The Scoop: In 1980, there were over 200 lesbian bars in the United States. In 2023, there are 31. The Lesbian Bar Project and the documentary series of the same name are working to preserve, document, and fight for the existence of lesbian bars. Erica Rose and Elina Street are the creators and directors of the project, and they talked to us about the film and the historical importance of lesbian bars as safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ individuals to gather, express themselves, and have fun.
Lesbian bars are more than just bars for their patrons. They are community hubs, social circles, and dating pools. They’re safety, security, and freedom. Despite their crucial historical and contemporary position, lesbian bars are disappearing across the country. In 1980, there were roughly 200 lesbian bars in the United States. As of 2023, there are 31.
Several factors have contributed to the closure of lesbian bars in the past 40 years, yet their importance for the broader LGBTQIA+ community remains unwavering. The Lesbian Bar Project is working to protect the existence and amplify the stories of lesbian bars in hopes that more young LGBTQIA+ identifying people will understand why brick-and-mortar lesbian spaces are worth fighting for.
Erica Rose and Elina Street, the Directors and Co-Creators of The Lesbian Bar Project and the documentary series of the same name, talked to us about the project and the importance of documenting and preserving lesbian spaces.
“When we found out about how many lesbian bars had closed since 1980, we were just shocked,” Erica said. “We’re both part of the LGBTQ+ community, and we had no idea the numbers were so low. We did some research to discover why, and there are so many different factors, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one.”
More Than Just A Bar
Elina and Erica are based in New York City and were reminiscing one day about a recently closed lesbian bar, Ginger’s, in Brooklyn. Ginger’s had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Elina and Erica decided to create a fundraiser to provide financial support to lesbian bars across the country.
Erica said there were a variety of reasons lesbian bars have shut down since the ‘80s and ‘90s. She said COVID-19 hit lesbian bars hard, and having to be closed for extended lengths of time meant many of them had to close their doors permanently. Like so many small businesses, many lesbian bars didn’t make it through to post-COVID re-openings.
Elina and Erica said gentrification has also contributed to the closing of lesbian bars. Soaring property prices and shifting demographics have left many lesbian bars, which were previously neighborhood staples, struggling to stay afloat, whether due to loss of business or unsustainable rent.
Erica also pointed to income disparity and disparity in spending power. She pointed to the fact that when lesbian bars opened before 1974, women couldn’t even open a credit account in their own name. The gender wage gap also means cisgender women, trans women, and non-binary people, and specifically BIPOC women and queer individuals, tend to have less spending power. With this history of income disparity, more small business owners tend to be cisgender white men.
Young LGBTQIA+ people are also increasingly relying on virtual spaces to find community. Younger generations tend to be more comfortable with the online setting and pace of establishing connections, but there are limits to virtual connection. In Elina and Erica’s view, what young LGBTQIA+ people need now, more than ever, is a space removed from the internet.
Lesbian bars make those spaces possible. “There’s also a shift to online culture that happened where people were relying less on brick and mortar and kind of relying more on meeting virtually,” Erica said. “A lot of people don’t even have a space for them to go to.” The Lesbian Bar Project is trying to change that.
“The Lesbian Bar Project” Documentary
“The Lesbian Bar Project” consists of three episodes, each following a different lesbian bar in the United States. The episodes are free to watch on Roku TV. Episode one visits Julie, the owner of Pearl Bar in Houston. In the next episode, Phoenix Boycott Bar’s owner, Audrey, talks about her journey to owning and operating a lesbian bar. The third episode goes to New York City and visits one of the longest-running lesbian bars in the country, Henrietta Hudson, along with owner Lisa.
The documentary series works to not only spread awareness of the currently operating lesbian bars but also to document them. Every lesbian bar across the country has a special origin story, group of patrons, and team of employees. Documenting what these bars are like and who the people who love and fight for them are are essential parts of preserving them today and for years to come.
Episode two takes The Lesbian Bar Project to Phoenix, Arizona. Audrey Corley owns Boycott Bar, a lesbian bar in the Melrose neighborhood. The Melrose has historically been a place where LGBTQIA+ people gather in dedicated queer spaces. In the documentary series, Audrey talked about the importance of preserving queer spaces, as members of the community who came before relied heavily on these spaces for so much.
“Imagine being in a place where you can’t be yourself. Back in the day, lesbian bars were the only place you could go. We have to keep lesbian bars alive for the future and the past and for everyone. Everyone should have a place where they feel safe,” Audrey said in the documentary series.
Boycott Bar was born out of Audrey and her community’s belief in and need for a lesbian bar where Latinx LGBTQIA+ people could enjoy the fullness of their identities. Audrey and many of her employees grew up in environments where they were afraid of coming out and couldn’t speak openly about their identities. Audrey and the Boycott Bar helped many of her employees and patrons come out and explore their identities authentically.
Lesbian bars have a historical legacy that’s being continued across the nation. “I want to be remembered for making a difference for my community– and everybody,” Audrey said in the episode. “Maybe at that time when they just needed the right word, or the right hug, or the right song, I gave it to them. ”
Lesbian Bars Offer Queer People a Sense of Belonging
The Lesbian Bar Project has already impacted the lesbian bar landscape. “We’ve seen new spaces and bars opening in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco,” Erica said. “Dorothy in Chicago was set to open in 2020 but then had to close. They saw The Lesbian Bar Project and its messaging and were inspired to reopen. I think they officially reopened at the beginning of 2022.”
Thirty-one lesbian bars are open across the United States, and the Lesbian Bar Project keeps its list of lesbian bars as up to date as possible. The Lady’s Room in Largo, Florida, hosts drag king shows monthly along with NFL Sundays. The Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana, keeps the motto: “We’re here, we’re queer. Let’s party” and is open seven days a week with a dog-friendly patio and no cover charge.
My Sister’s Room has been a haven for the queer community in Atlanta since 1996. The bar features nightly drag shows, burlesque shows, comedy, karaoke, and more. The bar embraces the diversity of Atlanta and its queer community.
A central theme of “The Lesbian Bar Project” is that the word lesbian belongs to all who feel it’s for them. To quote the documentary series directly: “What makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders. The label Lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them.”
Erica and Elina said more and more lesbian bars seek to pursue this mission, providing space and safety for all lesbians and non-conforming, queer individuals. They both reiterated how important it is for lesbians and the LGBTQIA+ community to support lesbian bars in their cities or states.
“Queer communities are more tolerated or accepted in some areas as compared to others,” Erica said. “You know, in the Midwest or the Southeast, you might be surrounded by a more conservative or traditional mindset, and the stakes are just higher, and you’re less likely to have allies and people coming to support the bar. This is what makes it really important because some of these bars serve underserved communities.”