New York’s Lesbian Bars Are Disappearing: Here’s Why Their Survival Matters

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Lola RocknRolla and her band Megababe at Meow Mix bar, late nineties. Photo: Santos J. Arce

Jerre Kalbas is a lifelong New Yorker and a 97-year-old lesbian. When I tell her that there are only four remaining lesbian bars in New York, she literally drops her rice cake. “Four?” she asks. “That’s terrible. When I was growing up, there were so many.” I feel bad telling Jerre this news. I worry that my generation disappoints her. I want her to finish her rice cake.

Jerre was born in 1918, and was active during the 1940s, a time when “drinks were 10 cents” and police conducted raids on New York’s LGBT bars. I was born in 1983, and am active at a time when “Jell-o shots are $10,” and more women identify as queer than ever before. Despite this fact, there are currently only four active lesbian bars left in New York —Henrietta Hudson, The Cubbyhole, Ginger’s Bar, and Bum-Bum Bar. That leaves just two jukeboxes and eight public bathrooms for all of New York’s barhopping lesbians. Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar just died, as did DC’s, and San Francisco’s is on its way out. At just four bars, New York now has the most lesbian bars of anywhere in the country.

While New York is home to many more men’s bars than women’s, the decline has been felt by gay men as well. I estimate there are around 53 remaining queer bars total, in a city that just 30 years ago supported close to 86.  (This number comes from the Gayellow pages, which only includes published listings. The actual amount was very likely higher). That’s a 38% decline, despite a 16% city population increase. It’s even harder to pinpoint the number of women’s bars that used to exist, because some bars were run in basements, and no official statistics were kept. But anecdotal evidence is abundant, and the nationwide pattern is striking.

None of this is new news, and it’s nothing to celebrate. Imagine being the last four polar bears at the bottom of an endangered species list–it’s lonely. Gentrification and rising rents have pushed queer bars out of their former neighborhoods, as incomes have stagnatedLesbians have a poverty rate of 22.7%, as compared to 21% of heterosexual women, 20% of gay men, and 15.3% of straight men. The financial health of the trans community is even more bleak–15% of transgender Americans have incomes under $10,000 per year, as compared to 4% of the general population. And because bars are capital-intensive projects, it makes it that much harder for under-resourced communities to both build them, and sustain them. It’s no surprise that three out of the four New York’s lesbian bars—Henrietta’s and The Cubbyhole in the Village, and Ginger’s in Park Slope—are conveniently located in two of New York’s wealthiest zip codes.

Success isn’t easy. Lisa Cannistraci, who runs Henrietta’s, has managed to keep her bar afloat by catering to a demographic many older lesbian bars have lost. “The way a bar stays open is to cater to the 23- to 37-year-old crowd. That’s how you stay open,” she says. While the bar prides itself on being age-diverse, Lisa runs multiple parties and changes them every couple months—keeping the attention of a younger, easily distracted demographic. Ginger’s, which is owned by Sheila Frayne and is celebrating its 15th birthday, blames the decline on “crazy rent” increases all across the city. She’s managed to stay in business by operating Ginger’s as both a lesbian bar and “a neighborhood pub. Everyone’s welcome. We never charge to get in, and we never turn anyone away,” she says. Meow Mix, which shut down in 2004, wasn’t as lucky. One of the city’s most popular lesbian bars in the ’90s, it closed after eight years, citing problems with “flooding, harassment, and a shift in city demographics.”

Bonnie & Clyde's. Image courtesy of The Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Bonnie and Clyde’s existed on West 3rd Street from the ’70s through the mid-1980s. Photo: The Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Financial concerns may dominate the conversation, but the rise of Internet dating has also contributed to the decline. As Michael Ruiz at CityLab writes, “with forums for communication now accessible from anywhere with WiFi, lesbian bar patrons can go wherever they want.” At one point in history, lesbian bars were often the only place to meet lesbian people. Thanks to OkCupid and Tinder, I can now engage in painful banter with single, thirty-something lesbians—all from the comfort of my home. Great!  

You can’t blame the Internet for everything—assimilation plays a role as well. Over three years ago, June Thomas at Slate argued: Once upon a time, gay bars were the only venues where gay people could let down their defenses. Now, at least in urban centers, gay men and lesbians feel safe in scads of straight restaurants and bars. Thomas’ argument has merit, but it doesn’t obviate the need for safe spaces. While certain factions of the queer community enjoy greater acceptance and visibility, anyone who has ever read a news headline knows that homophobic violence remains. So does casual bigotry.

