This Campaign is Fighting for America's Last 21 Lesbian Bars
The Lesbian Bar Project celebrates the history of queer spacesLeah Kirts
June 23, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.
Below, Leah Kirts spoke with the filmmakers behind the Lesbian Bar Project and their mission to preserve the history of queer spaces and keep open and thriving for years to come.
Lesbian bars are cultural sites of queer history that hold the collective joy, grief, and rage of forgotten generations within their walls. Bar stools propped-up lovers, loners, elders, and young revolutionaries who laid the foundations of the modern women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements. Now, lesbian bars, as they were once known, are swiftly becoming archives of the past.
The number of known lesbian-centered bars in America has dwindled from 200 in 1980 to just 21, according to the Lesbian Bar Project (LBP). A national campaign created in 2020 by filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, LBP documents the historic significance of spaces for queer women while ensuring that the last lesbian bars can survive the pandemic and thrive in the future.
“When the pandemic hit, it coincided with a lot of articles coming out about the disappearance of queer spaces in general, but especially lesbian bars,” says Rose. A staggering decline in queer bars prior to the pandemic—with lesbian bars as the hardest-hit demographic—had occurred due to gentrification, online dating, and increased social acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people. But the strain of this past year threatened to wipe out the few remaining queer bars.
Last spring, with the film industry temporarily shuttered, Rose and Street felt compelled to tell the story of lesbian bars, but they needed funding. The project received brand sponsorship from Jägermeister through their Save the Night fund, a campaign launched to support artists, bartenders, and nightlife venues affected by the pandemic. The team was introduced to Jägermeister's initiative through Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn, who befriended Street the first time she walked into Cubbyhole—one of the last three lesbian bars in New York City.
The project launched with a short public service announcement directed by Rose and Street (and narrated by executive producer, Lea DeLaria) that offered a wistful remembrance of lesbian bars past. In just four weeks, LBP raised over $117,000 and donated the proceeds to 15 lesbian bars. As the campaign grew, the filmmakers found an additional six lesbian bars. This month, they released a full-length documentary and a new fundraising goal of $200,000 that will be shared among the 21 bars.
In the span of 20 minutes, their documentary offers a fresh glimpse into an opaque history, bringing rare scenes of lesbian nightlife out of the archives and onto the screen. The film highlights how these spaces were both accepting and exclusionary, and how rituals of togetherness were marked by the passion and trauma of radically changing times. “We were doctoring our own experiences,” narrates Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, who explains in the film how healing it is to archive stories like The Salsa Soul Sisters, the first Black and Latina lesbian organization in the U.S. that, as a response to white exclusion, gathered in cafes, restaurants, churches, and each other’s homes.
“Queer people have always found ways to gather and to hold space, even in the most trying sociopolitical climates. As long as there are queer and lesbian people, there will be queer and lesbian spaces,” says Gwen Shockey, founder of the Addresses Project, who has documented lesbian geographies in New York City from the early 1900s on through oral histories, maps, and photography.
The film builds a bridge between generations of queers by contextualizing lesbian history with today’s trans, nonbinary, and women-centered spaces in coastal cities and small towns that create enclaves of safety from lingering prejudice. After being run out of a bar in their home state of Alabama, Sheila and Rachel Smallman decided to open up Herz, an inclusive lesbian bar in Mobile featured in the documentary. “If we don’t fight for our people, who will?” says Rachel Smallman. “Down here in the South, being gay is a no-no. But we’re out, we’re proud, and we’re not apologetic for it.”
Rural queers from the Cotton Belt to the Rust Belt are ushering in a new era of the “red state queer bar” that represents all members of the LGBTQIA+ community, “because everybody has to share the one spot,” says journalist Samantha Allen, author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. Her cross-country travelogue features the sole queer bar left in Bloomington, Indiana, The Back Door, one of the six recent additions to the LBP.
Unlike gay clubs built on thumping club music and vodka drinks, The Back Door hosts more creative and sober-friendly events that range from quiet coloring book nights to anti-racism raves to stunning drag shows in a fully accessible space for disabled queers. “I was pretty adamant about calling it a queer bar because I felt like this needs to be an inclusive space,” says Smoove Gardner, co-owner of The Back Door. “There are a lot of little towns around here that got nothing, so it doesn't matter how you identify, what your gender is or isn't. We’re a space that’s for everyone in our queer rainbow to enjoy.”
Since its founding in 2013, The Back Door has worked to help cultivate the city’s annual Pridefest and, in the wake of the 2016 election, began hosting radical workshops with “everything from street medic training to self-defense and herbal medicine—you know, just in case society started to collapse,” explains co-owner, Nicci Boroski. The pandemic halted daily life just as they were hitting their stride, leaving them scrambling to pay their employees and vendors. They received a grant from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund in addition to being included in the LBP, which has allayed their financial worries for now.
It is humbling to be the “new queers on the block,” say Gardner and Boroski, in the company of decades-old lesbian bars where they had their first out experiences. The Back Door represents the future of queer nightlife that centers marginalized people and carries forward lesbian traditions that integrate political activism with partying. “I think queer spaces are going to have a renaissance,” Boroski says excitedly. “There's a huge need for radically inclusive physical space. Because queer joy is still a radical act. We have to keep fighting for each other, but there's no reason why you can't have a fucking blast while you're promoting liberation.”
To support lesbian spaces, Rose and Street encourage patrons to show up, organize, and celebrate queerness at these sites of living history. “We have to be present for the bars because, at the end of the day, they can't survive without us,” says Street.
The Lesbian Bar Project is taking donations until July 1, 2021. All proceeds will be directly donated to participating bars of the project. For additional resources, please check out the Black Lesbian Archives, NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, LGBTQ History, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Park Service.
Leah Kirts is a writer from Indiana based in New York. Their work covers food, queer politics, and ecofeminist veganism. Connect with them @leahkirts.