The History of Lesbian Bars
As lesbian bars around the country are closing for reasons both financial and cultural, we traced the history of the "no boys allowed" bar scene, from Prohibition and police raids to 90s "lesbian chic."
Image by Kat Aileen
At a San Francisco bar called Peg's Place, "you could wear pants, but not blue jeans. She had a hang-up about that," 88-year-old Jackie Jones says over the phone. Jones hated being told what to wear. "I think they wanted you to be--maybe they call it classy. They didn't want to think they catered to bums or truck-driver types." At Peg's, dancing was restricted to a room with an interior-facing window, so the person playing records "could watch you and be sure no one was touching anybody--prison style." If the owners hadn't paid off the cops, they could lose their liquor license and customers would be dragged to jail for "no visible means of support." It was the 1950s, and these women were lesbians. No dance was worth spending the night in jail.
Over the past 100 years, women have pursued the company of other women through speakeasies, apartment parties, butch-femme dives, lesbian separatist lounges, and queer dance nights. The slim historical record can hardly tell the whole story. But accounts from women like Jackie Jones show lesbian bar life has been as complicated, fraught, and changing as the identities and communities.
In New Orleans, which currently has no lesbian bar, artists are collecting stories and images from the bars that thrived during previous decades. Lauren Tabak and Susie Smith have made a film about the Lexington Club, an iconic San Francisco dyke bar that closed in 2014. For a song in their recent show, "Rocky and Rhoda's Lesbian Past," queer performers Ariel Speed Wagon and Damien Luxe crowdsourced a massive list of lesbian bars; this September, artist Macon Reed also compiled her own list of bars and dance nights for a dyke bar installation at a Brooklyn gallery. Even though Reed is part of a vibrant queer community, she is still "aching for dyke-focused spaces with a link to my elders--physical spaces where I could meet people younger and older."
An exploration of the information we do have turns up colorful names--Maud's, Bingo's, Sisters, Charlene's, Rubyfruit Jungle, The Duchess, Meow Mix--and evocative stories of establishments that can seem like foreign countries. In an era of legalized gay marriage, lesbian talk show hosts, and billboards selling cell phone plans to queer couples, our lesbian ancestors' clandestine and closeted pasts are more fascinating than ever.
Filling the Well of Loneliness
As long as there have been people who are women, some of them have had sex with each other. However, before the 1920s, lesbian socializing was limited mostly to parties and gatherings in private homes; women unaccompanied by men were often labeled prostitutes and refused service in bars or restaurants. Because a lady who wanted to enjoy the company of other ladies had to do this in private, same-sex socializing was possible for rich women and prostitutes, and off-limits to pretty much anyone else.
World War I meant fewer men were around keeping lesbians apart, however. Industrial expansion made it possible for working-class women to get jobs that didn't involve changing diapers or scrubbing floors, and they started moving to cities for work. In the midst of this social upheaval, "women, turning to each other faute de mieux, found they liked sex with other women just fine," wrote historian Lillian Faderman in her seminal history Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America .
Gay gals moved to cities and fell into close primary relationships with other women. Lots of them read Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness , where "invert" upper-class Englishwoman Stephen Gordon loses her lover, Mary Llewellyn, because of social pressure. There were Broadway shows with lesbian themes. Freud wrote that everyone was bisexual. The seed was, ahem, planted.
In bigger cities, saloons started serving food to unaccompanied women. While not all of those women were gay, some of them were, so the saloons became very early incarnations of what we now think of as lesbian bars. Because bars allowed a lesbian to see herself as one of many, rather than a lone, mentally ill pervert, these spaces would become "the single most important public manifestation of the subculture for many decades," according to Faderman.
Women, turning to each other faute de mieux, found they liked sex with other women just fine.
Gay bars in cities like Baltimore and Chicago that mostly catered to working-class whites were often in rundown neighborhoods with little police presence. During the 1920s, middle-class morality that discouraged drinking and socializing in public had little sway over working-class women's lives, and they were more apt to kick up their heels.
But it would be decades before lesbians could safely gather in women-only spaces. Gay men and women needed each other, and early gay bars were not usually single-sex, says Jen Jack Gieseking, a professor of women's studies who has researched lesbian space in New York City. "If the police raided, they danced together," says Gieseking.
Harlem in particular was a destination for wild nightlife. "Queer districts blossomed in black areas with less policing," says Cookie Woolner, a historian who has written about African American queer women in the early 20th century. While white women could go to a bar in Harlem and be relatively safe from exposure, black women risked running into their neighbors. For that reason, they socialized in more private settings--mainly apartment parties.
"Blues music is playing on phonograph," says Woolner, and there would be food, alcohol, drinking, and dancing. Queer blues women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were sometimes in attendance. As they do at events with booze and high spirits, fights occasionally broke out. News reporting on violence during apartment parties was "the only way queer black women would come into the historical record," Woolner explains. This contributed to a prominent stereotype, the "criminal black lesbian."
Getting Off on Breaking the Rules
Prohibition banned alcohol from 1920 to 1933. When alcohol was illegal and bars and speakeasies went underground, people got off on breaking the rules. In the general climate of lawlessness, gay folks had an easier time escaping notice. Lesbian bars, like recreation and leisure more generally, lagged in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, which outlasted Prohibition until the start of World War II, alcohol was more tightly regulated, and many were too broke to party and buy booze.
More women started to think of themselves as lesbians during World War II. Cozy quarters for women who enlisted as nurses or in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps combined with the general absence of men created ideal conditions for sex with other women.
As a teenager in Pensacola, Florida, Jackie Jones knew she liked girls--she'd known since she was five. She'd never heard the word lesbian, but there were books, like the Well of Loneliness, about other women in love. Despite the novel's unhappy ending, it was all encouragement she needed. In the late 1940s, Jones fled her family home for New Orleans as soon as soon as she was old enough to find work.
They didn't want to think they catered to bums or truck-driver types.
At a French Quarter cocktail bar called Tony Bacino's, Jones finally got to hang out with other women. Even though "creepy guys would come around 'cause they think they're going to get a blow job," Jones liked that the Quarter had all types of people. "You didn't have that small-town atmosphere that you did in the neighborhood bar," she says. There were frequent police raids, but Jones never got caught. "I had a sixth sense about what's gonna happen," she explains. "When I saw cops looking in the window, I went out and got a hamburger."
It was still illegal for bars to serve gay men and lesbians. Bar owners who failed to pay off the cops could be fined or lose their licenses. Patrons were arrested for wearing men's clothing or being in "immoral" establishments and sometimes had their photos and names printed in the newspaper. Payoffs and mafia connections usually kept the cops away. But by all accounts, the raids were brutal and regular police harassment left bar-goers paranoid and traumatized.
Butches and Brawls
By the time Jackie Jones moved out to San Francisco to look for work in the early 1950s, the wider American public had grown anxious about homosexuality. Gay men and lesbians were now seen as a group of people to cure, convert, and suppress. Senator Joseph McCarthy worked to blacklist public figures for homosexuality.
Jones says she used to march through the French Quarter in a leopard-print shirt and coonskin cap; she once stopped a priest to ask the time, and he ran away from her. In San Francisco she found that being gay didn't necessarily mean a woman was more open-minded. What Jones calls "professional lesbians"--women who worked as lab technicians, secretaries, or nurses--could be cliquish and looked down on "truck-driver types." She hated that bar owners enforced dress codes to placate the police. "I don't identify with people who are afraid. I'm a citizen of the world," says Jones.
Some historians have argued that virulent anti-gay public opinion helped create solidarity among gay and lesbian people and fostered identity, however marginalized, but this burgeoning sense of community did not necessarily transcend race and class distinctions. With homosexuality getting more attention than ever, homophile organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis sought to promote the image of a "respectable" lesbian or gay man as an educated, employed taxpayer. They distanced themselves from the bar scene, where, to the chagrin of the Daughters of Bilitis and emphatic outsiders like Jones, butch-femme relationships dominated. The organization's newsletter proclaimed that, "The kids in fly front pants and with butch haircuts and mannish manner are the worst publicity that we can get."
