It took Denise Cohen over two years to open Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar, the Toasted Walnut, and just 10 months for the Covid-19 pandemic to shut it down forever.
“There is that hopelessness, that sense of loss that, you know, I had no control over this. It wasn't even me being a bad business person,” Cohen said.
Cohen opened the Toasted Walnut in 2016, three years after Sisters Nightclub, then the city’s only lesbian venue,closed down. Business was strong at the Toasted Walnut, Cohen said, until the pandemic struck last March, forcing her to temporarily shut its doors in compliance with government orders.
But $11,000 in rent was still due each month, and Cohen struggled to keep up. When she was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in December, she realized it was the end of her bar.
“There just takes a level of energy that I need to focus on that versus trying to fight this,” said Cohen, who permanently shuttered the Toasted Walnut in January.
The pandemic has exacerbated an already troubling trend for lesbian bars. Just two months into the coronavirus pandemic, in early May of last year, NBC News reported there were only 16 lesbian bars left across the U.S., compared to about 1,000 bars that cater to gay men and mixed-gender LGBTQ crowds. Now, that number has dropped by at least one, with many others barely surviving.
‘Business is still horrible’
In many cities, bars are the only spaces where LGBTQ people can come together, but for queer women, these spaces are now almost nonexistent, leaving an already isolated community even more alone. A number of the roughly 15 surviving lesbian bars have already reopened at limited capacity — like Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee, Wildrose in Seattle, Gossip Grill in San Diego, My Sister’s Room in Atlanta and Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee — though it is unclear whether some that closed amid the pandemic will ever reopen.
The Lipstick Lounge, Nashville’s last lesbian bar, survived a number of tragedies over the past year: It shut down due to the pandemic, a tornado blew out its windows and front porch and a bombing tore through downtown Nashville on Christmas Day. But as the pandemic grinds on, co-owner Christa Suppan questions whether the bar, which reopened in September at limited capacity in compliance with government orders, will be able to celebrate its 20th anniversary in September. She said the bar is struggling to operate at about 20 percent of normal sales.
“It definitely comes in waves,” Suppan said of the constant stress of keeping her bar in business. “Some days, I'm like, OK, here's a new idea, you know, and some days I'm just like, I don't want to get out of bed, because I can't figure it out. And it's just taxing on my brain. I'm going to remain optimistic. I have to.”
Elizabeth “Bet-z” Boenning, who owns Walker’s Pint, Wisconsin’s only lesbian bar, said she received a small loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program in the spring, just enough to cover expenses while the bar was closed under government-mandated lockdown orders for nonessential businesses. She said the bar reopened at the end of June in compliance with rules that limited capacity to around 50 percent.
“Things really haven't changed much,” said Boenning, who has had to cut the number of days and hours her bar is open. “Business is still horrible.”
Cohen reopened her bar in September at limited capacity in compliance with government rules. She also received a small amount of assistance through the emergency relief program, but she said a large portion went to paying her staff, restocking alcohol that had gone bad and virus-proofing her bar with plexiglass and hand sanitizer wall units.
“There was a great expense to get reopened, so funds went to that,” said Cohen, who was forced to shutter her bar again in November, when Philadelphia ordered a second shutdown.
At least nine lesbian bars around the country launched fundraisers to stay afloat during the crisis.
Even in New York City, the last remaining lesbian bars are fighting to stay alive. More than 200 lesbian bars have opened and closed in the metropolis over the past century, according to Gwen Shockey, creator of the Addresses Project, a digital tool that tracks the city’s lesbian venues. Today, only three of these bars remain: Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood and Ginger’s, Brooklyn’s last lesbian bar. At least 11 New York City lesbian bars have closed since 2004. Bum Bum Bar, which had been the only lesbian bar in Queens, officially closed at the end of 2018.
Henrietta Hudson owner Lisa Cannistraci raised over $42,000 and told queer news site Them that she plans to relaunch the historic bar as a “café, lounge, bistro, coffee house, cocktail place” in the spring. Cubbyhole owner Lisa Menichino, who raised over $76,000, announced plans to reopen a winterized outdoor space later this spring. Sheila Frayne, the owner of Ginger’s, which has been shuttered since March 2020 despite having an outdoor patio, told NBC News via text that she won’t reopen until “it’s safe to be around people without masks.”
A bad trend getting worse
The coronavirus pandemic added fuel to a long-simmering problem that had been causing lesbian bars to close their doors across the country.
In the 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars in the U.S., according to a 2019 study by Greggor Mattson, an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College. And while the decline of lesbian bars mirrors a broader trend of LGBTQ bars shuttering across the U.S., the steeper decline of lesbian and Black-owned gay bars demonstrates how economic inequality disproportionately affects women and people of color, even within the queer community. Between 2007 and 2019, bars catering to women and queer people of color saw declines of 52 percent and 60 percent, respectively, according to Mattson’s report.
The number of lesbian bars in the United States has always been small in comparison to gay bars, which cater mostly to men, even though statistically women are more likely to be LGBTQ. Online listings reveal that New York City — arguably considered, along with San Francisco, to be the queer capital of the U.S. — is home to more than 80 venues catering to gay men or mixed-gender LGBTQ crowds.
