Sapphic Tragic: Lesbian Bars

What are lesbian bars, and why are they worth saving? 

Allow me to start by saying: there is no gay handbook out there folks. You do not wake up one day instantly an all-knowing gay. There is no gay stork. No gay Santa Claus leaving presents with cards that read “To: Gay, Love: Santa.” Not even a goddamn courtesy call from your local coffee shop. Queer-hood has been a battle of self discovery that the likes of straight-hood has never seen.

This makes the entry into the Queer scene a bumpy ride. Most Queer folks, previous to this ever-woke generation, have been rudely dumped into the vast, colorful, and overwhelming world of gayness with not a resource to depend on — save for the internet. In times before the internet, Queer communities relied on books or other gays to understand themselves and their new family. 

This is why community is important for Queers. Queer communities provide support, wisdom, and guidance into what the Queer world is, and its place in the broader global human experience. Often the adoption of the queer family is the forceful exodus from the nuclear family. Queerness has survived because we continually lean on one another for support. 

Because the world has long since feared their gay thoughts, Queer families need safe places. In the case of the United States, like the other socially “unwashed,” had to gather quietly, in the dark, well past bedtime. These started, in America, as hidey-holes. Third floor apartment kiki’s in the bad part of town. Saucy library stacks, that one coffee shop. 

Then, enter, the gay bar. We’re talking low-lit, brick walled beauties serving up cheap shots, quick hookups, free therapy, and, of course, gay expression. Gay bars are a foundation for the Queer liberation movement.

Unfortunately, not all gay bars were created equal. 

The Queer journey has faced the same gender, race, and class boundaries that humans have struggled with for millennium. 

Gay men have dominated the Queer scene since its conception. Do not misunderstand me, though — gay men are just as important in the Queer family model as any other member. 

Nevertheless, it is true that gay men have more places to express and share than any other identity in the family. This is because, well, the patriarchy and its incessant need to dig its claws into all aspects of humanity and life.

The Queer woman, the lesbian, the female-identiftying and of course those non-conforming marginalized have gotten the dry end of the bar-cherry. Bars that focus on a women-forward crowd are a rarity to find.

Take, for example: New York City — a gay orchard, one could say. An exclusive orchard, as it turns out: Of 27 bars listed, only three of them are lesbian inclusive, One, The Cubbyhole, is lesbian focused.

On the West Coast, Seattle has 14 notable gay bars. Of those, six are designated men only, three have been noted to be overrun by “the straights”—which is part of the same issue—three are drag-focused, one apparently sucks, and then, of course, one lesbian designated bar: Wildrose

If you need any more proof, when searching online, there’s a specific filter for “mostly men” for god’s sake! No other filter for any other Queer identity is availiable. 

If this is the lesbian situation in major cities, you can imagine the situation in small towns. If a town even has a gay bar, it’s most likely for men, for drag, or for thrill-seeking straights. 

Eugene is no different. We have one gay bar, Spectrum, and although they do their best to keep it open to anyone, I have spent more time there surrounded by straights or gay men than I have in the company of my lesbian peers. 

And why? It’s a tale as old as time — misogyny. We like to joke and say, “oh lesbians are introverts.” They like knitting, reading, and other cozy shit. I’ll tell you what — that’s a stone-cold misogynistic lie. While it’s true that gay bitches can be crafty, if I told any number of my female-forward gays that there was a place where mainly queer women and women-identifying people go, they’d drop their knits and head straight there.

We could ruminate on this for hours, but that’s for the experts. Like this expert, Jaime Hartless for example, who wrote an article on the effects of misogynistic behavior in the gay bar scene. As the abstract states, “This paper uses 34 interviews with the patrons and managers of two ‘questionably Queer’ bars in a small Southeastern city to show how the masculine domination of these spaces converges with the greater willingness of straight people to occupy them to create an atmosphere where many LGBTQ women feel excluded and alienated.”

So why save these lesbian bars? I will answer you like this: Diversity is the cornerstone of Queer power. A male-dominated world has gotten us to this homophobic trash heap in the first place. Lesbian bars are the watering hole where not just lesbians roam but all minority Queer groups — and we must support safe spaces for all Queers across the spectrum.

Lesbian bars are never just lesbian bars, they are “lesbian and” bars. (I’m stealing this “lesbian and” definition from the owner of the all-inclusive As You Are Bar in Washington, D.C.) Lesbian bars have famously included all those on the spectrum of LGBTQIA+, as well as race, ethnicity, and even religious spectrums, too.

Recently, while lounging downtown, I commented on the stylish demeanor of a passerby. She stopped to chat afterwards, explained why she was visiting Eugene, and how life as trans-woman has been going. Evangeline LaRue, a 6ft tall, BIPOC, badass trans-woman and I talked for an hour outside the Tea Chai Te. 

She expressed a desire to open a trans drag bar. As much as she enjoyed the spirit of drag bars, she also felt an enormous hole where the trans stage should be.

 “If I were to dress as a drag queen, I would be a drag king,” she said, “because I am a woman. But when I go to drag bars here, they want me to go up there just as I am. They still think I’m pretending to be a woman. Drag is impersonating. I’m not impersonating.” 

This struck me as news, shamefully. I, simply, have not spent the time considering the struggle a trans person faces in the gay community. I see them as a fluid elite.

She continued that the only bars she felt comfortable in were lesbian bars. To her words, male-centered gay bars were no place for a trans woman. However, in the open and unassuimng arms of the lesbian bar, she found community and strength. “If I go to a bar, I go to a lesbian bar. I know they’ll be there for me.” 

She is the reason that I wanted to write this article. It was for her that the dwindling presence of the lesbian bar became a blinking warning light in my mind. Suddenly, a need in the community became a throbbing sore spot. Where was my local lesbian bar? Where could I go to commune with my female queers? Where could other marginalized queers go to be safe? Where could a 6ft. tall BIPOC trans-woman like Eva go to be seen, like, really seen?

I became impassioned with those moments. This transformation is not exclusive to me, either, as recently, the Lesbian Bar Project has been underway to help the surviving lesbian bars re-emerge. They note similar sentiments in their documentary and website:

“We believe what makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders; including women, non-binary folks and trans men. As these spaces aim to be inclusive of all individuals across the LGBTQIA+ community…”

These spaces are necessary and are in danger. Currently, there are 21 lesbian bars in America. 21. 

That’s pathetic. There are more red-faced, homophobic gutter bars in one metropolitan area—Eugene and Springfield—than there are lesbian bars in the entire nation. Are we really going to be outdone by a bunch of rednecks?

The lesbian bar must be embraced in the Queer community. We need to stop attending that one bar, and pay homage to the places the females go. We must tweet, retweet, and instagram the plight of the modern lesbian bar. We must put our money where our mouth is. Donate, buy that fancy drink, and tip your goddamn bartender. Most of all, in Eugene, we must seek out those ambitious enough to open a lesbian bar and utterly support them. 

We are only as strong as our weakest link, Eugene Queers. Right now, our marginalized friends are suffering. I mean, our overall scene is lacking, but focusing on where we slack the most will uplift us higher than any other aspirational measure. You save that lesbian, she’ll have your back for the rest of your life. 

If you have any ideas, any connoisseurs, or investors looking to develop this idea — let me know. We’ll drop our knits and head straight for the front lines, as that’s what lesbians do best. 

Kyra Roesle

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