The Last Lesbian Bars

New doc investigates the social evolution that’s driving once-vital gathering places toward extinction

By Danae Barnes, January 2016 Issue.

Do you know where to find a lesbian bar? This question pulses through the short documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, which tracks recent closings of lesbian bars across the country.

If we were keeping score, the statistics for each city in the film are dismal: 8-0, 7-1 and 12-1.

Artist and activist JD Samson, of Le Tigre and current MEN fame, travels to four different cities – San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City – in an attempt to understand underlying causes, and possible effects, of losing lesbian bars. (Read more about the Phoenix gay and lesbian bar scene in “Learning From the Locals.”)

LesbianBars_SUPPORT2The film opens with a voice-over and footage of gay bars from the turn of the century, tracing the evolution of the bar as a place for the community to gather and forge personal and romantic relationships. The film then shifts to present day San Francisco, where the 2015 closure of the Lexington Club means there is no longer a women’s bar in the metropolis that’s hailed as the nation’s “gay capital.”

In her interview, the Lexington Club owner Lisa Thirkield ascribes the bar’s closure to economic factors – as the gentrification of San Francisco raises rents, it forces less-affluent queers out of the immediate surroundings.

Thirkield also notes the business model of catering to “less than five percent” of the population also means lesbian bars will be hit hard in any economic downturn or shift in population.

Yet, if money is the linchpin, why are gay bars thriving while lesbian bars are shutting their doors? The “nesting” or “U-Haul lesbian” stereotype is debunked by interviews with two academics, including notable queer author Jack Halberstam. Further, the scholars discuss how the changing landscape of social acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S. means women, more so than men, feel safer in a wider range of social settings.

Interestingly, LGBT/pop culture sociologist Danielle Moodie-Mills draws a loose comparison between integration of gays in our society and the end of sanctioned segregation for African-Americans.

“Segregation was good for black business, but bad for black people,” she points out. “When black and white people were finally starting to integrate, black businesses died off.”

The film also brings up the question of layered identities emerging within the LGBTQ community, acknowledging labels such as “gay” and “lesbian” have begun to shift toward the more inclusive “queer.”

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JD Sampson interviews Angela Lombardi, former manager of Phase 1 in Washington, D.C.

According to Samson, the objective of the project was “to honestly create a conversation around a lot of the ideas raised” in the documentary.

“As the host of the film, I feel like it was important for me to make visible my own feelings regarding the new shape of our community,” Samson says, “but [also] make sure that I was reflecting what others feel about the same issues and concepts without trying to be inflammatory.”

The subsequent interviews in Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City all feel unique, and yet similar to the sentiments expresses in San Francisco. Economic hardship, diminished need for lesbian-specific spaces, new technology and a shifting queer demographic are cited in each city as factors contributing to the demise of the once-vital lesbian bar scene.

One of the co-owners of New York City’s 23-year-old lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, remarks, “it would be a tragedy if we lose the last gay bar.” Meanwhile, a younger queer party organizer asserts, “what used to be dyke communities are looking really different …  and with this emergence of queer people of color communities in America, if dyke places can’t get down with that, they’ll be forced to close their doors.”

Despite the complications between different generations, the documentary brings a palpable sense of longing to maintain these spaces.

“As we age, it’s not just about losing having somewhere to dance,” says Valerie Papaya Mann, co-founder Sapphire Sapphos, the first African-American lesbian social group, in an interview. “It’s losing community.”

Watching this documentary, it becomes clear the goal is not explanation, but exploration. Without valorizing the experiences of older generations, there is both a feeling of nostalgia and hope for the future.

“We are in a new age of queerness,” Samson succinctly points out. “I give much respect to what has happened as it has gotten us here, but I think we are just learning about how that chapter develops into a new journey for all of us.”

To view The Last Lesbian Bars, visit broadly.vice.com/en_us/video/the-last-lesbian-bars.


 

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Bidding Farewell To My Bars

Echo writer reflects on experiences in the lesbian bars scene

By Danae Barnes, January 2016 Issue.

The first gay bar I dared visit was hidden deep behind palm trees on Route 441, just south of Gainesville, Fla. The always-steamy, steel-roofed warehouse had two pool tables, a rickety drag stage, a dance room with disco ball and unpredictable rainbow-themed light show. A year later, the bar – my local gay bar – was burned down in an arson attack.

Violence against gays seemed to be everywhere when I was younger. I lived in Fort Collins, Colo., as Matthew Shepard lay dying in the local hospital, with the homophobic parade floats of my alma matter on the local news.

Years later, living in London, I was headed toward the gay district of Soho on the night of the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub. I will never forget watching in sympathetic shock as a man screamed with rage and frustration in the middle of the street as we learned the reason for the police cars hurtling past.

In the ‘90s, I was a visibly gay woman, and insults and threats were a daily event. Often the gay community got it far worse than just words.

Watching the documentary The Last Lesbian Bars reminded me when being gay or lesbian was a radical break from social norms. A time when the local bar served as a place to find solidarity and family in the face of total rejection by society. In many of the small towns where I lived, often there was just one bar and everyone went, almost religiously, in a life or death search for community (well, and phone numbers, of course). The bar was more than a place to go, it was a place to be.

I was in San Francisco when the Lexington closed. My community was uncomfortably startled by losing the last lesbian bar, but it makes sense. San Francisco itself had become a safe space for gays and lesbians. The same feeling was true when I lived in Washington D.C., as the community began to drift from the narrow, but well-loved, walls of Phase One toward the local coffee shop, the nearby restaurant, the local bar filled with an assortment of gay, straight and “not yets.”

But what of today’s gender-variant queers? The ones who do not have that feeling of “safe space” when going to gay or lesbian bars? Or older gays and lesbians, who often disappear from view in our youth-obsessed culture?

The fragmentation caused by race, class, poverty, violence and gender politics are everywhere in both society and our communities. As being homosexual moves into mainstream U.S. culture – evidenced by marriage rights, legal protections and fewer gays and lesbian hate crimes – The Last Lesbian Bars is a poignant reminder the need for acceptance and safe space is as vital now as ever.


 

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