Kika Gilbert, a queer friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn (dubbed “the lesbian capital of the Northeast“), sees it on a daily basis. “The only obnoxious thing about living across from Ginger’s and having it be a real certified lesbian bar,” she says, “is all of the comments that people make as they walk by. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to enter there or walk by without someone (men and/or women) making a joke about lesbians.” (Frayne’s response? “Oh yes, I hear it all the time, too.”)

For others, assimilation or gentrification isn’t the issue—it’s the word “lesbian” itself. Many Gen-Xers grew up before the word queer came into play—when lesbian and gay were the only semi-acceptable non-heteronormative options allowed. But not everyone identifies that way. For some, these labels–and these bars–can feel outdated, even unwelcoming. As Nicole Gitau, a 31-year-old who identifies as queer and lives in Park Slope, told me, “I think there’s been a move toward queer parties because they are frequented by a younger generation that’s just not as interested in these exclusive (gay/lesbian) spaces . . . The same separatist politics that are responsible for the rise of lesbian and gay bars also often uphold racist, misogynist, classist, and transphobic ideologies. She compares the exclusivity of gay/lesbian bars to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which has historically shunned the trans community.

Xena Party (Photo Credit: Camille Betina Atkinson)

Xena Night took place at Meow Mix’s fetish party, before the bar closed in 2004. Photo: Camille Bettina Atkinson

Nearly everyone I spoke with had complicated feelings about New York’s lesbian bars. But no matter what their concerns were, one emotion dominated nearly all our conversations: grief. At one point, lesbian bars were the church of the lesbian community. They were the spot you met your friends. They were place you organized your ACT UP meeting and found your partners. They felt physical and real in a way that all of the brilliantly diverse Internet communities out there maybe just can’t. 

Grief is commonly considered a negative emotion, but psychologists know the feeling is more nuanced. When we grieve for someone we’ve lost, we remember not only what it was like to lose it, but what it felt like to have it. We remember what it was like to be in a crowded room full of people who might actually like you, and people you call friends. We remember what it was like to be accepted, or to be rejected, and try again. Loss and community in a room with six barstools, three taps, no toilet paper.

It’s hard for me to claim this grief, but these bars matter to me, too. I came of age during the late 2000s, attending queer parties like “Choice Cunts” and “That’s My Jam.” I loved those parties, and continue to drag my body out of bed every Brooklyn Pride to attend ones like it. The city has its share of queer coffee shops and community centers. But I’ve always wished that there could be more physical meeting spaces where I could meet actual living, breathing! queer people. I wouldn’t have to check whether it was Wednesday night at The Woods or Friday night at Monster. I’d just show up, and there they’d all be. [Ed. note: To make it easier to find said parties, we’ve got a list of them here.]

I spoke with six individuals who have been deeply involved in New York’s queer bar scene at some point in its history. They ran bars, hosted parties, poured drinks. Everyone has a different perspective on how the community has changed, whether it’s cause for mourning, or moving on.

10 Responses

  1. Winnie McCroy -

    Truly an excellent story, one of the best I’ve ever read on dyke bars in the city. I miss those days when you could sit on the filthy velvet couches in the basement of Meow Mix and get drunk as hell while deciding who you were going to try and take home that evening. Thank goodness that party promoters like Sabrina and Ellie are still making lesbian-friendly spaces happen for New York’s women.

    Reply
  2. April -

    It’s pretty disheartening being a young woman and having no where to go, or such few options, because they might all not be your scene. This speaks much more to gender inequality as well as gentrification. Women need exclusive spaces to hang out, independent of gay male spaces because we are different and that should be respected.

    Reply
  3. Christine -

    I do not see this as a bad thing. Lesbians no longer need to go to bars for a “safe” meeting place. We are more accepted being among the general population now. I enjoy going to bars for humans.

    Reply
    • Pauline -

      Christine, the point of this article is to bring attention to the lack of options gay women have to hang out with people that “get you”, and the nostalgia of the way it use to be.

      if you want to kiss your lover, caress, or snuggle up to her in a cozy, intimate manner, that type of affectionate display would NOT go over well in a straight scene. I’m not saying they’d chased the couple out of the club/restaurant etc. but there would be those that would be offended, and some that would stare in amazement as if the gay couple were starring in a science fiction movie.

      This piece is about socializing, being in your flow with women that are of your same tribe, period!