When I saw cops looking in the window, I went out and got a hamburger.
In smaller cities, bars were considered lesbian because they were willing to serve gay women, not necessarily because everyone who drank there was gay. In Buffalo, Mardi Gras was a street bar where sex workers could pick up clients, and butches regularly brawled with Johns and other butch dykes. According to Jones, women fought because "they were a bunch of angry women who don't know where to put their anger."
"You could not get a job unless you were a nurse or a secretary, and if you were smart they'd get rid of you."
But women also offered each other unprecedented support. Older lesbians helped younger ones find and navigate the bars, and women built their lives around the butch-femme dyke bar scene.
"For the first time in my life I saw really butch-looking dykes walking around with shirts on and crew cuts, and--it just psyched me right out," a butch named Ronni said of the Mardi Gras in the book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. The book chronicles the lesbian bar culture in Buffalo, New York, where there were fewer raids during the 1950s compared to other cities in the US.
Buffalo's Carousel bar, on the other hand, attracted "upwardly mobile" lesbians who wouldn't be caught dead in the Mardi Gras. They were younger, college-educated, and didn't fight much. In Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, one woman describes the Carousel as "a fancy cocktail lounge" compared to working-class dives and street bars like the Mardi Gras. Most Carousel patrons had professional-class jobs and could enter and exit from a side door that opened onto the alley.
The Birth of the Modern-Day Lesbian Bar
Elsewhere, cops terrorized bar goers throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. In 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a racially mixed crowd of working-class New York City drag queens, gay men, transgender people, and a small number of lesbians fought the police during at attempted raid. The Stonewall Riots are commonly seen as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but they did not happen in a vacuum. Women across the country had been organizing against police raids and discrimination for years.
For some women, lesbianism was the epitome of feminism. It was the most woman-centric way to live. While bars were still the social center for women outside the lesbian-feminist movement--for professional women who were otherwise closeted as well as for outwardly butch and femme women--activists in the 1980s flocked to the streets and to community spaces like the LGBT Center in New York City. Activism in the gay and lesbian community took on a new urgency when queer people organized against AIDS, domestic violence, and hate crimes. For many, bars were secondary to organizing spaces and activist meetings, and the streets were increasingly popular gathering places.
In New York City, debates and arguments over the direction of gay rights and the drive for lesbian separatism started at the Center and trickled into bars like the Duchess, where only women were allowed entry. Men, even gay men, were banned from lesbian spaces, including bars. Transgender women who weren't stealth might also be excluded. The most well-known example of this is the trans-exclusionary "women-born-women" policy at the 40-year-old Michigan's Womyn's Music Festival, which shuttered this year. While many of the lesbian separatist spaces that thrived in the 70s and 80s are gone or keep a very low profile, MichFest, as it's known to many, remained steadfast in its refusal to allow transgender women to attend. This became a lightening rod in the current debate over separatism, in which some cisgender lesbians and other trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS) do not recognize the gender identity of trans women.
"The Sexy Time"
By the 1990s, women craved a reprieve from the ravages of AIDS and the stoic politics of the 1970s and 80s women's movements. They flocked to the Clit Club in New York City's Meatpacking district, " a very mixed space--class, age, race and 'tone.' It was sex positive...the hyper butch-femme could be undone and queer forces re-opened" founder Julie Tolentino told journalist Heather Dockray.
"The sexy time was Clit Club, for sure," recalls Jen Jack Gieseking. There were go-go dancers and porn played in the background. "It was very similar to the ideal kind of gay male space, and women really enjoyed it." Open from 1990 to 2002, Clit Club told New York's lesbian community, "It's OK to be really sexual in the space."
In Philadelphia's Center City gay-borhood, Sisters opened its doors in 1996 and was more casual and worked to attract a wide range of lesbians. An early flier welcomed women wearing everything "from sneakers to high heels." The two-story club sponsored a softball team and hosted karaoke. It had DJ nights on Saturdays and drink specials on Thursdays.