Many attribute the loss of lesbian bars to the high cost of opening and maintaining a bar, as well as the systemic difficulty women often have in acquiring financial support.
Before Cohen opened the Toasted Walnut in 2016, she was the general manager of two popular Philadelphia-based lesbian haunts that have since closed: Sisters, which opened in 1996, and its predecessor, Hepburn’s, which opened in 1989. Both bars were owned by men.
“When I first started, there were several hundred women bars,” said Cohen, who began working at Hepburns the year it opened. “It was the biggest growth I think during that time, and then over the years, they slowly closed down or phased out.”
In 1995, Hepburns was sold and converted into a gay bar. Sisters, which opened a year later in another location, never recovered from the 2008 recession, according to Cohen, and permanently shuttered in 2013. Its loss devastated many in the lesbian and queer community and became motivation for Cohen’s yearslong quest to open the Toasted Walnut.
“Not many banks will fund a restaurant or bar in the first place, let alone a bar that was going to be geared towards the gay and lesbian community,” she said, explaining that lenders tend to see gay and lesbian venues as risky niche investments.
Cohen also pointed to other challenges. Queer women tend to have less disposable income to spend on going out, she said, and probably face less homophobia than their male counterparts in non-LGBTQ venues. And ironically, as lesbian and queer women have gained more social acceptance over the years, with many turning to dating apps to meet women, she said, some have stopped going to lesbian bars. As more lesbian bars closed, those that were left “had to be everything to everybody all the time, which was incredibly hard,” Cohen said.
A call to action to save these bars
The plight of America’s lesbian bars even attracted the attention of comedian and “Orange Is the New Black” star Lea DeLaria, who teamed up with queer filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, both 29, on the Lesbian Bar Project, a national effort to support nightlife threatened by the pandemic.
Inspired last May by the news that only about 16 lesbian bars remained in the U.S., Rose and Street launched the campaign, which raised $117,504 in November. Produced with DeLaria, the campaign included a video narrated by the actress, with a call to action to save the bars. Funds from the campaign were split evenly between participating bars. (Sue Ellen's and Pearl Bar, both in Texas, opted to donate their shares back to the other lesbian bars, according to Street and Rose.)
DeLaria, an out lesbian who has frequented lesbian bars since the 1970s, said that witnessing some of her favorite spots close permanently over the years, including The Lexington in San Francisco, has been painful. She said saving the bars isn’t just about perserving businesses — it’s about making sure queer women continue to have their own space.
“They provide a safe space, a place for camaraderie, a place for community and, of course, a place to get laid,” DeLaria told NBC News during a phone interview.
DeLaria, who grew up in Illinois near the Missouri border, remembers visiting her first lesbian bar in St. Louis and using a fake ID because she was only 16 at the time.
“I grew up in Belleville. It's a small little town. We didn't have a community center. We didn't have, you know, a place for you to go,” DeLaria said. “What we had was a dyke bar. So that's where I went, and I could just let my hair down and be me and not have to be in the closet, not have to worry, not have to, you know — it was just a place to be openly me.”
Suppan said donations from the Lesbian Bar Project helped The Lipstick Lounge stay afloat as she waited to apply for the next round of government assistance. Prior to receiving the donations, The Lipstick Lounge subsisted off a PPP loan that Suppan and co-owner Jonda Valentine acquired in the spring, when the bar was temporarily shuttered. The bar reopened at 50 percent capacity in September in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
“Honestly, that money allowed us to pay our mortgage for this month,” Suppan said in January about donations from the Lesbian Bar Project. “So I'm very, very grateful. I might get a little emotional. You know, we're going on nine months and, you know, hoping for another round of PPP. That money's been gone for quite some time now. It's scary.”
Boenning and Cohen said they used the money to pay their staff.
“That was amazing,” Boenning said of the campaign. “I was so shocked to see how much they actually raised and how many people were involved.”
Other major cities have also lost iconic lesbian bars. In California, only two lesbian bars remain: Gossip Grill in San Diego and Jolene's in San Francisco (the bar has been temporarily closed since 2020, according to its Instagram). In Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the U.S., there are no surviving lesbian bars.
Denver-based Blush & Blu is the only known lesbian bar in the entire American Southwest, outside of Texas. In the South, about five lesbian bars remain, including the relatively recent addition of Herz in Mobile, Alabama.
In Seattle, Wildrose, Washington’s only bar for queer women and the oldest lesbian bar on the West Coast, raised over $86,000 on GoFundMe. But even with assistance, the bar is still fighting.
“Until we can get to 100% indoor occupancy, we will be struggling,” owners Shelley Brothers and Martha Manning posted on the bar’s Facebook page in January.
As lesbian bars disappear, DeLaria questioned what the mental health impact has been on queer women.
“To me, we are becoming more invisible,” she said. “You know, back in the '80s, when we decided we didn't want it to be ‘gay pride,’ we wanted to be ‘gay and lesbian pride,’ because lesbians were invisible. We are becoming invisible again, and it's because we have nowhere to go.”