and former FBI agent making waves in the surf rock revival scene. Check out her latest album and come back to AfterEllen for more stories from her incredible life.