The Curious Disappearance of the Lesbian Bar

Henrietta Hudson, New York
Henrietta Hudson in New York

A block away from Ginger’s, one of the last standing lesbian bars in New York, is a massive U-Haul facility. The slogan “Moving Made Easier” is plastered across steel-ridged walls; in the parking lot, empty red-and-white trailers line up in processional rows, auguring a sense of transition and impermanence.

Coincidence? Probably. But the lesbian bar, often owned and run by women, is slowly leaving the nightlife scene in cities across the country.

While New York has the most lesbian bars in the country, with three female-owned establishments — Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole, both in Manhattan’s East Village, and Ginger’s, based in Brooklyn — the number pales in comparison to the 40 gay bars for men currently listed on the travel site GayCities. From a historic perspective, there were more lesbian bars in the 1930s than there are today.

That’s according to queer artist Gwen Shockey, who in 2017 launched an art project displaying locations “that were once lesbian bars, or hosted lesbian parties, or queer parties in the boroughs of New York.” After sifting through hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, and audio interviews, Shockey pinpointed nearly 100 bars over the years, some longer-running than others (you can see a digital map here). The earliest known lesbian bar on the list includes Eve’s Hangout, run by a Polish-Jewish immigrant named Eve Adams in the 1920s, where a sign outside the establishment read “Men are admitted but not welcome.”

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A Nationwide Epidemic

This issue isn’t native to New York. Across America, even in the metropolitan oases of gender fluidity, lesbian watering holes are quickly drying up. The ever-so progressive San Francisco shut down its last lesbian bar, the Lexington, four years ago, and lesbian bars remain sparsely sprinkled across LGBTQ meccas in the South and Midwest.

Academics, researchers and bar owners themselves point to a number of reasons for the dwindling number. While lesbian bars proliferated after World War II, when they served as trysts for LGBTQ people, the birth of the internet in the 1990s spawned the online dating scene. According to Lillian Faderman, author of Gay L.A., women, who always had fewer bars than men, started meeting people digitally and the need for physical, concrete spaces diminished.

But there are other factors too, and a big one is money. We all know women earn less than men — in 2019, women make $0.79 for every dollar men make — but the disparity can be even more pronounced in lesbian women. Based on a recent study by the UCLA School of Law, LGBTQ-identifying individuals suffer economically across the board with higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes, among other categories. Coupled with the obstacles that women business owners face when it comes to access to capital, it can be difficult for female-owned lesbian bars that rely on female customers to stay afloat.

In cities, which tend to be more liberal than, say, rural communities, the demise of the lesbian bar seems counterintuitive. For example, San Francisco has one of the highest LGBTQ percentages in the country, so it would seem that lesbian bars would have an eager and available clientele. The problem, however, is urban gentrification. Techies and creatives, most of whom are well-paid males, have moved in — pushing out a female demographic that doesn’t earn enough or wield enough disposable income to patronize bars.

Lexington owner Lila Thirkfield shared this Facebook message on the closing of her bar:
“When a business caters to about 5% of the population, it has tremendous impact when 1% of them leave. When 3% or 4% of them can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, or the City, it makes the business model unsustainable.”

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A Rainbow Glimmer of Hope

Some cities are bucking the trend. In Washington D.C., two new lesbian bars have opened up in the past year and owners are keeping their fingers crossed for survival. XX+ is owned by Lina Nicolai, who says the name honors the bar as a female-run business (no Y chromosomes here) and the “+” represents all women across the gender spectrum. Her business practices what it preaches — Nicolai hired all women of color on her management team — and together they want to convert the bar into an all-inclusive space.

Though the digital world is rife with dating possibility (so, so many female fish in the sea), many argue there will always be a space needed for women to feel like they can connect with other women. Shockey herself says bars “provide a stable location for community-forming in an otherwise unstable world—for women, lesbians, trans people, and queer people in general. As wonderful as dating apps may be, for a lot of people they exacerbate [that] lack of community.”

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Ahead of Pride Weekend, here’s a list of female-owned lesbian bars across the country:

My Sister’s Room
Owners: Jen and Jami Maguire

Blush and Blu
Owner: Jody Bouffard

Pearl Bar
Owner: Julie Mabry

The Lipstick Lounge
Owners: Jonda Valentine and Christa Suppan

New York City
Owner: Lisa Menichino

Owner: Sheila Frayne

Henrietta Hudson
Owner: Lisa Cannistraci

San Diego
Gossip Grill
Owner: Moe Girton

Owners: Shelley Brothers and Martha Manning

Washington D.C.
Co-owner: Lina Nicolai

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