What Comes After the Death of the Lesbian Bar?

As America's last holdouts of queer female nightlife fall, a new, genderless alternative is taking root.

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Jul 26 2016, 5:31pm

Illustration by Sarah MacReading

When Lila Thirkield sold her San Francisco lesbian bar Lexington Club nearly two years ago, it seemed to be the death knell of lesbian nightlife in the city. The "Lex," as patrons affectionately called the bar, was one of the few surviving venues that catered to queer women in a city awash with gay-male entertainment. Her situation wasn't unique to San Francisco, either: Most major US cities have long offered multiple bars for the boys, with comparatively few devoted solely to dykes. In the two years since, the handful of lesbian bars left in America has dwindled to practically nothing.

As spaces for queer women have increasingly disappeared from the American nightlife landscape, their proprietors and patrons—as well as artists, writers, historians, and other cultural gatekeepers—have risen up to make clear that a vital sort of queer institution is eroding from our national consciousness. And as they move to document the spaces they've called home, a new configuration of agender, lesbian-friendly queer nightlife has taken root in their stead, one that may prove a blueprint for the future of queer nightlife in general.

While bars catering to gay men haven't exactly thrived across the country, they have skirted the downturn that lesbian spaces have experienced since the turn of the decade. Some point to the economic disparity between genders in explaining the discrepancy, while others look to the mainstreaming of gay culture, and the fact that queers coming out today have less need for specifically queer spaces than do generations prior.

Many lesbian bars that face closure have played significant roles in LGBTQ history, and most have represented, at various points, the only places that gay, bisexual, and gender nonconforming women could dance, flirt, socialize, and feel accepted by their peers in public. Even before Stonewall, historian Lisa Davis's Under the Mink recounts the surprising symbiosis between the lesbian community and the New York Mafia in the 1930s and 40s, when the mob ran—in a surprisingly equitable way—every lesbian club in the city, and often provided protection for early drag queens and gender nonconforming women. Indeed, such women needed that protection, as lesbian bars were often the target of police raids. Until the 1970s, dancing with members of one's sex and wearing opposite-sex clothing was illegal in many cities.

After World War II, homophile organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis offered social outlets for middle-class, professional lesbians, many of whom preferred private spaces to convene, as they found the bar scene less respectable. Some working-class and masculine-presenting lesbians preferred bars, in turn, where butch/femme roles were most pronounced. The women's liberation movement, which emphasized political activism over recreation and sexual pleasure, meant that lesbian bars—and strictly delineated butch/femme roles, which were seen as mimicking unequal heterosexual power dynamics—fell out of favor.

But lesbian bars vibrantly resurfaced in the 1990s, a time in which same-sex relationships became more visible in the media, even as right-wing politicians and evangelicals continued to vilify homosexuals. It was during this decade that the "lipstick lesbian" archetype reigned supreme, a sensibility that may have influenced the aesthetics of 90s bar culture.

As the needs of the lesbian community continue to evolve, a new wave of alternative queer nightlife that eschews gender binaries, affected labels, and strictly delineated queer sensibilities has taken root, and it may be able to provide a blueprint for the next generation of lesbian-inclusive spaces. Los Angeles, in particular, offers a case study of the kinds of spaces and events that arise in the wake of the decline of lesbian nightlife. After LA lost the Normandie Room in 2012, an intimate lesbian bar with a single billiards table and a beautiful, hard-to-get androgynous bartender, only one lesbian space remained: the Palms, a dingy West Hollywood haunt enjoyed by your mother's lesbians, Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge, until it closed in 2013 for "property redevelopment."

Since then, lesbians have turned toward venues that host weekly or monthly nights geared toward queers (and their friends) of all genders. In Los Angeles, these include Rumours at Chinatown's Grand Star Jazz Club, Homoccult at Akbar in Los Feliz, and Mustache Mondays at the LASH, a dimly lit, industrial spot downtown. Beyond LA, queer parties across the country—like Chicago's Queen! and Hugo Ball, New York's Battle Hymn and Shock Value, Boston's House Boi, and more—are providing similarly genderless nights and hotspots for women, men, and any gender identification in between to let loose.

They are spaces open to all comers, including those who identify as trans, agender, asexual, and straight. Irene Urias, a curator of Mustache Mondays, explains that its diverse party was created as a response to the homogeneity of West Hollywood, the LA boystown that dominates the city's queer nightlife. When asked if there is a lesbian angle to the event, she bristles: "I don't want to be defined by any one thing, I don't want to put a label on the party," she insists. "There's no mold here."

It's difficult to see a cost to this newfound embrace of outsider identities and marginalized communities. At all-inclusive events, anyone and everyone can feel welcome, particularly people who have been traditionally excluded from mainstream gay nightlife. At the same time, these changes accompany the rejection of a specifically lesbian identity, in terms of both preferred terminology and the types of social spaces our community creates. It's a trend that shows no signs of stopping, in Los Angeles or across the country. Today, gay women's nightlife no longer means female-only sanctuaries. The heterogeneous, co-ed, and adaptable alternatives that have replaced it are a breath of fresh air for those who have been waiting all their lives to finally be themselves.

Follow Sascha Cohen on Twitter.

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