The LGBTQ community has been fighting for their rights for years. However, among its factions, queer women still remain one of the most marginalized individuals in the community. While homosexual men have slowly attained certain freedoms, Transgender women, black women and lesbians still have many hurdles to climb. In particular, lesbian bars throughout America have suffered tremendously throughout history. Even today, they struggle to stay open.
In an effort to support the importance of these bars, Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria launched The Lesbian Bar Project, a grassroots-fundraising-turned-documentary-film-project, to support the few lesbian clubs that have survived. The project especially commended the bars that weathered through Covid-19. According to the website, an estimated 200 lesbian bars existed in the US during the 1980s. At the time of publication, the project reported that only 21 establishments existed.
During the novel pandemic, however, that number has since decreased. Several bars took a huge financial loss in 2020, but lesbian bars were hit the hardest. NBC News reported only 16 lesbian bars still remain active in 2021. Even during the time of vaccination distributions and reopening of businesses, many lesbian bars are still struggling to keep the lights on.
Though, there’s several reasons why lesbian bars are becoming such a dying breed in America. Many attribute the extreme raise in building rents due to gentrification being the main cause of shutdowns. The system was specifically designed to make it nearly impossible for women to acquire the financial support to open and run a successful business.
Back in 2020, Philadelphia’s last remaining lesbian bar, the Toasted Walnut, closed its doors. The bar had been active since 2016. The owner, Denise Cohen told NBC News in 2020, that even after closing the doors to Toasted Walnut, “she still owed $11,000 in rent every month.” It’s no wonder that lesbian bars are dwindling at such a high rate.
Additionally, the lack of inclusivity of other sexual identities tarnishes the businesses of most lesbian bars. In fact, some of the earliest establishments suffered a great deal for their blatant racial discrimination of black queer women. Back in 2020, The Lesbian Bar Project released a 20-minute documentary film that details the history and importance of lesbian bars.
Though, the film didn’t turn a blind eye from the darker side of some of the first queer women bars. The documentary featured popular Manhattan, lesbian haunt, Bonnie & Clyde, which shut its doors forever to the public in 1982. In particular, their discriminatory policies limited the number of Black women who could enter, thus leading to their shutdown. More importantly, it highlighted a major issue that still exists today for many lesbian bars.
Only a small percentage of bars are working towards inclusivity, but it’s the effort that counts. Some bars have decided to stray away from just posing as an exclusive “lesbian bar.” Instead, their working to make their venues more inclusive not only for black queer women, but also bisexual and transgender women.
Another major reason why lesbian bars are losing business is because of the simple advancement of technology. Back in the day, meeting a potential love interest consisted of going out to a fancy restaurant or meeting for drinks. Now with the abundancy of dating apps to choose from, people are less likely to frequent the usual bar up the street. This also includes queer women, who’ve turned to dating apps rather than going on blind dates.
Though, despite the harsh challenges lesbian bars have been faced with, they’re still pushing on. In spite of the novel pandemic, lesbian bars like “Walker’s Pint” in Milwaukee, “Wildrose” in Seattle, “Gossip Grill” in San Diego, “My Sister’s Room” in Atlanta and “Lipstick Lounge” in Nashville, Tennessee have kept the lights on. In particular, married couple Rachel and Shelia Smallman, who are owners of “Herz” in Mobile, Alabama fought through their own personal storms to keep the bar going. During The Lesbian Bar Project’s documentary, the couple discussed how their bar has acted as a safe haven for them.
Additionally, the New-York based filmmakers behind The Lesbian Bar Project documentary, Elina Street and Erica Rose, discussed their mission to dispel the idea of lesbian bars going extinct in America. With their 2020 documentary, the filmmakers strived to signify their importance of these bars to an oppressed community.
“So much of how we talk about queer space and lesbian space is through trauma, disappearance and alarm. We thought it's really important to show people who are actively trying to open space and hope for the future,” Rose said in the documentary.
Luckily, lesbian bars are getting the help they need. Recently, The Lesbian Bar Project documentary completed a fundraiser where they were expected to raise over $200,000 during Pride month of this year. Now it looks like international dating app Hinge is picking up the tab.
In the month of August, the dating app seeks to donate $50,000 stimulus payments to lesbian bars. An even bigger plus, the app encourages its LGBTQA+ users to pay the bars a visit. Hinge has partnered with The Lesbian Bar Project to educate the community about the importance of LGBTQA+ bars. With the help of the fundraiser, it will identify which bars require the most financial help and spilt the stimulus money equally between them.
Hopefully, Hinge and The Lesbian Bar Project can encourage other organizations to chip in and help bring back lesbian bars.
Watch the Lesbian Bar Project Documentary Below: