The Lexington in San Francisco. Sisters in Philadelphia. Meow Mix in New York City. Across the U.S., almost 200 lesbian bars have permanently shuttered since the 1980s, and the roughly 20 that remain are barely hanging on after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a number of them to close temporarily last year. Toasted Walnut, Philadelphia's last lesbian bar, became the latest casualty when it officially closed in January.
"The Lesbian Bar Project," a new documentary from Brooklyn, New York-based filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose being released Thursday for Pride Month, explores the decline and evolution of these vulnerable spaces and aims to raise money to help those that remain.
"We wanted to really dive deeper in really discussing and showing the spaces more in depth and also show how these spaces are changing due to the pandemic, how they're reopening and what they're offering — hopefully, a safer and healthier future," Street said.
Executive produced by "Orange Is the New Black" star Lea DeLaria (who also appears in the film) and sponsored by Jägermeister's Save the Night campaign, "The Lesbian Bar Project" is the second phase of a fundraiser by the same name, which raised an initial $117,504 for the bars during last year's pandemic-related shutdowns. Street and Rose hope to raise an additional $200,000 for these venues, some of which were unable to get access to government assistance and had to raise their own funds to survive.
The number of lesbian bars is dwindling for a number of reasons, including skyrocketing rents due to gentrification, the systemic difficulty women often face in acquiring financial support to open and maintain businesses and the reality that many women simply lack leisure dollars to spend on going out. But these spaces are also languishing because more queer women are turning to dating apps and aren't frequenting the bars like they used to.
"As mainstream society started to accept gay people more and more, you didn't need to go to a lesbian bar," Lisa Menichino, owner of New York City lesbian bar Cubby Hole, says in the documentary. "You take it for granted, not realizing that it's something you have to support, something that you have to nurture, something that you have to go to."
When these bars shut, queer women lose more than just a hookup spot, Rose said.
"They are community centers, they are spaces for intergenerational dialogue, and it's so important to have space that prioritizes marginalized genders within the LGBTQ community," she said.
The film, which is available free on YouTube, opens with a history of these spaces and doesn't shy away from some of their darker pasts. A number of the now-closed bars, including Bonnie & Clyde, a popular lesbian haunt in Manhattan that closed in 1982 after a decadelong run, imposed discriminatory policies that limited the number of Black women who could enter.
The filmmakers wanted to "really recognize the lack of inclusivity" that plagued these early spaces, Street said. Transporting viewers among New York City, Washington, D.C., and Mobile, Alabama, the film also spotlights contemporary bar owners who are working to make their venues more inclusive of women of color, bisexual women and transgender people, among others. That's the mission of Jo McDaniel and partner Rach Pike, who are working on opening As You Are Bar in Washington, which they hope will debut this year.
"The mission of As You Are Bar is full inclusivity. It's that we celebrate, we don't just tolerate, queer culture," McDaniel says in the documentary.
In their quest to be more inclusive, some bar owners have moved away from strictly labeling their venues "lesbian" bars. Among them is Henrietta Hudson owner Lisa Cannistraci, who rebranded her iconic New York City bar as a "queer human bar built by lesbians" and switched its logo from an image of a woman to a gender-neutral symbol, a decision that has been controversial with some in the lesbian community. She also transformed the decades-old bar into a cafe lounge.
"The reason we wanted to change our logo was because a lot of women who love women do not identify as lesbian, and that's OK," Cannistraci says in the film. "We have to break the cycle of being exclusionary within our own communities."
Spaces for queer women have never been a monolith, said Rose, who said bisexual, trans and nonbinary people have always patronized such spaces, even though they haven't always been visible or welcome.
"I think that's one of the reasons why our spaces keep dying," she said, "because there is a rigidity, and there's sometimes a militant kind of definition of what it means to be a lesbian."
Not all bar owners are shirking the lesbian label. Rachel and Sheila Smallman, who co-own Herz in Mobile, have stuck with the term, noting the stigma and isolation they experienced as lesbians in deeply conservative Alabama.
"Being lesbians on the Gulf Coast, we were looking for a place that we felt safe in, and we just happened to go in this one bar, and they totally ran us out because we were female," Rachel Smallman says in the film about why they opened a lesbian bar.
While lesbian bars have disappeared in many cities, Street and Rose said they hope their film dispels the narrative that they are going extinct.
"So much of how we talk about queer space and lesbian space is through trauma, disappearance and alarm," Rose said, "and we thought it's really important to show people who are actively trying to open space and hope for the future."