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Lesbian bars are almost extinct in the U.S. Where did they go?

By Marissa Lee.

The first time at a gay bar is a rite of passage for many people, gay, straight, or otherwise. These spaces, which are often safe and sacred for people in the LGBTQIA+ community, can also be the source of some of the most interesting and memorable nights out. Taking a stroll through New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood or on any street corner in the Castro District of San Francisco, one might argue there is no shortage of LGBTQIA+ bars and social spaces in the area. But many fail to acknowledge a startling technicality: while there are countless LGBTQIA+ bars scattered around America, there are estimated to be just 16 strictly lesbian bars in the U.S.

Although few to no LGBTQIA+ spaces strictly exclude lesbians, there is certainly unfair tipping of the scales at play, revealing an issue that has surprising historical, cultural, and socio-economic ties. New York City alone is home to over 50 gay and LGBTQIA+ bars, many of them branded “gay boy bars.” From Bounce to Hardware to Gym (and maybe Metropolitan if you’re lucky enough to get in), there’s something for everyone and everyone is welcome. The fact is that these spaces, however inclusive they may be, are specifically targeted to gay men. It should seem only appropriate that there be equal or even adequate numbers of female and lesbian-specific queer spaces in America. However, there remains only just over a dozen.

Mona’s 440 Club in San Francisco is hailed as being America’s first lesbian bar. During its run from 1936 into the 1950s, Mona’s was host to many lesbian patrons and performers that solidified the bar’s identity as San Francisco’s best lesbian bar. Among the names to grace Mona’s stage were LGBTQIA+ icons Gladys Bentley, Beverly Shaw, and Frances Faye, all of whom had illustrious careers in the entertainment industry, kick-started by appearances at Mona’s.

Although Mona’s eventually shut its doors in the late 1950s, the spirit of the space remained as more lesbian bars began to crop up around the country. Following a surge in the following decades, lesbian bars peaked in the 1980s when America was reportedly home to around 200. These spaces were the chief method through which lesbians and queer women would meet potential romantic and sexual partners, as well as build community and friendships. The importance of these bars compared to their dismal headcount begs the question: where have these estimated 185 lesbian bars disappeared to, and how did they vanish at such an alarming rate?

The disappearance of lesbian bars in America is contingent on several factors. It is said that gay men have more male-specific party and social spaces at their disposal due to the notion that gay men are more drawn to party and hookup culture. There is certainly a more widely accepted margin in the male gay club scene for one-night stands and brief hookups. However, lesbians have been stereotyped to be more prone to coupling up, a phenomenon known as the U-Haul stereotype. This essentially insinuates that lesbians are in a rush to settle down and move in together quickly (hence the U-Haul reference), and are not as interested in party and hookup culture, leading to a lack of attendance in the lesbian social scene.

But the existence – or lack thereof – of these bars cannot be explained using such broad generalizations. It’s unfair to pigeonhole the entire queer female population of America into one U-Haul and call it a day. In other words, there are certainly more measurable factors at play.

The genesis of internet dating is one of those reasons. There are ever-growing numbers of lesbian and female-queer dating apps designed to give lesbians and other female LGBTQIA+ individuals a space to meet. As Arlene Stein, a professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University put it in a 2015 interview with Broadly, “the internet has usurped the role of the bars.” While meeting partners in bars is not completely obsolete, there is an attractive sense of privacy and security to meeting people on dating apps, especially for individuals who may not yet be confident in – or completely sure of – their sexuality.

This technological change is an obvious source of a lack of intergenerational connectivity, and thus little community understanding. Sara “Ace” Pic of New Orleans’ Last Call Collective says “the bars aren’t sustainable because each generation often rejects things from the previous generation.” There is little incentive for intergenerational lesbians to mingle in the same space, resulting in very few calling for a space to mingle in at all.

Their struggle does not go unseen, however. And although the bars have dwindled, there are many intent on keeping lesbian bars going. This article on HelloGiggles provides a round-up of all the lesbian bars remaining in the country and how you can offer them support. These efforts are certainly not futile. If you need a little convincing, success stories such as the community-led donation campaign for Manhattan’s very last black-owned LGBTQ+ bar, ALIBI, might do the trick.

These initiatives show that every little bit can go a long way, as long as the community can find it in their hearts – and in their wallets – to contribute.

Homepage image via @projectbphotos