The Last Lesbian Bars

By Danae Barnes, January 2016 Issue.

Do you know where to find a lesbian bar? This question pulses through the short documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, which tracks recent closings of lesbian bars across the country.

If we were keeping score, the statistics for each city in the film are dismal: 8-0, 7-1 and 12-1.

Artist and activist JD Samson, of Le Tigre and current MEN fame, travels to four different cities – San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City – in an attempt to understand underlying causes, and possible effects, of losing lesbian bars. (Read more about the Phoenix gay and lesbian bar scene in "Learning From the Locals.")

The film opens with a voice-over and footage of gay bars from the turn of the century, tracing the evolution of the bar as a place for the community to gather and forge personal and romantic relationships. The film then shifts to present day San Francisco, where the 2015 closure of the Lexington Club means there is no longer a women’s bar in the metropolis that’s hailed as the nation’s “gay capital.”

In her interview, the Lexington Club owner Lisa Thirkield ascribes the bar’s closure to economic factors – as the gentrification of San Francisco raises rents, it forces less-affluent queers out of the immediate surroundings.

Thirkield also notes the business model of catering to “less than five percent” of the population also means lesbian bars will be hit hard in any economic downturn or shift in population.

Yet, if money is the linchpin, why are gay bars thriving while lesbian bars are shutting their doors? The “nesting” or “U-Haul lesbian” stereotype is debunked by interviews with two academics, including notable queer author Jack Halberstam. Further, the scholars discuss how the changing landscape of social acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S. means women, more so than men, feel safer in a wider range of social settings.

Interestingly, LGBT/pop culture sociologist Danielle Moodie-Mills draws a loose comparison between integration of gays in our society and the end of sanctioned segregation for African-Americans.

“Segregation was good for black business, but bad for black people,” she points out. “When black and white people were finally starting to integrate, black businesses died off.”

The film also brings up the question of layered identities emerging within the LGBTQ community, acknowledging labels such as “gay” and “lesbian” have begun to shift toward the more inclusive “queer.”

JD Sampson interviews Angela Lombardi, former manager of Phase 1 in Washington, D.C.

According to Samson, the objective of the project was “to honestly create a conversation around a lot of the ideas raised” in the documentary.

“As the host of the film, I feel like it was important for me to make visible my own feelings regarding the new shape of our community,” Samson says, “but [also] make sure that I was reflecting what others feel about the same issues and concepts without trying to be inflammatory.”

The subsequent interviews in Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City all feel unique, and yet similar to the sentiments expresses in San Francisco. Economic hardship, diminished need for lesbian-specific spaces, new technology and a shifting queer demographic are cited in each city as factors contributing to the demise of the once-vital lesbian bar scene.

One of the co-owners of New York City’s 23-year-old lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, remarks, “it would be a tragedy if we lose the last gay bar.” Meanwhile, a younger queer party organizer asserts, “what used to be dyke communities are looking really different …  and with this emergence of queer people of color communities in America, if dyke places can’t get down with that, they’ll be forced to close their doors.”

Despite the complications between different generations, the documentary brings a palpable sense of longing to maintain these spaces.

“As we age, it’s not just about losing having somewhere to dance,” says Valerie Papaya Mann, co-founder Sapphire Sapphos, the first African-American lesbian social group, in an interview. “It’s losing community.”

Watching this documentary, it becomes clear the goal is not explanation, but exploration. Without valorizing the experiences of older generations, there is both a feeling of nostalgia and hope for the future.

“We are in a new age of queerness,” Samson succinctly points out. “I give much respect to what has happened as it has gotten us here, but I think we are just learning about how that chapter develops into a new journey for all of us.”

To view The Last Lesbian Bars, visit

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