Lesbian bar, queer futurities?

What if the paucity of lesbian bars represented not a present failure or a return to a bad gay past, but the future of queer sociality for everyone? This was the challenge posed by Lyndsey Beutin when she, Crystal Biruk and I hung out a couple weeks ago. When San Francisco’s Lexington Club closed in 2015, the loss of the city’s last lesbian bar was bemoaned by the “dykes, queers, artists, musicians and neighborhood folks who made up the community that surrounded it.” Thus San Francisco, one of the most famously homosexual cities in the world, lost its only full-time anchor for lesbian nightlife. Though bars for gay men have also seen a decline in numbers, there are still more than 30. In the past three years, Lesbian bars that were the last of their kind have closed in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Houston, Tuscon, Louisville, West Hollywood, Salt Lake City, Montreal, and Fort Lauderdale. New York city may be the only city in the US with more than one dyke bar–it has four–which means “that leaves just two jukeboxes and eight public bathrooms for all of New York’s barhopping lesbians,” a greater metro area of 20 million people.”

There have always been far fewer lesbian bars that gay bars, and scholarly studies have always described this in terms of deficiency and lack. The dominant perspective is a Marxist one, citing women’s lack of spending power and their struggle to make a living outside the world of men’s greater incomes and the security it provides. Lila Thirkield, the Lexington’s owner, framed the paucity of lesbian bars relative to those for gay men in terms of both supply and demand:

Women make less money than men and a two male household is going to have more capital potential to start a business than a two female household. How many bars or restaurants do you see being run by women? So few. And that’s just the supply side. Because women have less disposable income and consume less than men, the spending power isn’t the same when you are talking about having a bar for mostly women [on the demand side].

Economics certainly matters, but this explanation never satisfied me because it’s not like women make 30 times less than men, if they reflected the ratio of gay bars to lesbian bars in San Francisco. Part of it is due to a historical divide between mainly white middle-class lesbian political organizers who disdained bars and the butch-fem roles associated with them. Martin Meeker, a historian of zines, newsletters and hobby magazines in his Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community summarizes the dominant view of political leaders: “lesbian-feminists would do better to find community in feminist institutions rather than bars” (p. 248).

Other popular explanations cite gendered cultural differences between gay men and lesbians, such as having more kids, not drinking as much alcohol, and the widespread view that “coupled up women just nest more than men.” Or, there’s blaming the victims:

We (dykes) want the lesbian bar to be there when we need it but don’t want to have to pay/volunteer/treat it well to help it stay viable for when we don’t need it. We are assholes who think we should get everything for free…
We are assholes who don’t deserve nice things.

Another cultural explanation, one also informed by Marxism, is again provided by Martin Meeker. Under the influence of socialist feminism, Meeker notes that women, far more than men, adopted a strategy of organizing outside the realm of the capitalist economy, founding  erstwhile businesses like women’s bookstores and magazines around activism, not profits:

Entrepreneurship from below suggests that as commerce began in the gay world, it did so as an attempt to sidestep and/or undermine corporate capitalism and thus provide an alternative, community-oriented model for linking commerce with the activism of creating connection (p. 207).

This community-minded, connecting-fostering business model was a hallmark of Thirkield’s Lexington Club:

The things I’m most proud of are always having no cover EVER and throwing great parties, having cheap drinks and always staying open on the holidays. Really I think the Lex is special because of our openness to the community too. When we first started, there was a climate of heavy competition among the parties and lesbian happenings. We took a different road and let everyone put up posters for all their events, even if we were having one on the same night. A lot of people were shocked. But our thinking was the more there is to do for queer women in San Francisco the more of a scene there is and the more reason there is for more women to go out.

This focus on homo community at the expense of a homo economicus might seem to be the cause of the lesbian bar’s demise, but it reflects a much wider trend: bars for gay men are also closing at unprecedented rates, the product of a convergence between straight cosmopolitanism and (white) gay male tastes, increased social acceptance, geolocation-enabled smart phone apps and internet sites, and changing nightlife trends. Historically, bars were important generators of subcultural sociability and community-mindedness. Whether gay bars are less important than they used to be is moot, for lesbians at least, when there aren’t any.

In a sense, then, lesbian sociality has always already reflected a gay future of nightlife untethered from brick and mortar, dependent instead upon institutions that are more ephemeral but still materially real: friendship networks, traveling monthly parties, guerrilla queer bar occupations, and a queer density in the mixed queer-straight scenes of poetry slams, community athletics, and cabaret-burlesque. When smart phone apps allow individuals to contact each other wherever they are, does the density of queer folks attracted to bars seem a artificial throwback? Queer bars, from this perspective, are like transcontinental train trips: nostalgically romantic, but ultimately impractical, unaffordable, and noncompetitive with the convenience and freedom of individual automobiles.

Such nostalgia is present in artist Macon Reed‘s “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar,” an installation currently on display at the Pulse Art Fair in New York City:

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The installation debuted at Brooklyn’s Wayfarer’s last year, where the exhibit’s own Facebook page described it thus:

Macon Reed’s “Eulogy For The Dyke Bar” revisits the legacy and physical spaces of dyke and lesbian bars, an increasingly rare component of the gay and queer cultural landscape. Reed’s installation, made of cardboard and simple materials that unapologetically reveal her hand in their making, offers a full bar, pool table, neon signs and hand-painted ’70s-era wood paneling.

“Eulogy For The Dyke Bar” seeks to acknowledge the mass closing of dyke bars across the country and ask a host of questions, such as: Why are these spaces closing? What socio-economic, cultural, and technological factors contribute to this phenomenon? Are the same factors impacting spaces for gay men? What role have physical spaces such as dyke bars played for lesbian-identified people in the past and how has that changed over time? How do we learn from these spaces and move forward in creating new spaces that are safe and affirming of our various communities while embracing expansive notions of gender and sexuality across generations?

Her piece explicitly highlights the intergenerational nature of bars as places, highlighting my concern with community socialization. But if dykes were always creating community without bars, maybe the queer future for everyone should take notes from those Amazon networks of the past.

Or, as the sociologist in me fears, such queer futures may reflect the worst parts of the  old-fashioned gay and lesbian past: settling for a community marked by economic inequality. This affects who gets to participate in the untethered, un-placed world, based on whether they can afford smart phones and cars. The racial digital divide in access to the Internet is now accompanied by one with access to cars and the increasingly strapped public transportation, which never served the inner-ring suburbs where the poor are increasingly concentrating. And of course, capitalists are easily able to  co-opt guerilla efforts and squeeze profit out of these online communities.

In other words: does the failure of lesbian bars remind us of the strengths of organizing without places, or does it reveal the inequalities of who has them, and to what purposes they’re put?

We’ll know soon: these trends are unfolding in real time all over the country. The ability of queer socialities to occupy and subvert physical places will have to be ever more creative, even as our queer claims to geographical places become ever more ephemeral.

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