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A lesbian bar (sometimes called a "women's bar") is a drinking establishment that caters exclusively or predominantly to lesbian women. While often conflated, the lesbian bar has a history distinct from that of the gay bar.
Lesbian bars predate current LGBT offerings such as queer community centers, health care centers, bookstores, and coffeeshops. While few lesbian-specific bars exist today, lesbian bars have long been sites of refuge, validation, community, and resistance for women whose sexual preferences are considered "deviant" or non-normative. They have been spaces for intergenerational community building, where women had the opportunity to come out without being "outed", which can result in the loss of jobs, family, and social status. They could, however, also be sites of intense isolation.
While women have historically been barred from public spaces promoting alcohol consumption, women's saloon presence rose in the 1920s. Prohibition's speakeasies allowed women to drink publicly more freely. San Francisco's Mona's 440 Club, opened in 1936, is widely cited as the first lesbian bar in the United States. In the 1950s, bars began to emerge for working-class lesbians, white and black. Very characteristic of these (often referred to as "Old Gay") bars was binary heterosexist models of coupling and an enforcement of a (white) butch/femme or (black) stud/femme binary. Because of a lack of economic capital and segregation, house parties were popular among black lesbians. Lesbians who changed roles were looked down upon and sometimes referred to as "KiKi" or "AC/DC". There were not, however, alternatives available at this time. Out of this early organizing of lesbians came the Homophile movement and the Daughters of Bilitis.
In the 1960s, with the rise of the gay liberation movement and an increasing identification with the term and identity "lesbian", women's bars increased in popularity. The 1970s saw the rise of Lesbian Feminism, and bars became important community activist spaces.
Policing and backlash
Policing has been a constant for lesbian bars in the US. Some bar owners banded together to fight back against this, collecting funds to defend patrons who had been arrested in raids. Undercover and off-duty police officers have terrorized lesbian bars since their inception. Lesbians could be harassed and detained by the police for publicly gathering in a place where alcohol was being served, dancing with someone of the same gender, or failure to present identification.
Men were often the landlords of lesbian bars, in order to secure liquor licenses and navigate relationships with the police and the Mafia. Bar owners often bribed police to warn them just prior to raids, upon which they would turn on the lights in the bar and lesbians would separate.
As a form of protection, some bars covered their windows, did not have identifying signage, or could only be entered through a back door. Some bar owners tried membership-based models, which heightened security but was also exclusionary.
In addition to drinking, lesbian bar culture has also revolved around community building, dancing, and pool playing. This targeted but not lucrative patronage was not always profitable and caused many bars to shut their doors.
These pieces of history are being lost as the "neighborhood lesbian bar" is increasingly unable to make rent payments, and as gentrification contributes to declining patronage. Gay male bars persist as gay men have more economic capital, and the rise of internet dating culture is displacing the cultivation of intergenerational lesbian communities historically created in lesbian bars. Because lesbian women are more likely to be primary caretakers of children than gay men, lesbian neighborhoods take on a different shape than gay neighborhoods, and as a result, lesbian night life decreases.
Along with the increased mainstreaming of LGBTQ culture, use of the term "queer" for self-identification, instead of "lesbian", has grown among many younger members of the lesbian community; and with the rise in internet dating culture, lesbian-specific bars have become less common in modern times.
Some documentaries about the decline include:
- The Death of Lesbian Bars (focus on Australia).
- The Last Lesbian Bars (2015) (focus on the United States).
There are a few gay-friendly, though not exclusively lesbian, bars today that host "lesbian nights" and "queer women" nights. Current and past lesbian bars include:
Australia and New Zealand
- Sydney (Australia)
Various nights occur regularly in Sydney catering to LGBTQ women.
- Unicorns, created by Delsi the Cat, is a semi-regular party, generally with a warehouse vibe. It also occurs at other locations, such as Melbourne.
- GiRLTHING, described as a 'femme-queer' party, is run by Snatch&Grab monthly, generally at the Imperial Hotel.
- Birdcage was launched in 2012 and generally occurs weekly. It describes itself as, 'Enmore's Queerest Shin-Dig'.
