Last lesbian bars struggle to survive, advocates say, endangering landmarks in queer history
When Herz, a lesbian club in Mobile, Alabama, opened in 2019, owner Rachel Smallman said she and his wife didn’t have a place where they could “go and be authentic themselves.” So they made their own space.
“In the Deep South, you’re going to be one of two things: you’re going to be bold in what you do, or you’re going to be conformist,” Smallman told ABC News in an interview. “And in [the LGBTQ] community, there is no room for compliance.
Herz remains one of the few lesbian bars in the South and one of some 21 lesbian bars across the country, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraising campaign to preserve, uplift and honor the history of lesbian spaces in the United States. That’s a stark difference from the plethora of lesbian and queer spaces in the 1980s – there were at least 200 back then, according to the campaign.
Smallman didn’t realize what her bar would mean to her local customers – she was just opening the kind of bar she wanted for herself. But as two black lesbian women, the Smallmans Club has become a haven for others seeking acceptance and inclusion in the community.
“There isn’t much room for much in the South, so you just have to make room,” Smallman said. “And that’s what we continue to make sure we do. We let the naysayers know that we are here and that we are not going anywhere.
The Lesbian Bar Project, which recently created a documentary on the history lesbian bars, hopes to make sure queer-friendly spaces like Herz stay afloat.
Directors Erica Rose and Elina Street told ABC News that lesbian bars have historically acted as community hubs for the LGBTQ community.
“There’s a lot of intergenerational dialogue in there, so it also feels like an educational space, which teaches you your history, as well as the future and evolution of the community,” Street said.
They also have their flaws, according to Gwen Shockey, an educator in the documentary The Lesbian Bar Project. In the 1970s, some bars discriminated against black women, only allowing a few in at a time. This has forced women of color to seek other safe spaces instead.
The history of discrimination is one of the many factors that may contribute to the slow disappearance of lesbian spaces. Street and Rose said the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community in mainstream society and online opportunities to meet other gay people has been a major force in worsening the plight of lesbian bars.
Street and Rose also said the continued lack of “queer dollars” across generations has added to the financial pressures on these institutions. 22% of LGBTQ people currently live in poverty, according to the Willams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Without the support – and the funds – these bars will continue to disappear, Rose said. Some owners say the loss is more than the bar themselves; it is also about the historical importance of these spaces and the community building that takes place within their four walls.
“Personally, I don’t have the luxury in every space I walk in, that I can be myself and I can be free in who I am and be free with the people around me and be in a community”, Rose said in an interview.
In the past, brutality, discrimination and prejudice commonly awaited LGBTQ people outside the doors of these bars, the owners say. They say younger generations need to learn their history – and lesbian bars are a port to continue the fight for equal rights and protections in the United States The fight for legal protections for LGBTQ continues today
“I want them to learn our history,” Smallman said. “Find out why we are where we are now. Learn to appreciate those who came before you and figure out what your path is, go on and stay there. Make a difference for our people.
Audrey Corley, owner of Boycott Bar in Phoenix, Arizona, said a lot has changed since it opened 17 years ago. She said lesbians and other queer people are now welcome at a wide range of bars and clubs, which was not the case when she was younger. She created Boycott to be a safe space for LGBTQ customers.
“Back then when we were going out there really weren’t any safe places,” Corley said. “[Boycott] is a space for the community where you can come and just be who you are and I hope we leave you better than we found you.
Julie Mabry, the owner of the Pearl Bar in Houston, Texas, said her dream has long been to own a lesbian bar. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on the business. The community raised around $ 35,000 after the bar closed – a sign of the urgency community members felt about keeping the doors of queer businesses open.
To save these bars, Street and Rose said, LGBTQ people and allies are going to have to come back to bars and pull out their wallets to save these landmarks – and to help new queer spaces find their way.
“We don’t make as much money as most bars and clubs,” Mabry said in an interview. “We have to be the spokespersons, and we have to represent and invest our money in our community, protect our community and fight for their rights. “
Kat Filardi of ABC News contributed to this report.