Sixteen. Sixteen bars in eleven states, that’s how many lesbian-centric places are left for women in the United States.
Girls run the world but in the gay community the emphasis has been more male-leaning when it comes to bars and nightlife.
As brutal as it might seem, there are not a lot of specialized places for women to gather. It’s the harsh truth, made harsher by the uncertainty that this COVID pandemic has exposed. Bar and club owners, their staff, DJ’s, dancers, entertainers, and musicians have all been punched with uncertainty in recent months. But it’s the safe spaces gearing towards women who are on the brink of disappearing.
In New York, three establishments remain. There is the 29-year-old Henrietta Hudson owned by Lisa Cannistraci and Minnie Rivera, 27-year-old Cubbyhole Bar owned by Lisa Menichino who took over when the original owner died and in Brooklyn there is Ginger’s, a 20-year old bar owned by Sheila Frayne. In the case of Cubbyhole all 9 of their staff lost 100% of their income, although as Menichino puts it, their staff is more like family.
Through all the devastation New York has seen this is the first time Cubbyhole has been forced to close. Cannistraci explains they are in the same situation, in fact Henrietta Hudson’s is currently shuttered. With both bars unable to sell take out items or food due to having no kitchen they are at a devastating standstill.
In California, they have seen the most expansive stay at home orders in the country. It harbors two bars who haven’t been open as long as their New York sister’s but feel the heavy lean of the COVID crisis all the same. Moe Girton who is the majority owner of Gossip Grill located in San Diego has been feeling incredibly challenged over the last few months to cover their high rent.
Girton also worries about helping her laid off staff. “All my entertainers/DJ’s are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. My staff is devastated, but I am trying my best to take care of them where I can.” Gossip Grill has re-opened and restructured recently to do take-out and delivery services. They offer food, alcohol, pre-made cocktails, grocery items and essentials like masks and gloves.
This is the same posture Jolene’s Bar is taking in San Francisco, California. Jolene’s, owned by Jolene Linsangan, who just recently celebrated their one-year anniversary of opening is doing Friday, Saturday and Sunday take-out orders with an impressive menu.
Their tiered take-away packages including pre-made cocktails, deliciously prepared food, jello-shots, Jolene’s pins, and even a roll of toilet paper. Their staff has been working tirelessly through this crisis to constantly shift to the new needs of their community and they are of course doing their famous Uhaul Friday’s virtually on Instagram live. Their staggered DJ’s go live with a go-go dancer and switch every thirty minutes to keep the party fresh and give their entertainers a way to still get donations.
Texas houses two inclusive lesbian bars, one is Sue Ellen’s in Dallas and the other is Pearl Bar Houston that has been opened for just under seven years. The owner of Pearl Bar, Julie Mabry has done a phenomenal job of supporting her staff, her bar, but has also been paramount in raising awareness about the other lesbian-centric bars in the country. Through Pearl Bar’s social media platforms, she highlights other queer bars and how to help them in their time of need. She has done what she can for her establishment and staff during this time by getting creative and doing steak, crawfish, and prepared drinks to-go. They also sell shirts on their Instagram page.
Julie Mabry says, “We did not get approved for PPP or EIDL, which was extremely disappointing.” PPP is the Paycheck Protection Program which is a forgivable loan for small businesses to pay their employees, and EIDL is the Economic Injury Disaster Loan which provides financial assistance to small businesses that are suffering substantial injury during a disaster. Government aid being completely absent, and their applications for assistance being denied was commonplace among the owners and operators I spoke with. Mary explains it would have a great help in the bills she has stacking up. She goes on to explain, “At some point if we can’t open to full capacity by June, I will have to start a GoFundMe.”
In Seattle, Washington a 35-year-old bar called The Wildrose owned by Martha Manning and Shelley Brothers has been closed since March 15th. Their employees were laid off and their three-day Pride block party was canceled. They have done what they can to offset the cost of operating their bar by doing takeout taco Tuesdays, offering pre-made cocktails, and selling hoodies and t-shirts online. Manning and Brothers are staying positive and are in constant awe of their supporters and the warmth their community has shown them. They are ready to get back to business but know it will be a process that they are willing to adapt to.