      Xoxoxo

      Reply
      • Carter -

        Yea im a butch and I WOULDN’T SAY lesbians get accepted in straight places they just R TOLERATED. Im a butch and I almost ALWAYS get ppl staring at me. (I hate this) MAKES ME SUPER UNCOMFORTABLE. or get a guy giving me the hateful eye. Thanx to laws and more ppl comin out that hav siblings that support em n society changing ppl just dont get violent anymore. We need coffee shops restaurants that turn into clubs bars to have that comfort. Im sure the Majority of us do not feel completely comfortable to lightly make out in a crowed straight restaurant. Most of us who have i dont care attude yea but ur not completely comfortable. Its imperative that gays n lez stick together! I love gay n lez lounges. I wish they mix em more its ur ppl n its very friendly. I c big clubs n more advantages if the community unites jus alil bit more. We should be tight knit n overtaking blocks with strong business

        Reply
  4. Maxine Kessler -

    Poorly researched. What happened to Elaine Romagnoli?
    Did she not own/manage Bonnie and Clydes?
    Was she not the creator of the original Cubbyhole?

    Reply
    • Gort -

      Check Elaine R.in FB….Please someone open up other Lesbian Bar….like in the 80,s it would be so much fun….:)

      Reply
  5. Melody -

    Tell me about it here I’m celebrating my birthday and I despise Henrietta’s because it really sucks now and Cubbyhole is too small for a big group of friends and Hot Rabbit last night with The Monster lounge was last week so I feel like I’m all out of options if anyone know of any lesbian events on Friday the 13 let me know even though I highly doubt it.I’m even thinking about opening a lesbian bar for all this searching I have to do on the internet.

    Reply
  6. E.J /DUTCH....... -

    WELLL))))) that was some sad tale!!!!..left me ever so thankfull of having lived during the years of the high life lesbian bars…and werent they SOMETHINg!!!! yes they were……if you worked all week and knew friday you were going out..it meant you were going to one or more clubs that night..and ..you couldnt wait!!!!…..you dressed to impress!!!! …if you frequanted them on regular basis you were known and you were greeted when you entered the door……you felt accepted and you knew you belonged……..Its terrebly sad that Lesbian bars/clubs have had to close!!And every year another one disapeares…….And i wonder why there wasnt a way to have preserved them…….if in Amsterdam and you wanted to go to the red light district you were directed how to get there………… they exist. there still!!!!!.there is a place for everything….theire not sqeezed out of society……but Alas back to where we are at!!!….the loss is significant and the years ahead will tell the tale………… i was part of somthing wonderful and memorable………..im 78 now And probly the last lesbian lounge i i frequanted was wonderful”….. Ruby fruits”……a bar and lounge and a lovely restaurant beneath……..very romantic…….perfect for after work…… yu met your buddies there….. . in the nineties i frequanted “””JULIES” ……i believe it was on 57 or 58 the street in manhatten…..if you went there after work at 5oclock you got to meet gals that just got out of the office secrataries and gals that just wanted to chill before the heavier crowds would pile in after 8………..it was wondrfully exscusive!!!! and had the most beautifull woman……….Including the charming” Merryl “…….who made your drink and knew what you drank without being told . Yes ive been to them all……in the seveties there was THE SAHARA!! the notorious!!!! in a townhouse on 3rd and 65th…….3 levels.. with a piano bar ist level……dancing on the top!! what absolute fun that was…….toot toot bee beep!!!! donna summers heat on the dance floor…….thank you for the memories girls…….. my first bar in the city was in the sixties at THE SEA COLONY………….its like you are in a movie as your mind opens a lens into the past…….. everyone slow danced on the floor..lights were dim….. And Maria was the bar maid/butch…who everyone wanted….she was ALL THAT!!!!…. i could list so many…. and as i do i see what is lost………………..Iam a letter wrter…. no email for me……i still buy pages of beautifull stamps and …frequant the post office!!!..im told that as people are now paying bills online no one goes to the p.o anymore…. and that many branches have closed across the country!!!..and i foresee that there will come another generation in time to come that will say Did you know people used to write letters that were delivered to your mail box.. Real hand held writing in an envelope????…..some will sAY WHY OTHERS will sense the loss………… if you leave a letter behind and it is read 100 years from now it will be as fresh as the day it was writen………..including the scent you put there. So what will that generation think about manhatten having lost all of its lesbian bars………and question why…….??.. Once there there was Cookies on 14th street The Martha Washington” on 3RD Bonnie and Clyde…..The Tigress on 28th and park ave south…. Paulas lounge in the village……The grand “Dutchess ” near Christopher st …. .”Julies” “Nannies” on Hudson………and the list is endless…….thank you for having left me with countless memories of wild nights unforgetable hilarious fun!!!…………………

    Reply

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