The Great American Lesbian Bar Pilgrimage

A surprisingly small number of lesbian bars still exist in the U.S. A few road-trippers are making sure they’re not forgotten.

The Great American Lesbian Bar Pilgrimage

Bar hopping across the country with (clockwise from top left) Lisa Menichino, owner of Cubbyhole in NYC; a night out at Seattle’s Wildrose; Sheila and Rachel Smallman, co-owners of Herz in Mobile, Alabama; Lea DeLaria, actor and executive producer of The Lesbian Bar Project; Minnie Rivera and Lisa Cannistraci, co-founders of Henrietta Hudson in NYC.

Courtesy of Lesbian Bar Project; Courtesy of Wildrose (top center); Photo by Glauber Sampaio/Unsplash (bottom center)

Visiting every roadside attraction, presidential birthplace, state capital, or even gay club in the United States could take years, if not a lifetime on the road. But visiting every lesbian bar in the country? You could hit them all in a month. According to the preservation campaign the Lesbian Bar Project, there are only 21 self-identifying lesbian bars in the entire nation. These decade-plus-old venues have withstood the test of dating apps and new trends in nightlife, merging queer history while persisting as alluring destinations, despite the fact that nearly 200 lesbian bars have shuttered across the country since the 1990s.

“One of the first things I do when I travel to a new city is search ‘lesbian bar [name of city]’ or ‘queer bars near me’ or ‘queer dance night,’” says 39-year-old writer Krista Burton. She’s currently in the process of visiting every lesbian bar in the nation as she researches her upcoming book Moby Dyke. It’s a major voyage considering she’d only visited 3 on the Lesbian Bar Project’s list of 21 when she started her trip in August 2021. “Many bars I used to spend a lot of time at are closed now,” Burton said. “I love lesbian bars! I feel like I grew into adulthood inside spaces geared toward queer women.” Now a New Yorker, she came of age at Pi in Minneapolis and the Lexington Club in San Francisco. Both are now closed.

As of March, Burton is about halfway through her pilgrimage (broken into multiple trips as her day job and the pandemic allow) and has felt the queer joy at each space. “I’ve been floored by how welcoming and kind strangers have been, without knowing I’m writing about them,” she said. On a visit to Seattle’s the Wildrose in February 2022, she was feeling particularly lonely in her former hometown, thrown by the redecoration of a lesbian bar she used to patrionize. Long gone were the mismatched tables and DIY bar stools around the well-used dance floor, which has taken on a sleeker look, a more cohesive, contemporary style signifying Seattle’s shift from grunge to tech hub.

“I was sitting at a table by myself, watching other groups of queers laugh and have a good time with one another, and I was just feeling bad, like a big shy dud with no friends,” Burton recalls. “Then a huge group of older queers came in, hooting and hollering and causing a ruckus, and one of them came directly up to my table and said, ‘Hey, are you sitting alone? Do you want to come and sit with us?’ It was the nicest and most unexpected thing someone could have done for me that night.” It was one for the book, literally. “It served as a reminder of how easy it is, and how loving it is, to include people,” Burton says.

Currently, Burton’s favorite lesbian bar in America is the Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana, where, this past November, she saw one of the best drag shows in two decades of visiting gay hangouts. “The performers were going so hard, and everyone in the audience was so excited and tipping like I’ve never seen people tip—I mean, there was a six-people-deep line at the ATM, just to get more money to tip,” Burton says. “People were so friendly and open. The bar is so adorably decorated and welcoming. It was clear that all the decor was homemade. They have an incredible Golden Girls mural outside, and inside, the walls are painted with black-and-white zebra stripes. The pictures on the walls are of famous queers, drag queens, and queer icons, most framed with fluffy feather boas or glitter frames. It was incredible!” Chuffed by mocktails to include nondrinkers and creative cocktails like “The Salad Tosser” and “Cherry Poppins,” Burton suggests planning a road trip to the unexpectedly queer college town immediately.

I take my queer life for granted here in New York. These spaces are so important, and hopefully they continue to last a long time and more pop up.

Burton isn’t the only one on this mission. In 2021, New York–based creatives Sarah Gabrielli, Rachel Karp, and Jen McGinity climbed into their Honda Pilot for a 30-day, cross-country road trip to tell the stories of America’s lesbian bars for their new podcast, Cruising. In each episode they focus on the history and legacy of a still-standing spot, interviewing regulars, owners, staff, and other personalities who make each one so special.

“I take my queer life for granted here in New York,” McGinity says. “These spaces are so important, and hopefully they continue to last a long time and more pop up.” Friends in cities along the way helped provide a window into queer life in various regions of the country, but even as the trio camped, crashed in motels, and rented budget-concious Airbnbs, there was one commonality in every place they visited: The lesbian bar felt like home.

“Every bar we went into, the buzzwords we’d hear all the time were: ‘family, community, home,’” Gabrielli says. “You learn how essential these spaces are to people in making friends, finding partners, and having places to go. They’re immensely important and essential to everyone’s lives, an easy route to finding community and family.” She was impressed by bar owners and staff stepping up for the community, like Audrey Corley, who owns Phoenix’s Boycott Bar and who makes sure that inebriated guests are always offered safe rides home at the end of the night.

When the podcasters visited Frankie’s Oklahoma City on a Tuesday, aka “family night,” everyone at the bar was a regular, and they’d pushed tables together in the center of the room, family dinner–style. Co-owner Tracey Harris introduced the Cruising group to the locals. “At first we were a bit intimidated, but we were immediately welcomed into the group, given drink recommendations, and challenged to a darts tournament,” Karp says. “Everyone kept telling us throughout the night that we had to come back to visit on a weekend so that we could experience a drag show there. . . . By the end of the night, we’d made promises to come back and extended a multitude of invitations for folks to come visit us in New York.”

While McGinity, Gabrielli, and Karp expected to collect great stories as they traveled, one thing that surprised them was how powerful those stories would be, extending across generations and various iterations of social progress.

“There’s so much queer history I didn’t know about, everyone of different ages has stories about oppression or organizations, nuanced, unique ways of fighting and overcoming things,” McGinity said.

Little tidbits of progress were evident in most bar visits. For example, when San Francisco’s Wild Side West was founded in 1962, original owners Pat Ramseyer and Nancy White couldn’t even tend bar themselves—women weren’t legally permitted to bartend in California until 1971. And in Chicago, the Cruising group interviewed Shirley, a regular at Nobody’s Darling, an Andersonville cocktail bar that opened during the pandemic. She shared memories of Chicago’s LGBTQ+ nightlife scene in the 1970s, discussed the racism that she, as a Black woman, faced at some mainstream lesbian bars, and her role in creating “The Warehouse,” a queer nightclub of the 1970s and ’80s, which is considered the birthplace of house music in Chicago.

Burton echoed this sentiment, and upon continually seeing the excitement and energy in the limited number of lesbian bars across America, was left with an overarching optimism. “New queer spaces are opening all the time,” she said. In fact, Washington, D.C. is expecting a new lesbian bar, the city’s second, As You Are Bar, this spring. “That gives me a lot of hope that we’re in a kind of renaissance for these spaces.”

Travelers seeking out lesbian bars on the road can check out the Lesbian Bar Project’s list. Cruising has provided a map of its road trip to anyone who’d like to mimic the route, and Burton’s book is expected in the near future. Finally, in a pinch, you can always follow Burton’s advice of googling “lesbian bar + [insert city here]”—if you love a new one, let the community know.

>>Next: Queer History Is Still Being Made in Washington, D.C.

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