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The disappearance of lesbian bars may signal change

A same-sex couple receives their marriage license from Lisa Brown (seated), the Oakland County Clerk, after getting married at the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac, Michigan.

Lesbian bars have always been more than just a place to grab a beer. They’ve been community centers, dating services, political statements. But recently, these businesses seem to be disappearing.

On a recent Saturday night in Portland, Oregon, the Temporary Lesbian Bar was full. Musician Katy Davidson started organizing the evening last year, which draws anywhere from 60 to 150 people.

“The music’s not too loud, but it’s just loud enough to dance if people want to,” Davidson explains. “This is fun, it’s romantic.”

The event’s been going strong — probably because Portland’s only brick-and-mortar lesbian bar closed a few years back. And Portland’s not the only place.

Playwright and journalist Alexis Clements was trying to pull together a tour for a recent woman-centered theater piece, and noticed the list of possible lesbian venues was shrinking.

“West Hollywood does not have a lesbian bar anymore. Philadelphia doesn’t have one. Houston doesn’t have one, and I could go on and on,” Clements explains. She noted the decline of lesbian and feminist venues of all sorts. “That ranges from feminist bookstores, to bars, to arts organizations. All of these spaces are kind of going through a variety of different struggles that in some way are similar.”

In response to this decline, Clements re-adjusted her original theater tour, and will now be combining play readings with documenting some of the remaining lesbian spaces.

But Clements notes these struggles may actually reflect positive changes — people don’t need a lesbian bar as a refuge, because the culture at large is more accepting.

In Portland, some people at the Temporary Lesbian Bar, like Caryn Brooks, are pretty happy to move into the brave new world of pop-ups and Facebook groups. “I think it’s actually more vibrant now than it was when there was a lesbian bar,” Brooks notes. “It’s nimble, able to respond to geography and demographics. There’s no going back.”

But others, like Sara Renberg, feel like designated spaces are still relevant — and when they disappear, something is lost. “While I really love this event, it’s also so much harder if this one happens on the third Thursday, and this one happens on the second Tuesday. It’s really difficult to piece that all together in order to find love. And community.”

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