- Barcelona (Spain)
- Daniel's, opened in late 1975, was one of the first lesbian bars in Spain and one of the first LGBT bars in Barcelona. Opened by María del Carmen Tobar, it originally was a bar and billiards room but expanded to have a dance hall. In the early years of the Spanish democratic transition, the police would occasionally raid the bar. Tobar played an active role in making Daniel's the center of lesbian life in Barcelona, sponsoring sports teams and a theater group. The bar later closed, but would be remembered in books and exhibits for its importance in the lesbian history of Spain.
- London (England)
- Candy Bar in Soho, opened in 1996 and closed in 2014. Men were allowed if gay and accompanied by women.
- The Gateways Club was one of the longest-surviving lesbian bars in the world. It opened in 1931 and closed in 1985.
- Houston, Texas
- Chances Bar operated as a predominantly lesbian bar for sixteen years until closure in November 2010.
- New York City
- Bum Bum Bar in Queens opened in the early 1990s and closed in 2018.
- Cubbyhole in Manhattan opened in 1994 and is a predominantly lesbian bar.
- Ginger's Bar (aka "The G-Spot") in Brooklyn opened in 2000.
- Henrietta Hudson in Manhattan opened in 1991 and is the longest-running lesbian bar in the New York City area.
- San Francisco and Bay Area
Others include: 12 Adler Place, Amelia's, Anxious Asp, Artist's Club, Beaded Bag, Beige Room, Blanco's, Chi-Chi Club, Copper Lantern, Front, Miss Smith's Tea Room, Tin Angel, Tommy 299, Our Club, and Paper Doll.
- The Wildrose was started in the early 1980s by a lesbian collective, and is Seattle's lesbian bar.
- Washington, D.C.
- Phase 1 was the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the United States until its closure in February 2016.
- Last Call at Maud's (1993 documentary about the last evening at a San Francisco lesbian bar)
- Dyke marches
- Save Our Children
- White Horse Inn
- Types of drinking establishment
- Ingram, Gordon Brent; Bouthillette, Anne-Marie; Retter, Yolanda, eds. (1997). "Invisible Women in Invisible Spaces: The Production of Social Space in Lesbian Bars by Maxine Wolfe". Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance. Seattle, WA: Bay Press. pp. 301–323. ISBN 978-0941920445.
- Samson, JD (27 August 2015). "The Last Lesbian Bars". Vice. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
- Burns, Ken; Novick, Lynn (Prohibition) (2011). "Women at a speakeasy bar (Culver Pictures)". PBS. Retrieved 23 March 2017.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "Mona's 440 Club". Lost Womyn's Space. March 21, 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
- Miller, Neil (2006). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York, New York: Alyson Books. pp. 1–100. ISBN 1-55583-870-7.
- Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2003). Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. California: University of California Press. pp. 68–158. ISBN 0-520-20415-8.
- Morris, Bonnie J. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. pp. 189–190. ISBN 978-1438461779.
- Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky; Davis, Madeline D. (1993). Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge. pp. 113–123. ISBN 0-415-90293-2.
- Newton, Esther (2008). "Lesbians in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1999". OutHistory.org. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
- Wolf, Deborah Goleman (1979). The Lesbian Community. California: University of California Press. pp. 7–44. ISBN 0-520-03657-3.
- Shaw, Randy (2015). The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. San Francisco, CA: Urban Reality Press. pp. 1–100. ISBN 9780692327234.
- Stein, Arlene, ed. (1993). Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation. New York, NY: Plume. pp. 39–40. ISBN 978-0452268876.
- Boyd, Dick (Winter 2010). "Before the Castro: North Beach, a Gay Mecca". FoundSF. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
- Adler, Sy; Brenner, Johanna (March 1992). "Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 16 (1): 24–34. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.1992.tb00463.x. ISSN 0309-1317.
- Miriam (June 16, 2010). "What's the Difference Between Lesbian and Queer". Feministing. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
- Obinwanneon, Ashley (April 26, 2018). "Why I'm a Lesbian (Not Queer)". AfterEllen. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
- "The Death of Lesbian Bars". SBS On Demand. 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
- Bendix, Trish (August 18, 2015). "Broadly goes to "The Last Lesbian Bars"". AfterEllen. Archived from the original on August 18, 2015. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
- "Hello". Unicorns. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
- "GiRLTHING". Facebook. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
- "Birdcage". Facebook. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
- Pérez, Beatriz (2018-12-26). "Las lesbianas: tan invisibles, que se libraron de la ley de peligrosidad social". elperiodico (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-04-22.