In the south, Atlanta, Georgia is home to infamous My Sister’s Room who in August will be celebrating their 24th year in business. MSR is owned by Jami Atlanta and Jen Chase-Daniels who are also responsible for the ever-popular Sexacola Weekend, which, takes place during Pensacola Pride Memorial Day weekend in Pensacola, Florida. Sadly, this was called off this year like a lot of other Pride events. MSR is the southeast’s longest running lesbian bar.
They were voted “Best Lesbian Bar” ten times in a row by an Atlanta based publications. They have been totally closed since March and like everyone else, they plan to reopen when it is safe to do so, not just according to their state, but in accordance with what they believe will be best for their patrons.
This is a feeling Jo McDaniel, the manager of Washington D.C’s A League of Her Own or ALOHO shares, “We have always been particular about cleanliness, as are most bars in our city, but we have plans to upgrade out cleaning products and just be incredibly careful.” ALOHO is just under two-years old and McDaniel explains, “While some of our staff have day jobs and have been able to continue working during this crisis, several employees including myself relied on the bar for our sole source of income.”
This is a recurring theme amongst the LGBTQ community. The entertainers, dancers, drag kings and queens, musicians, DJ’s, bar staff, and everyone else in between have felt the shut down as hard as anyone. For Gossip Grill’s Girton, she explains “We have DJ’s 6 nights a week and 2-3 shows a week…all my entertainers and DJ’s are out of work and struggling to make ends meet.” This sentiment was mimicked by Pearl Bar’s Mary, “I think self-employed entertainers are the ones hit the hardest aside from the businesses. For them to get unemployment seemed to be quite the task. We have to remember to try and support our entertainer friends.”
The common theme that was evident between the owners, managers and operators of these establishments wasn’t of self-pity, or questions of what am I going to do? Most of these women didn’t even think about their own well-being. In fact, in a shocking example of selflessness Merichino, the owner of Cubbyhole Bar was supposed to get married in less than a month. She says if she must pull money from her own wedding plans to keep her bar afloat, she will. Instead these sheroes were primarily focused on two things. Their employees, and their patrons. Story after story came in about how worried they were about their patrons who called their bar their sanctuary, their safe place, their escape from common but harsh realities.
McDaniel of ALOHO shared, “Just watching someone come into their own and have a place to be their whole self is the honor of my lifetime.”
Girton from Gossip Grill added, “Gossip has become the community center for our queer women and trans community. Whenever something happens, they come “home” to us to be with their framily (friends who we consider family) and feel safe.” When I asked Julie Mabry, the owner of Pearl Bar what the first thing she wants to do when she opens, it was an easy answer. “Thank every customer that walks into Pearl…I think you tend to forget what it’s all about when you get stuck in the day-to-day work of it all, but when you have time to go through pictures and read messages on social media you remember why you did this in the first place, for the community. They made Pearl.”
Brothers of The Wildrose said the same thing, “We’re looking forward to seeing everyone that we have missed for a couple of months and being able to say thank you to everybody that supported us so much.”
For the owners and operators to make the re-opening of their bars a reality they are all committed to going to great lengths to make sure they can open safely and responsibly. Cannistraci of Henrietta Hudson’s has said she will likely not open when given the go ahead from the state of New York.
Instead, she’ll wait until she can safely open 100% without restrictions for the safety of her faithful patrons. Others have adopted the same strategy, with a unanimous consensus that social distancing, diminished capacity, masks, gloves, temperature checks at the door, sanitizing and cleaning within minutes of contact policies will be in place and at the ready. All establishments are taking re-opening deadly serious.
While these women are treading the murky waters of this pandemic, we as patrons need to get involved. So how do we help? How do we pay back some of the safe spaces that harbored us when we were going through crisis?
