On the night of March 2, a tornado churned through Nashville, ripping through whole neighborhoods and damaging swaths of restaurants. Among the businesses hit was the Lipstick Lounge, a lesbian-owned “bar for humans” open for almost 18 years. Co-owners Christa Suppan and Jonda Valentine rallied their community to save the bar; a friend launched a GoFundMe that raised over $16,000. The owners, staff, and friends threw themselves into eight days of repairs to save the bar. On March 11, they reopened. “Everybody who walked in those doors, we had the biggest hugs ever,” Suppan says. “We missed them after just eight days.”
That triumph and relief were short-lived: On March 15, Nashville ordered all bars and restaurants to close to curb the spread of COVID-19. Lipstick shut down again. And it hasn’t opened since. “It was a double whammy,” Suppan says. “Having already lost everything, all our food, and reopening again, which cost a lot of money, we had to close four days later. I’ve been in this industry so long, and I’ve never gone through anything like this, and neither has anybody else. There’s no handbook.”
As the pandemic stretches onward, America’s few remaining lesbian bars are hanging on for dear life, and waiting for their moment. While there is no official Queer Bar Registry, current estimates put the number of lesbian bars in the United States at a vanishingly small 16. In the 1980s, there were hundreds, according to a study which has confirmed the gut feeling in queer America that the gay bar is in decline, and lesbian bars are the most endangered. Without major community and even government support, COVID-19 could reduce those numbers further — or cause a full-on extinction. Many of the bar owners I spoke to are getting by trading off bills, hoping for landlord understanding, and maxing out their credit cards; some aren’t sure if they can last past June or July if they remain closed. But still, they are holding out hope.
In San Francisco, the bar Jolene’s opened just a year ago to fill the void for queer people who are left out of the male-centric bar spaces elsewhere in the city. Owner Jolene Linsangan calls her first year a “rollercoaster,” even after a lifetime spent in and around the restaurant industry. “It’s still a rollercoaster to figure out how we’re going to survive. I’m trying to pay off one bill at a time and ask for extensions and see if we can make it.” She has unleashed a slew of creative strategies to keep the lights on and stay connected to her community during lockdown. The bar normally serves food, so there’s takeout brunch with rainbow pancakes and an entirely Hawai‘i-themed menu by her chef who grew up there. Regulars who live in the neighborhood come by weekly or even daily for to-go cocktails in cups sealed by a machine commonly used for boba. “A customer accidentally dropped it and still it was closed — she was so amazed,” Linsangan says. The bar also regularly streams performances over Zoom, with the performers’ Venmo accounts attached so they can get a bit of financial relief, too. When reopening does happen, Linsangan plans on maintaining social distancing by selling tickets for dinner and a show, in the hopes that customers will want to pay to sit in one place and enjoy live entertainment.
Linsangan is regularly in touch with Julie Mabry of Pearl Bar in Houston, who she met after bringing her lesbian party, which usually hopped around bars in San Francisco, on tour. Now the bar owners trade advice and support. Mabry is emerging as a connecting node among the loose coalition of lesbian bar owners across the country. It happened by accident: After Mabry was denied a Paycheck Protection Program loan by Chase, her longtime bank, she tagged Ellen DeGeneres in an open letter on Facebook, asking for her help in ensuring the last 16 lesbian bars survive. Mabry never heard back from DeGeneres (her show’s crew allegedly didn’t either), but the post inspired the bar’s regulars and fans to reach out. On Instagram she launched a #SaveTheLastLesbianBars campaign, where she regularly highlights different bars, linking out to their websites and GoFundMe pages and tagging famous lesbians and bisexual women to ask for their help (none have replied).
But if the famous people in the queer world haven’t been pitching in, the everyday community has. Mabry is getting to know bar owners around the country who share her hyperspecific challenges, and she says there’s a growing sense that they’re all in this together. A woman in Los Angeles loaned money to help keep Pearl alive. “[It was] someone who hasn’t been to Pearl and just saw what we built and believes we will make it through.”
