For 21-year-old college student Sarah Braun, it’s not just the pictures of boobs and bums on the walls and the bright pink pool table that make Jolene’s at the corner of 16th and Harrison streets in the Mission feel like a lesbian bar. It’s the accompanying feeling of safety to be her most authentic self.
“I feel seen here just because I know… that I'm safe here,” Braun said during a karaoke night at the bar in May. “The other bars I've been to in the city, I've felt very out of place, especially as a very femme-presenting woman and as a fat woman. It's like I feel uncomfortable taking up space in those other places.”
Increasingly, however, such spaces for queer women may feel like a rarity. While San Francisco has long been an LGBTQ+ friendly place, Jolene’s (which describes itself as a “queer bar” on social media) is just one of two widely known bar hangouts for women loving women in the city. The other is Wild Side West, a longtime “local lesbian bar” in Bernal Heights.
Nationally, according to the Lesbian Bar Project’s yet-to-be-published latest count, there are just 24 lesbian bars in the United States, compared to about 1,000 catering to gay men or mixed-gender LGBTQ+ clientele nationwide.
So why are there so few lesbian bars in San Francisco and around the country? And what does that mean for the future of lesbian-focused spaces? Many women-loving women in the city want to know the answer too.
Alex U. Inn, a Bay Area drag king, “artivist,” creator of the dance party Unleash! for women over 40, and co-founder of the Pride Parade counterpoint known as the People’s March—in conversation with Dr. Carol Hill, who serves as Executive Director of the San Francisco Beacon Initiative by day and “stewards” El Rio’s queer party Mango once a month—will address these questions, and more, at Manny’s on Friday, June 17.
Ahead of the talk, Inn and Hill, along with Erica Rose, director of the Lesbian Bar Project’s eponymous documentary and a forthcoming extension of the film into a three-part docuseries slated for October, pointed to a few reasons why lesbian bars have been in decline.
While both Inn and Hill remember times when San Francisco was booming with lesbian-focused bars, Rose’s 20-minute documentary for The Lesbian Bar Project on the history and state of such venues nationwide underscores how sexist discriminatory practices have made it difficult for lesbian bars to be established and survive. In the course of her research, Rose discovered that women often had a hard time securing loans without a male signature and, in one particularly egregious incident, one aspiring queer businesswoman had an especially difficult time securing a liquor license without a male signatory. Rose also noted that women faced difficulties securing credit cards on their own before 1974.
“There's just a lot of unspoken and inherent sexism against business owners who are women and queer women,” Rose said.
Rose pointed to the closure of the Lexington Club as one example of the toll the high cost of doing business in San Francisco has taken on bars focused on serving queer women. The lesbian bar closed its doors in 2014; its owner cited gentrification and the unsustainability of running a business in San Francisco as reasons for closing the beloved brick-and-mortar.
“Especially economically, times have definitely changed, and it's sort of strangled our scene,” Hill said. “All the prices are going up, and people are having trouble … staying afloat.”
In addition to the rising cost of living, Rose says that the underlying wage gap between queer women and most other groups has also contributed to the dearth of lesbian bars.
“A lot of it has to do with, you know, the wage gap, frankly,” Rose said. “We know that women make less than men. Queer women make less than straight women, and almost all [lesbian] bars are owned and operated by queer women.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, women in the LGBTQ+ community earn 87 cents for every dollar the typical worker earns. (The wage of a “typical worker” in this study was determined by calculating the median wage of all workers in the United States). Non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid and two-spirit individuals earn 70 cents for every dollar the typical worker earns; and trans women earn 60 cents.
That translates to fewer discretionary dollars for patrons to spend at the bar, observes Inn.
“Women may be buying one or two drinks instead of ten or 11 for the whole bar, like gay men do,” Inn said.
“A lot of queer women are parents,” observes Rose. “And so, their disposable income, if they have any, will go to their children, and so they don't have as much money to just, like, hang at the bar.”
According to a study by the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute, nearly one-quarter of lesbian, bisexual and queer women ages 18 to 59 have had children and 24% of female same-sex couples are raising children. That’s compared to 8% for male same-sex couples.
But it’s not just about dollars and cents. Inn observes that the times they are a-changin' too.
Inn believes that as mainstream society has become more accepting of LGBTQ+ people and relationships, the need for the lesbian bar as a safe space to meet up with LGBTQ+ friends or field potential romantic partners has become less “necessary.” The rise of online dating has also made it easier for people to meet, Inn observes, and less rigid gender and sexuality labels among younger generations means that the desire for separatist spaces for only lesbians or only queer men may be “dwindling.”
Additionally, Rose’s documentary observes that some lesbian bars are making a pointed statement about inclusivity by adding “queer” to their descriptions of their establishments.
“Having that really private space for lesbians only is not necessary as much anymore,” Inn said. “The apps and the dating apps have really changed. You know, we don't have to go to a bar to pick up anybody. We can go out on a dating app and meet somebody at a cool ass restaurant. … We can meet differently, we can hang out differently, we identify differently.”
Still others, like Rose, believe that lesbian bars are deeply needed for the preservation of lesbian history and “community gathering” in the LGBTQ+ community.
“It's a loss of history. It's a loss of inter-generational dialogue. It's a loss for queer friendship,” said Rose.
Others, like Braun, still feel the need for a lesbian-focused bar in their social lives.
“Very few gay bars even have, like, ‘lesbian night,’ let alone make it known that they are for lesbians all the time or any queer women or even queer nonconforming people. Basically, if you're not a cis gay man at most of the bars in San Francisco, you're going to feel out of place. That's my experience,” Braun said.
And even Inn does concede: “I think female-facing folks need a place to go because even when we go in certain queer bars they're not kind to us still, even in 2022, and that has to change.”
And lastly, Hill thinks that the role Covid has had to play in the decline of the lesbian bar cannot be discounted.
“I think primarily what really kind of decimated us was Covid,” Hill said, noting that the pandemic continued to force more and more socialization online and that hesitancy to return to bars and clubs still lingers as the pandemic continues. “People were scared; people died. It was the AIDS crisis, but for everybody here, and it impacted lots of folks … and we're still in it.”
So what does the future hold? As a result of the pandemic, Rose sees more and more lesbian-focused and queer bars opening earlier or providing food to cater to queer women with families, expanding their non-alcoholic menu options for sober clientele, and bringing in drag artists, musicians and performance artists into the mix.
“The good thing about the pandemic is that it actually encouraged a lot of the owners to transform their space,” Rose said.
Inn predicts that the lesbian bar will become an even more inclusive space for all gender and sexual identities.
“I think the future bar will not be called ‘the lesbian bar.’ … We'd just have to figure out what that non-heterosexual label is,” Inn muses.
And Hill thinks that, while more “hybrid” and online options should be incorporated into the lesbian party scene, she also believes that the future of the lesbian bar is still bright.
“I think that nothing is ever going to take the place of people walking into a bar, being able to get a drink, looking around at the pretty women and all the other people who are in there and meeting people and dancing. Nothing is ever going to take the place of that. … Even if we have a lull, it will come back,” she said.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org