It was very similar to the ideal kind of gay male space, and women really enjoyed it.
Though the 90s were the era of "lesbian chic"--a sexy image of Cindy Crawford shaving the face of k.d. lang, a butch lesbian, on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1993--the entrance to Sisters was still at the end of an alley. The windowless interior was designed for discretion.
"If you were at Sisters, you were assumed to be queer," says Gabriel Storm, who worked there from 2009 until 2013. "It was an opportunity for women to dance and not worry about men leering at them. If there were men there, they were gay." Storm says the general manager was a gay man who decorated the space, "in a way he thought women would like, with feline themes."
In the early 2000s, a number of lesbians began transitioning genders and living as men. "At that point in New York City, it was a high point for lesbian bars, and all of a sudden there were no more butches in these bars," says Gieseking.
Lesbians were forced to grapple with changes to the gender dynamics in their previously women-only spaces, and for some, this brought on an identity crisis. Should a man--even one who'd previously lived as a woman--be able to go to a lesbian bar? Is a lesbian whose lover transitions from female to male gay, or straight?
Gabriel Storm had been working the door and as a bar-back at Sisters in Philadelphia for two years when he transitioned and started identifying as a man in 2011. Before transitioning, he'd been a butch lesbian, and he says that platonically and romantically he has always preferred the company of women. He'd taken the job because "being surrounded by gay people all the time sounded heavenly," and he still felt that way.
However, it had been hard for some of his coworkers at Sisters to respect the influx of trans and genderqueer customers; they'd make comments or ask questions about the name and gender on someone's ID. After Storm transitioned, he was one of two trans guys who worked at Sisters. Most of the staff and regulars took his transition in stride, but a few struggled to get his new name and gender right. "Of course, I didn't have the opportunity to explain to customers over the roar of the music, 'Hey, I like this name now, I like this pronoun,'" he says.
"We had to march in the gay pride parade [as part of Sisters]. My coworker and I were holding this big banner and some long-time staff members yelled at us, saying they can't have two dudes holding the banner for a lesbian bar," Storm says. "It makes sense--you don't want guys running around. But I work here. Should I have to pretend to distance myself from something that's been a part of my life for some time?" Because they were transitioning from within the lesbian community, men had become an inextricable part of lesbian culture and lesbian bars.
Being surrounded by gay people all the time sounded heavenly.
At the same time, a growing number of trans women were rightly demanding acceptance in lesbian space. While some lesbians dug in their heels and continued to insist on a rigid definition of woman, others started to develop spaces for a broader spectrum of gender. Queer bars--and more often queer parties--replaced lesbian bars as the preferred destination for some.
When it closed in 2013, Sisters was the last lesbian bar in Philadelphia. There was an outpouring of grief on social media. "All I could think was, Where [were] you people when the bar was open?" says Storm. He thinks that a combination of less disposable income in the lesbian community and the outdated décor contributed to the club's demise.
Across the country queers and lesbians are mourning the loss of lesbian bars. The Lexington was the only lesbian bar in San Francisco when it closed in 2014. In New York City there are about four left. Macon Reed, the artist behind the Brooklyn dyke bar installation, says that today, "the places that are most likely to have dyke bars are the more backwater places that are less up-to-date with their queer theory and queer culture."
Decade after decade, there may have been a dominant way to be a gay (or now queer) woman, but that was never the only way. Lesbian bars have always been as diverse and contentious as their patrons. Our nostalgia for them only confirms this--you can mourn Sisters even though you didn't want to drink there anymore.
Ariel Speed Wagon, the performer who co-created "Rocky and Rhoda's Lesbian Past" was a little too young to go to the Clit Club or hang out in San Francisco during the 90s, so she feels "a certain yearning or curiosity" for a lesbian past. But she's also critical of the nostalgia. Plagued by shame, secrecy, and exclusion, lesbian history is wonderful and messy. Looking back fondly, we "get the beauty of the history, but we don't have to deal with the people who were there," she says.