What were lesbian bars like when we really needed them?
An oasis in a desert of systemic oppression
I came out in 1990, at the age of 21. It was a good year to come out in Vancouver, Canada, although actually 1989 would have been better. It would have been better because then I might have actually known some other lesbians when the international Gay Games came to town, unstead of pressing my baby-dyke face to the metaphoric windows filled with queer people who didn’t know me, and had no reason to see my straight looking self. It was amazing – there were same sex couples being affectionate all over the city. It was like we were normal and had human rights and everything, which was most definitely not the case at the time.
If you are interested in knowing what the general attitudes in Canada were like during that time, you can watch this compilation of the news broadcasts about it at the time (video below). You can see that the news media were trying to be nice about it (they were Canadians, after all) while not actually conveying that the bigots opposing gay people being visible and coming to town were wrong about anything…
Community hubs during a time where we were unsafe everywhere else
It was during this time that gay bars and lesbian bars were the community hubs of the “gay and lesbian community”, as it was known then. There were separate bars for lesbians, because we needed them. If queer men and women mixed in the same public spaces we were not as safe – having a ‘women’s night’ was necessary to keep out straight male harassers but also (unfortunately) kept out out gay male brothers.
The men’s bars had their own ways to keep straight men out. They limited access straight people by playing explicit gay porn on screens on the walls, which turned off the men who might otherwise follow the straight women looking for a harassment-free place to dance. The straight women were tolerated, but not welcomed, and were reminded at the door that it was a gay space.
Unique and safe(er) culture
All of this meant that actual lesbian bars (or queer bars with lesbian nights) were a unique and safe culture. You could make out with your girlfriend, use whatever bathroom had a free stall (there were some drunken experiments with urinals that I may or may not have participated in…) and even dance topless in hot weather (which had only recently been legalized), all without any harassment from men.
Because the bars served as safe spaces and community centres for queer women, there was a broad mix of ages and interests. Women with grey hair and babydykes in overalls were all there together, playing at the busy pool tables, meeting friends to chat or dancing.
Notices or queer newspapers and publications were distributed in the bars, giving you a place to learn about safe housing and safe jobs for lesbians. The ads in those publications were almost exclusively purchased by queer owned businesses, giving you an idea of who was ‘family’ and where might be safe.
I miss it. I miss the feeling of solidarity among lesbians, and a space where the usual constraints of sexism didn’t apply. It was in the basement of a hotel owned by gay men, ensuring that there were no landlord issues with the bar.
The bar I went to every week (The Lotus, in the basement of the Lotus hotel, pictured) was in an extremely rough area of town, which meant that arriving and leaving had security issues. Women would walk one another to the nearest bus stop or metro station, or stride alone with their keys in their fists.
One down side of lesbian culture at the time being centred on bars was that lesbians had a much higher rate of alcoholism than straight women, both from the systemic oppression and from being so often in spaces centred on alcohol.
I miss these queer women centred spaces as they were back when we desperately needed them. They were where I learned to be strong, to be proud of my body, to dance like my body belonged to me. It was where I learned how to flirt with women. When I went out to straight bars during that time with my then girlfriend, and since then with other women, we both got hit on constantly by men, even though we were on a date with one another.
When the Orlando Massacre happened (mass-murder of 49 queer men and women in a queer bar), even though it was in another country, I grieved, because spaces for queer people, for lesbians, for gay men, for trans people, are rare and sacred. They were once the hearts of our communities. I don’t know what young queers do now. I would not be the same without it.
Rare spaces now
Lesbian and gay specific spaces are dying out, in part because the levels of oppression that we were fleeing from during the early 90’s and before have reduced. We went from it being legal to fire or evict us for being gay (began to end in 1991 in Canada) to having basic human rights.
Are lesbians safe from harassment now? Not by a long shot. However, we are safe enough to not hunger as deeply for this one space in our world where we could be open, and so those spaces have not been as well supported, and less financially viable. But I still crave those rare places where being a lesbian is the mainstream instead of the 5% minority. What about you? What do you miss about lesbian bars? If you’ve never been to one, what do you think you would miss about them?
UPDATE: As of July 2023, Vancouver has a new woman-owned queer bar in Kitsilano. The website isn’t overtly queer branded but there is a rainbow flag on the front now and lots of queer women’s and queer community events listed in their events section. Here’s the website for Biminis.