The perilous state of the lesbian bar in America has inspired a new awareness of these bars, especially as young lesbians and queer people who feel at home in dyke-centric spaces come of age and discover they have no place to call their own. Out of this longing, lesbian bars are proliferating on television, as Lena Wilson recently wrote in the New York Times, in shows like Vida, Catwoman, and, of course, The L Word: Generation Q.
Lauren Amador is one of those young lesbians trying to imagine a way forward for queer spaces. An architect who runs a roving pop-up, the Fingerjoint, which is currently Los Angeles’s only lesbian bar, she had booked out their entire summer with events before COVID-19 hit; now all of those events are postponed or canceled. Still, the timing could have been worse. “If I had a lease [right now], and we had started construction, it would have been a nightmare,” Amador says. She hopes that maybe this mass closure of everyone’s spaces will inspire a new understanding of why it’s so debilitating to lose lesbian bars. “People haven’t been able to go to their sports bar, and they’re having a similar experience of what it’s like to not have a space. Maybe we can get through to people about what that means, that we’ve been without these spaces all this time.”
In Columbus, Ohio, longtime lesbian bar Slammers survived that city’s lockdown period on the prowess of its takeout pizza. It was supposed to reopen June 2, but during the uprisings in the city against police brutality, the bar was severely damaged. A former manager launched a GoFundMe to help fund repairs, with a note that “our windows and possessions can be replaced, while the lives of our slain brothers and sisters most certainly cannot.” Slammers reopened on Friday, June 12. Andrew Parnell, the general manager and “literally only guy who works here,” says that they’re taking every precaution and hoping patrons will take advantage of the patio. “We went the extra distance, spacing out tables, making sure it’s really simple and easy to keep that distance. The staff know it’s zero tolerance if someone doesn’t want to follow rules — they’re out, no questions, no explanations.” The bar is also boosting fundraisers for Columbus Freedom Fund on social media.
Reopening is an option for Pearl Bar, too, but Mabry is glad she held off as case numbers hit record levels in Houston. She had originally hoped to reopen June 24, but those plans are on hold. Several gay bars in Houston opened earlier in June, only to have to close their doors again as employees and owners tested positive. The financial burden of opening and closing again would be insurmountable for Mabry, but more than anything else, she is focused on keeping her community safe. Since the lockdown began, she’s received 40 or 50 messages from women who came to Pearl Bar when they first came out, saying that it was the place where they could go and feel safe. Mabry says she first dreamed of opening a lesbian bar when she went to one with her sister, who is also gay. “Whenever my sister walked into a gay bar, her whole entire mood changed. She just had happiness around her,” she says. Mabry understands that as the owner of one of the few lesbian bars left, she needs to safeguard that space for people like her sister.
Community also weighs heavily on the mind of Suppan as she tries to chart a way forward for Lipstick Lounge. “People come in, they’re so lost — I was one of them — they don’t feel loved by their family, their churches, and now they’re walking into a place that says, Hey, know what? I love you, Jonda loves you, my staff loves, you know you have this safe place to go to with no judgment.” Right now, she says the empty building can feel the absence of the bar’s regulars. Her life is a lot quieter, too — usually her phone is constantly buzzing with texts and calls from employees from the morning through closing up at 2 a.m. One of the strangest things about lockdown has been the silence. Suppan choked up when speaking about the people who haven’t been able to come in to Lipstick. “How many people are really struggling with depression who are quarantined by themselves? They don’t have a partner, they don’t have family to go hang out with or stay with, no one is even checking on them.”
But Suppan never wants her bar to be a place where people get sick. For now, she’s trying to fix the bar’s patio, which was damaged by the tornado, and see where things go from there. She has already maxed out her credit cards to keep Lipstick Lounge afloat, and won’t reopen until she’s sure Lipstick can stay open for good. “I have a wooden plaque in my house that says Be Still. It’s going to cost thousands to reopen, and if we don’t do it at the right time, we’re not going to get a second chance. We have one shot.”
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent