Why lesbian bars are shutting down

At a recent newly-launched lesbian party in Brooklyn, women scattered themselves haphazardly throughout the backyard of a gay bar filled mostly with men. Wearing dark jeans and denim jackets, they stood in small groups, intermittently scanning the room while talking amongst themselves. Inside the bar, the dance floor was empty.

“This is why lesbian bars all close, because everyone is U-hauling!” Valentina Osorio, a queer-identifying woman who lives in Brooklyn exclaimed, alluding to a verb that refers to how quickly lesbian and bisexual women move towards commitment and, often times, the suburbs. “When you’re coupled up you don’t leave the house.”

Osorio wasn’t imagining things: Women don’t want to spend money at lesbian bars anymore. Although the number of people who identify as LGBTQ is on the rise, the number of spaces dedicated to their communities has fallen. Statistics are few, but an analysis of gay travel guides showed the number of LGBTQ bars in the U.S. decreased by 12.5 percent between 2005 and 2011.

In 1973, the number of gay bars in San Francisco peaked at 118. Today there are less than 30. The Castro, long the hub of gay life in that city, was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. As scores of gay men died, businesses catering to this group closed. And as the LGBT community helped bring gentrification to the Castro, just like it did to the Chelsea area of New York, heterosexual couples and families moved to these neighborhoods in the intervening years.

Of the 1,357 LGBTQ bars in the world in 2017, only 36 are lesbian bars.

But in recent times, the issue has become particularly pronounced for lesbian and bisexual women. Of the 1,357 LGBTQ bars in the world in 2017, only 36 are lesbian bars — down from 56 in 2014, according to gay-friendly travel guide Damron.

Although New York City is considered one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the U.S., it is home to only one self-proclaimed lesbian bar, Henrietta Hudson, after a handful of others have come and gone. (Another bar, the Cubbyhole in Manhattan’s West Village, is known as a lesbian hangout and describes itself as “lesbian, gay and straight-friendly since 1994.”)

Many cities have struggled to keep spaces for queer women open: In San Francisco, the city with the highest proportion of LGBTQ individuals in the country, what was widely considered to be one of the last lesbian-specific bars closed in 2014. Wild Side West, a San Francisco bar run by two lesbians since 1962, gets an increasingly mixed crowd. Rubyfruit Jungle, one of the few — if not the last — lesbian bars in New Orleans, shut its doors in 2012 and Sisters bar in Philadelphia closed in 2013.

Lesbians are more likely to be low-income than men and the general population, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organization. Same-sex male couples for whom bars are more plentiful, out-earn the average straight couple by an average of $60,000 a year, assuming both partners work.

Lisa Cannistraci, who opened Henrietta Hudson in New York City in 1991, has had to make sure her bar was a welcome space for everyone. Although the owners identify it as a lesbian bar, they book DJs of all identities from around the world for performances and cultivating a crowd that combines “all types of the LGBTQ community.”

Lesbian bars are also disappearing as the lines between gender and sexuality blur. Gender itself is becoming a more antiquated concept, with 52 percent of women and 44 percent of men saying they “do not believe in set genders, gender is fluid and everyone can be what they feel they are,” according to a survey by marketing firm Havas.

Lexi Ferguson, a woman of transgender experience who lives and works in Brooklyn, said being accepted in spaces for women is important for her, but she still feels less comfortable in “lesbian” spaces than she does in general queer bars. These changes are rendering gender-specific spaces obsolete, Ferguson said.

“While by the outside world’s standards I would be a lesbian, I fear the traditional concept of a lesbian community,” she said. “I’m always on edge that an environment like that will generally have older, unfavorable views toward trans women. If a space describes itself as queer, I know there’s at least a baseline acknowledgment, if not acceptance, that trans women exist.”

Some women created ‘invite-only’ roving events

For Jane Goldstein, a 24-year-old manager at a credit-card company, and friends Kelsey Hunter, Sage Fuchs, and Blaire Preiss, the answer was to create their own roving party — one that doesn’t need a permanent brick-and-mortar location. When they moved back to New York City after college, she and her fellow lesbian friends were surprised to find themselves searching for what came relatively easily in college: Designated spaces for queer women like them to hang out.

“There was a lack and disconnect of community in New York,” Goldstein said. “It’s supposed to be the mecca of gays and we couldn’t find them.”

They launched ELLIS in 2017, which has been referred to as “the Soho House for Lesbians.” The parties are invite-only, but invitees can recommend friends. Some parties are free while others, like a summer party in the Hamptons that included transportation, catered food, and an open bar, cost upwards of $100.

Simone Davis is the head organizer of Girl Social, for LGBT and queer women. It began as a counterpart to another meet-up group, Guy Social NYC. Past activities have included laser tag, roller skating and pool parties.

Cannistraci said she just signed a 15-year extension on the lease this year and doesn’t buy into the idea that lesbian bars aren’t financially viable. “Anything is possible,” she said. “You have to have the fortitude, and the vision, and the ability to work a lot. And at the end of the day you need pay attention to the bottom line. That is how businesses stay open, no matter if they are gay or straight.”