‘The Lesbian Bar Project’ and the power of the queer community
The campaign highlights the few but essential lesbian bars in America – and why they’re so necessary
Wednesday 28 September 2022 By Samantha Panepinto
Sometime in 2020, Soho House members and friends Erica Rose and Elina Street had a realisation. When their favourite lesbian bar in Brooklyn, Ginger’s Bar, was shut down due to the pandemic – like many other venues in the area – they got thinking about the role the space had played in their lives, and their community. It inspired them to start looking into the history of lesbian bars as a whole, and they quickly discovered a disturbing fact: there were more than 200 lesbian bars in 1980, but less than 25 remained in 2020. The revelation led to the birth of The Lesbian Bar Project, their documentary series highlighting the remaining lesbian bars across the country and the communities they serve.
In a recent phone conversation, Erica told me that she and Elina wanted to use their storytelling skills as filmmakers to advocate for the queer community, and last year the two teamed up with Jägermeister to create the short film, with actor Lea DeLaria as host.
As well as highlighting prominent bars in the country – from Henrietta Hudson in Manhattan to As You Are Bar in DC and Herz in Mobile, Alabama – the first question that comes up is: what makes a space a lesbian bar? The specification feels necessary to differentiate the venues from those that cater primarily to gay men, which there are plenty of, although they too have been dropping in numbers over the years. Nearly every bar owner featured in the documentary is quick to assert that their space is broader than the term ‘lesbian’ implies. Owner of As You Are Bar, Jo McDaniel, says in the film, ‘I never call a bar I work at just a lesbian bar. It’s always lesbian/ queer.’
Henrietta Hudson’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci, reflects on a 2021 logo change, which replaced the image of a pin-up-style woman with a graphic that incorporates the queer upside-down triangle and the genderless symbol. ‘A lot of women who love women don’t identify as lesbian,’ says Cannistraci in the documentary. ‘Something we didn’t have in the past was the language and space to really express ourselves. Now, people can be more precise about who they know they are. We have to break the cycle of being exclusionary within our own community.’
Back in Brooklyn, bar owners Laura Poladsky and Caitlin Frame grapple with the same issue. The pair, who dated for three years before shifting to a business relationship, opened the queer bar Oddly Enough in Bed-Stuy in April 2022. ‘I personally don’t consider us a lesbian bar,’ Poladsky tells me in an interview in the empty bar before hours. ‘I identify as a lesbian/ pansexual, but we have a broader scope of queerness here.’
‘I feel more comfortable saying I’m gay,’ adds Frame. ‘Which is funny because I am a “lesbian”, but I feel more masculine in a particular way. There’s been so much movement to figuring out what feels best when we say it out loud.’
The other common thread between all these spaces is the role of the queer bar as more than a bar: as a safe community hub. ‘I host a drawing class here as well,’ says Poladsky.
‘I think for me and my coming out story, which was later in life, having a community and space to think, explore and see and be was so transformative. I continued to want to create and cultivate, not just for myself, but for others. That’s why we have all the non-alcoholic stuff, too. We shouldn’t just need to be drinking. It’s not just a bar, it’s a space for the community.’
Oddly Enough is Poladsky and Frame’s third business venture together. Previously, they opened a natural wine shop and bar in Massachusetts, where they spent the majority of the pandemic lockdowns. But Oddly feels more enmeshed with its surroundings. ‘This is totally different, because now we have people we’re supporting,’ Frame says of the bar’s staff. ‘Before, it was just us managing each other.’ A key element of the pair’s business model is safety: for patrons and staff alike. ‘We’ll back them up if they’re being treated poorly, no matter who they are,’ says Frame. ‘That hasn’t been the case in a lot of establishments I’ve worked at. They do default to the customer ultimately.’
There’s a huge demand for what Poladsky and Frame have created. When they bought the business license from its previous owner, it was with the stipulation that they would take it over on 1 March 2022. The purchase was finalised on 15 February. ‘We had to make really quick decisions,’ says Frame, smiling. ‘Luckily, we’re very simpatico on decorations.’
When they opened to the public on 1 April, after a whirlwind month of revamping the space, they thought they’d ease into things. ‘We opened while we were still putting the ship together, while we were already at sea,’ says Poladsky. ‘We were like, we’ll open slowly, we won’t advertise much. But the queers were like no, we’re f**king thirsty. So, they came.’ In the four months since opening, Oddly Enough has hosted karaoke, poetry nights, and comedy shows.
Sheila and Rachel Smallman, the owners of Herz Bar in Mobile, Alabama, take a similar approach to community engagement. In The Lesbian Bar Project documentary, they call Herz a ‘community centre’, where they’re shown hosting a campaign event for an LGBTQIA+ city council candidate.
Wider acceptance of queerness has been cited as a reason for the decline in the number of queer bars. Although homophobia and transphobia are far from dead, we have a larger variety of places where we can be ourselves. So, in some senses, we’re less dependent on queer-specific spaces. But for Sheila and Rachel, the desire to open a space of their own came out of exclusion at other bars.
‘Being lesbians on the Gulf Coast,’ Sheila says in the documentary, ‘we were looking for a place that we felt safe in. We just happened to go into this one bar, and they just totally ran us out because we were females. That was the day we said we were going to open a lesbian bar.’
And they did – despite people telling them nobody was going to come. That kind of hope and resilience captures the ethos of The Lesbian Bar Project.
‘This isn’t a sob story,’ Erica Rose, co-creator of the documentary, tells me. ‘We want this to be about the hope that comes out of new things. The new bars are a key part of that.’ The Lesbian Bar Project will launch a three-part series on Roku in October, highlighting more of the bars from their list. ‘My dream for the series,’ says Rose, ‘is that people see this and feel transported to all these places. This is a story about hope.’