One of the easiest things we can do is spread awareness via all social media platforms. Every bar listed has an Instagram page (that I will list at the bottom) where you can find their GoFundMe campaigns, their merchandise, their take-out menus, the food specials they are running, their virtual tip jars, their Venmo’s, Paypal, or Cashapp, their virtual performance schedules, their raffles and any other hustle they might be pivoting towards during this epidemic.
Go to their pages, share their stories and timeline posts, tag and retag anyone relevant or who can help spread awareness, go to their closed or shuttered establishments, take a picture and tell a story about how much you love them or an unforgettable night you had there. The more motion we can conjure to these places, the more potential action we can find to help them all make it through this.
We can also donate. Cannistraci of Henrietta Hudson’s has said over and over on their Instagram page that no donation is too small. If you can muster $5 this week and $10 the next that will be fine with whatever establishment you set your sights on. The truth is these bars have bills, some of them incredibly lofty, Menichino from The Cubbyhole Bar shared that her monthly bill, after whittling down to minimum essentials came out to be just shy of $13,000. I am sure the other owners can relate to the brutality of having bills pile up with little to no way to pay them.
The tragedy in all of this is we are down to sixteen lesbian-centric bars in the nation. Losing one bar to this pandemic would be a horrific blow to our community not only because of the slim numbers, but because of what these places mean to many of us. To the baby gay who just found her footing in the lesbian community. To the older queer woman who for more than twenty years found safety at her local girl bar. To the gender non-conforming kid who didn’t feel like they were being stared at for the first time in their life. To the 50-something mom of two who just started living her truth. It’s more than the four walls that we will lose. It’s the representation of what a home can look like for the many who never felt its comfort.
Lastly, and I say this with love, don’t be an asshole. We must be patient, compliant, compassionate, and generous customers. Tip and tip generously if you can. We are all in this frustrating holding pattern just waiting for the moment we get the “OK” to head back to our favorite bar. But we as patrons must actively participate in being good humans as well. The owners will have new rules, they will have adapted to the new climate, they will have safeguards in place that we have never observed before, follow them.
Menichino from The Cubbyhole Bar says, “We are counting on our customers to cooperate with social distancing, and mask wearing. It’s not going to work if they don’t.”
All owners and operators are understanding but irritated their initial openings will be at diminished capacities. We all are. But follow their rules. The fear of opening only to be shut down again because this pandemic rears its ugly head again or because their patrons are not cooperating to their full effort is a reality.
One they are working tirelessly to combat. It will take longer to get inside, it will be at half capacity, establishments might have a no dancing policy (for now), find some empathy, count to ten, grab a couple extra ones for the tip, and just embrace it. The new normal is happening, and for a little while until our chaotic world finds its true axis again, we must comply. We need these sanctuaries.
They have offered a place for all facets of the LGBTQ community to drop some of the weight they’ve been carrying, and just be. They have repositioned, rebranded, and shifted their weight when the tides of our community have changed. They need us to do our part.
Girton from Gossip Grill said it best, “The truth of the matter is women are overlooked in general…We all need to remember to support our lady’s bars. Even if it’s just for a night cap, a quick drink or before a show, if you are lucky enough to have a girl’s bar in your area please support! We provide a safe space for women and to all members of the LGBTQ community, where they can all be themselves and be accepted for exactly who they are.”
Go to their social media pages, donate, interact, buy merchandise, tip their workers, take part in their virtual parties and keep supporting them. Let’s all make it through this, open and safe.
Henrietta Hudson (@henriettahudson)
The Cubbyhole Bar (@cubbyholebar)
A League of Her Own/ALOHO (@alohodc)
Pearl Bar Houston (@pearlbarhouston)
Gossip Grill (@gossipgrill_sandiego )
Jolene’s Bar (@jolenessf)
My Sister’s Room (@mysistersroom_msr)
Toasted Walnut (@toastedwalnutpa)
XX+ Crostino (@xxcrostino)
Walkers Pint (@walkers_pint)
The Lipstick Lounge (@the_lipstick_lounge)
Sue Ellen’s Dallas (@sueellensdallas)
Blush and Blu (@blushbludenver)
Ginger’s Bar (@gingersbarbrooklyn)