- Cia, Blanca (20 February 2019). "Pioneras y emprendedoras de la reivindicación de género". El País (in Spanish). Retrieved 22 April 2019.
- "Desconocidas y Fascinantes: 'Poema de Daniela por Lola Majoral'". InOutRadio (in Spanish). 20 April 2015. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
- Gimferrer, Pere Solà (26 June 2017). "Cuarenta años de Orgullo Gay: lo que ha cambiado y lo que no desde 1977". La Vanguardia (in Spanish). Retrieved 22 April 2019.
- Serrano, Marta (24 January 2013). "María Rosón: "El pasado afecta al presente como si de un fantasma se tratase"". MíraLES (in Spanish). Retrieved 22 April 2019.
- Gervat, Claire; Gavin, Francesca (2006). Night + Day London. Pulse Guides. p. 112. ISBN 978-0976601371.
- Gardiner, Jill (2002). From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club 1945-85. Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Pandora Press. ISBN 978-0863584282.
- Swan, Shea Carmen (March 15, 2016). "Bum Bum Bar ReBorn". GO. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- Sackman, Meghan (March 1, 2019). "Bum Bum Bar, Roosevelt Avenue Lesbian Bar, Closes After More Than 2 Decades". Jackson Heights Post. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- "Cubbyhole". cubbyholebar.com. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- Kravitz, Melissa (March 22, 2018). "The World's 9 Best Lesbian Bars". Fodor's Travel. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- "Ginger's". New York. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- Chee, Alexander (November 2, 2018). "Everything Felt Cursed After Carrie Nation Closed". PUNCH. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- "Henrietta Hudson". henriettahudson.com. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- Brownstone, Sydney (June 21, 2017). "My First Time at the Wildrose". The Stranger. Retrieved 23 August 2018.
- Anderson, Melissa (June 21, 2017). "Why Are All The Lesbian Bars Disappearing?". The Village Voice.
- Assunção, Muri (May 19, 2019). "Last call for lesbian bars: the ever-changing nightlife for LGBTQ women in New York". New York Daily News.
- Bianco, Marcie (December 21, 2015). "Why We Still Need Lesbian Bars in 2016". AfterEllen. Archived from the original on August 4, 2016.
- Bianco, Marcie (February 19, 2019). "How Some Lesbian Bars Are Surviving (and Thriving) in 2019". Out.
- Branson-Potts, Hailey (June 4, 2013). "Last call at WeHo's last lesbian bar". Los Angeles Times.
- Burton, Krista (April 14, 2017). "I Want My Lesbian Bars Back". The New York Times.
- Dockray, Heather (April 10, 2015). "New York's Lesbian Bars Are Disappearing: Here's Why Their Survival Matters". Brooklyn Based.
- Edgar, Chelsea (September 29, 2018). "Can Philly Get a Lesbian Bar? Please?". Philadelphia.
- Gordon, Cherie. "A History Of Lesbian Bars In Sacramento". Lavender Library.
- Lang, Marissa J. (October 22, 2018). "Lesbian bars are vanishing all over the country. In D.C., two just opened their doors". The Washington Post.
- Lopez, Graciela (September 29, 2017). "Where are lesbian bars in Los Angeles? Queer women need spaces". Q Voice News.
- Mills, James F. (May 6, 2013). "Remembering LA's Earliest Lesbian Bars". WEHOville.
- Pasulka, Nicole (August 17, 2015). "The History of Lesbian Bars". Vice.
- Paul, Kari (November 14, 2017). "Why the gayest metropolitan areas in America are running out of lesbian bars". MarketWatch.
- SurfTone, Susan (May 22, 2019). "Lesbian Bar Death – What the Loss of Our Spaces Means for Lesbian Culture". AfterEllen.
- V.A. (June 21, 2019). "The Moroccan Village – Lesbian Bars and the Mafia!". Village Alliance.
- Books and journals
- Faderman, Lillian (1991). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231074889.
- Hankin, Kelly (2002). The Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816639281.
- Wolfe, Maxine (1992). "Invisible Women in Invisible Places: Lesbians, Lesbian Bars, and the Social Production of People/Environment Relationships" (PDF). Architecture & Comportement/Architecture & Behaviour. 8 (2): 137–157. ISSN 0379-8585. OCLC 7360243.