Lesbian Bars Are Popping Up Around the Country
For years, people have mourned the slow death of the lesbian bar. Only three are left in New York City, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, and fewer than two dozen total in the United States. The pandemic’s toll on the service industry has not helped. Many L.G.B.T.Q. institutions closed to patrons in the spring of 2020; some never reopened.
But as full service has resumed at bars and nightlife has made a comeback, new pop-up sites have sought to fill the void and reimagine what lesbian spaces are for.
Dave’s Lesbian Bar, a monthly pop-up in Queens, is among them. For its February event — a Valentine’s Day-themed Heartbreaker’s Ball on Feb. 12 — more than 1,400 people packed into the Bohemian Beer Hall in Astoria, which had been decked with pink streamers, balloons and signs indicating the gender neutrality of every restroom. In the upstairs ballroom, guests sang along to a cover of Muna’s “Silk Chiffon,” a single about women loving women, performed by the pop-punk band Daisy Grenade. Downstairs, several guests chanted “Mullet, mullet!” as a stylist from Hairrari, a gender-neutral barbershop, clipped another’s hair.
In line with the night’s prom theme, there were tuxes and ball gowns; Princess Diana- and cottagecore-inspired outfits; and lots of spandex and sequins. Several guests had come in from the suburbs for the event.
“It makes me feel so good to see so many queer people hang out,” said Jordan Chase, 26, who was there with a group of friends from Bushwick. “It feels freeing.”
In the 1980s, the United States was home to more than 200 lesbian bars. “It was the only place we could be out,” Deena Updegraff, 61, who frequented many of them as a 20-something in Southern California, said in a phone interview. “We could just be who we were, with each other, and not get bashed.”
In the decades that followed, L.G.B.T.Q. people began to live more openly, as social acceptance, legal protections and mainstream representation all increased. Lesbian bars, in turn, began to feel less essential, and attendance dropped as operating costs rose. Many spots closed.
But even those who came of age in the time of marriage equality still long for a sense of community.
“We need a bar like this,” said Erica Butts, a 26-year-old performer who attends Dave’s events. “This is euphoric, it’s a dream.”
In July of last year, Kristin Dausch, a nanny and performer in Astoria, announced plans to open a lesbian bar in the neighborhood — one that would help promote the work of local musicians, mutual aid organizations and makers through concerts, fund-raising events and pop-up markets. Thus, Dave’s was born.
The pop-ups rely on the help of volunteers: architects, sound engineers, bartenders. “There’s a queer to do anything,” said Mx. Dausch, 34, who uses the pronouns they and them. Donations from each event are pooled toward opening a permanent Dave’s space, which Mx. Dausch hopes to have running by the end of the year.
Dave’s isn’t the only venue leaning on a pop-up-to-brick-and-mortar model. In Los Angeles, Hot Donna’s Clubhouse hosts monthly events, with the goal of opening a venue this year.
“I envision Hot Donna’s as a place you can hang out, play games, dance, drink,” Lauren Richer, the 33-year-old founder, said in a phone interview. “It’s more of a safe haven than just a bar or a watering hole. It’s so important to have a community space to congregate.” She created an Instagram account for the brand in 2020 and quickly began to receive messages from people who wanted to support the business.
Izzy Grace, 23, volunteered to read tarot at a pop-up last year and has begun to build a clientele through her presence at Hot Donna’s events. Nate Gaultieri, a 28-year-old TV writer with no bartending experience, volunteered to scoop ice at a summer rooftop event, quickly bonding with the Hot Donna’s team, despite being the only male volunteer. At December’s holiday market, he even left with a date.
“I feel like I’m living in ‘The L Word,’” Mr. Gaultieri joked.
Angie Castellanos, a hospitality consultant, joined Ms. Richer as a Hot Donna’s partner last July. She’d come up in the industry in the 2000s, when places in Los Angeles like the Palms and the Normandy Room were the epicenter of lesbian life. When the Palms closed in 2013, leaving one of America’s most populous and diverse cities without a lesbian bar, she felt a painful absence.
“Queer people need safe spaces. We need a meeting point, we don’t have that because we’re scattered everywhere,” Ms. Catellanos, 40, said. “You want a place where you can go and be yourself.”
But to make that possible, they’ll need funds. Ms. Richer estimated that she’d need $1 million to open Hot Donna’s full-time.
And those upstart expenses are insubstantial compared to the continuing costs associated with running a business. Around the turn of the millennium, “lesbian bars couldn’t afford to pay the rent,” said Jen Jack Gieseking, who is writing a book on the history of lesbian bars, in a phone interview. “People assigned female at birth generally drink less than people assigned male, and we have less leisure spending.”
Mx. Gieseking added that women generally find partners outside of bars: through activism, volunteering, potlucks. But as Mx. Dausch said, the crowds at the few lingering lesbian spaces suggest a desire for them nonetheless, as does the proliferation of pop-ups, including Lesbian Social Detroit, She Life in Miami, Somebody’s Sister in San Francisco and GrrlSpot in New Orleans.
As You Are Bar, a pop-up bar in Washington, D.C., that will become a cafe and dance club in Barracks Row, is another up-and-coming venue looking to revive the lesbian bar. “We want to stay away from a capitalistic mind-set of profits and take care of people,” said Rach Pike, 36, one of the founders. “We’re not trying to get rich, but keep people safe.”
At the Dave’s event in February, Jane Salvador, 34, was painting her friend’s nails with glittery polish she’d bought from a vendor upstairs. “Lesbian bars are dying out,” she said, “and we need as many as we can have.”
Ms. Salvador’s friend Kort Lee, 32, agreed. “A lesbian-centered space is really special,” said Mx. Lee. “I’m a trans nonbinary person, and lesbian culture is as expansive. There are not a lot of social spaces for lesbians, and it’s important to keep that history alive, evolving and thriving.”