America's Lesbian Bars Are Dwindling—This Project Wants to Change That

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On the evening of Friday, March 13—a typically busy night for Manhattan bar owner Lisa Cannistraci—she knew things were about to “get bad.” Her 29-year-old lesbian hotspot, Henrietta Hudson, had survived several New York City crises, including the near depletion of lesbian bars (only three now exist in the entire city, including hers), but the economic and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t be healed by gathering together. Recalling her work fighting AIDS with Act Up in the 1980s, Cannistraci ethically couldn’t keep her bar open during a public health crisis, so she shut down after closing that night, a week before the state mandate to do so. She instructed her staff to apply for unemployment and prepare for a rough road ahead. Henrietta’s—which saw it’s busiest year in 2019—has yet to reopen.

A few blocks down from Henrietta’s, Cubbyhole, has opened its doors once again, with limited outdoor seating and a reservation system that doesn’t quite evoke the spontaneous spirit of stopping in for happy hour and bumping elbows with the likes of Lea DeLaria. At least, that’s how filmmakers and friends Elina Street and Erica Rose felt six months into the pandemic. Recalling one of the last nights they spent together pre-pandemic, at Ginger’s, Brooklyn’s only (and still shuttered) lesbian bar, the two wanted to find a way to protect these 15 or so remaining safe spaces now, and sustain them long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. And so the Lesbian Bar Project was born.

More than a place to drink    

The Lesbian Bar Project’s 90-second PSA, released on YouTube on October 26 and voiced by DeLaria, highlights why lesbian-specific spaces are so important, and why efforts like this project are necessary to save these bars—which rely on community and gathering, rather than takeout food and beverage—to survive.

“Our bars represent so much more than a space to drink,” Street says. “There’s space for dialogue, activism, and meeting friends. When our spaces dwindle, it looks like they’re, we’re, not important—and that’s just not the case.” 

Amid the pandemic, lesbian bars are taking an even harder hit. Take Nashville’s 18-year-old Lipstick Lounge, which shut down in early March after a tornado destroyed the bar’s patio and stayed closed until September, when it reopened, albeit far from the vibrant, feminist space it once was.

“The whole point of what we do is gone,” owner Christa Suppan says. “People come here for friendship, likemindedness, and the familial feeling. What are all these people doing who don’t have family support?” With the bar running eighteen years strong, Suppan considers her regulars and staff family as well, and feels connected to a large network of visitors who, in the past, traveled hours or even internationally to the Lipstick Lounge for a lesbian bar experience.

Now, the bar is open for socially distant Nashvillians, but with all the safety mandates and overall low mood, Lipstick’s appeal is limited, at least temporarily. “It just hurts your heart,” Suppan says. “It’s nice to have that heartbeat back, but it’s sluggish, not pumping.” Her bar, which she hopes will have its PPE loan forgiven, is on life support. And to Suppan, it’s more than a business, it’s a living, evolving piece of queer history.

“I built Lipstick, not just for the community but for myself,” Suppan says. “We needed a safe space to be who we were without judging eyes, and be free to love.” Now, she feels safe being out in major cities, but still makes lesbian bars a destination when she travels, something The Lesbian Bar Project wants to capture in upcoming films. 

Communities worth traveling for

And sure, Elliot Page took us on Gaycation with Viceland. But rarely have real lesbian bars appeared on screen, on travel shows or beyond. The Lesbian Bar Project has its own aspirations for a travel show that introduces the world to the less than two dozen lesbian bars in America like My Sister’s Room in Atlanta and Blush and Blu in Denver. Rose and Street consider the PSA they released a trailer—based largely on archival footage due to travel restrictions—to a larger series that may even go abroad in its second season, encouraging a wider conversation about the importance of lesbian bars, particularly in regions that are not typically thought of as progressive, like the South and Midwest.

“The pandemic has forced us to isolate, separate, and not have collective space, which led us to reflect on why these spaces are so important. We need to preserve them,” Sweet says of her and Rose’s mission, which won’t be deterred even without an end date to the pandemic in sight. 

“What has really been beautiful about [this time], even though we’re not together, we’re more connected [online], and the bars are connected more than ever,” Rose says. Since promoting the last fifteen lesbian bars remaining across the country, The Lesbian Bar Project has learned about lower-profile lesbian bars—including two in Phoenix, plus San Francisco’s Wild Side West and Richmond’s Babes of Carytown—and hopes to keep adding to the list, to help travelers discover and support these safe spaces.

The legacy of both regional lesbian bars, and the efforts of women like Milwaukee’s Walker’s Pint owner Bet-z Boenning, Suppan, Cannistraci and other LGBTQ+ activists to promote them, is vital to those like bartender Meagan Munoz, who works at Walker’s Pint. “It’s an honor to be able work for a person who stuck her neck out, opened a queer space before it was a novelty, because offering a safe space to people was worth the risk,” she says “I will continue to support queer-dedicated spaces as long as they are offered to me.”

The Lesbian Bar Project is working to prolong that timeframe. A November partnership with Jägermeister fundraised to support a list of fifteen bars financially, with donations evenly split between the bars that need support. (Two bars in Texas, Sue Ellen’s and Pearl Bar, have opted out.) Next, Street and Rose hope for more fundraising efforts and awareness of America’s lesbian bars, with the hopes that—in addition to saving the few still in existence—some new ones will open.

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