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The Lesbian Bar: The Queer Endangered Species

The fight for LGBTQ+ rights had its rises and falls throughout the 20th century, but we have always been able to go to our clubs and pubs to be with our community. Lesbian women had bars to head to in times of trouble and of joy. However, in the last few years the number of lesbian bars around the world has lowered. Why is that?

The history of lesbian bars

First, discussing lesbian bars means discussing LGBTQ+ history. Some of the earliest and most popular examples of queer people coming together are the bars and balls in 1920s Germany. The lesbian scene was vibrant and fun, and it was one of the rare occasions different social classes could interact in one place.

Around a similar time in Hollywood, actresses of high calibre like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich were rumoured to be part of “the Sewing Circle”, a group of women who loved women and who had to hide this part of their lives from the studios they worked for. A lot of gossip and speculation surrounds this group, and it has been heavily rumoured that a lot of these actresses dated each other.

Towards the end of the century, in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, being seen as LGBTQ+ had become more dangerous than ever, and spaces for the community to gather were more important than ever. Lesbians were starting to expand that sense of community by making magazines and organising politically to protest issues such as the treatment of gay men after the AIDS crisis of the 80s and the passing of laws such as Section 28 here in the UK.

What happened?

Where is all this in-person community nowadays? The first few decades of the 21st century have brought an unprecedented amount of mainstream acceptance and protective laws across the globe, and more people identify as some form of LGBTQ+ than ever before. Not to mention that the internet has made everyone more connected than ever. This would surely mean a more tight-knit community than ever, especially for queer women? But it seems that the opposite has happened.

Some speculate that there a quite a few reasons for this: the first and the most persistent reason is misogyny that persists in our community that does not allow many of the many gay bars in cities like San Francisco, Manchester and Brighton to have women-centred clubs or themed nights. As well as this, queer women tend to be paid less than their male counterparts, especially if they are BAME, trans or disabled, or any combination of the three. Combine these two reasons with the cost of living which has been steadily increasing for years, and it’s easy to see that queer women generally struggle more with starting their own businesses.

In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic was an intense step back for a lot of small businesses, especially pubs and clubs whose main purpose is to be together in a limited space; in the aftermath a lot of people became unemployed and thus unable to spend money in these places even if they were open, which lead to a vicious cycle where these spaces were hard to maintain. On the flip side, the pandemic has led to a deeper desire to create a community, and online groups soared in popularity in the past three years.

The lesbian bar project: The next generation of queer women

Many lesbians feel the need to keep the community alive at a time where we are often divided, particularly on topics of gender and what a “lesbian-exclusive” space would look like. This can lead to transphobic arguments which will not be discussed here as they are outside of the scope of this article and it would give them validity.

This is where the Lesbian Bar Project comes in, a project that comes with a website and a three-part docuseries which seeks to "celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the US”. The film is made up of smaller clips where the owners of the bars and those who visit them discuss their views on the lesbian scene. On the website itself, they list the 27 remaining lesbian bars in the US and their mission statement. It’s an inclusive celebration of lesbian women and other people of marginalised genders that emphasises the need we have as young lesbians to be in touch with our roots.

What can we do now?

Now that nights out are coming back, so is the lesbian scene in quite a few cities. In the UK, there was a 60% decrease in lesbian bars between 2006 and 2016, but this article from The Guardian discusses the growing options that specifically butch lesbians and studs have now, mostly including specific themed nights. These include Butch, Please! and Pillow Kings in London.

Hopefully this will lead to these nights and plans for clubs to be seen as profitable and viable. Together with the spread of the internet and the ability to connect it brings, this could potentially mean a boom of the lesbian scene. We are still here, we still need our spaces, and they will always come back.


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