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Photos by Jessica Imhoff.
Walking into Henrietta Hudson feels like taking off a heavy backpack. It’s a humid June night in New York’s Greenwich Village, and inside the reggaeton-pulsing bar, a sparse crowd drinks beer and laughs. My shoulders instantly relax, and not just because I’ve escaped a spring downpour.
“I hear all the time from customers — when they come in, they just breathe an air of relief,” says Victoria, a bartender and go-go dancer who asked to be identified by her first name to protect her day job.
It’s not strictly true: Men aren’t barred from Henrietta Hudson. Even on a Monday, there are a few interspersed among the women and nonbinary people who lean against the bar, paper decorations dangling rainbows overhead. “We’re an all-inclusive, lesbian-centric space,” says owner Lisa Cannistraci.
Still, Henrietta Hudson is a bar made for and by queer women. That’s apparent in the gender makeup of tonight’s group, and in less tangible ways, too. It’s the ease with which women have their arms around each other — no stiffness or tiny glances to monitor for unwanted flirtation from men. It’s the camaraderie with which a trio of 40-something women, bubbly with booze, offer to buy me a beer.
Henrietta Hudson is cited as the oldest continuously running lesbian bar in the country. Alongside Manhattan’s Cubbyhole and Brooklyn’s Ginger’s, it’s one of only three left in New York City. When Cannistraci and her business partner, Minnie Rivera, opened Henrietta Hudson during New York City Pride in 1991, “Nobody wanted to live in the Village,” Cannistraci says. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and queer people were dying by the thousands.
Today, Greenwich Village brims with overpriced lattes and luxury athletic wear. With the New York City Pride parade around the corner, every billboard in the neighborhood is plastered with rainbows. Some women at Henrietta Hudson say this increasing acceptance means there’s now less need for lesbian spaces.
Some women are reluctant to give me their names; they say they’re worried about gender-based violence, homophobia or racist abuse. Even as their numbers dwindle, bars like Henrietta Hudson continue to provide a refuge for people who aren’t always comfortable in straight, or even gay-and-male, spaces.
In 1925, New York City’s first known “lesbian bar,” a woman-centered club in Greenwich Village called Eve Adams’ Tearoom, opened its doors among the neighborhood’s crowded tenements. It was run by a Jewish immigrant from Poland known as Eva Kotchever, and it didn’t last long. Kotchever was convicted of obscenity and deported back to Europe, where she was later slain at Auschwitz.
But the idea of lesbian drinking spaces stuck. During World War II, queer people began moving en masse from smaller U.S. towns to major cities. By the 1950s, neighborhoods like the Castro District in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York had become home to large LGBTQ communities.
The bar scene was dominated by gay men, but there were also spaces specifically for lesbians to meet, flirt and feel they were not alone. For women, who were barred from even entering restaurants without male guardians into the early 1900s, and who could lose their jobs or children if they were outed as lesbians, bars offered a rare taste of freedom. Run by the mob and frequently raided by police, these spaces were risky. But they also saved lives.
“The bars are a matter of survival,” says Jack Gieseking, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky, who is writing a book on queer New York City.
Bars were also revolutionary. Today, the Stonewall Inn, located just a few blocks from Henrietta Hudson, overflows with throbbing beats, rainbow flags and lighthearted chatter. Fifty years ago, it was mafia-owned, its queer regulars subject to homophobic police raids. Everything changed on June 28, 1969, when Stonewall clientele fought back against police. A crowd of queer people — transgender, lesbian, gay, many of them people of color — defended the bar for days. A new, more militant gay movement was born from the dust of the uprising.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the bars that nurtured the movement are disappearing. Lesbian bars have always been outnumbered by majority gay-and-male spaces, but in the past few decades, the gap has widened. In 2017, only 36 of the 1,357 LGBTQ bars documented by gay travel guide Damron were specifically for queer women. In 2014, there had been 56.
The women at Henrietta Hudson have some ideas.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily go to bars to meet people,” says Katie Thrasher, a fitness instructor who tonight is selling raffle tickets in support of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a historically LGBTQ nonprofit organization. “They’re on the apps.”
“Being LGBT is becoming more accepted in society,“ says Libby Gilks, here on a Tinder date while visiting from England. (It’s going well.) “More people now feel comfortable going to straight bars.”
And Victoria, the bartender, adds her two cents: “People shack up in relationships and they stop going out.”
Gieseking cites exorbitant increases in rent — a reflection of the rapid gentrification of cities like San Francisco and New York. Queer women, by and large, can’t afford to live in city centers, and the bars they once flocked to can’t pay their bills, Gieseking says. At the same time, the increasing acceptance of a wide range of queer and trans experiences has created both more opportunities for LGBTQ socializing, and an identity crisis for historically cisgender-dominated lesbian spaces.
As lesbian bars become rarer, new venues to socialize are springing up. Queer parties — weekly or monthly events pulsing with sexiness and music — tend to be younger, more gender- and racially diverse and have less overhead, says Janhavi Pakrashi, who performs at Henrietta Hudson as DJ Tikka Masala.
The transition is bittersweet for women who have spent their lives building lesbian spaces. Some historically lesbian spaces have their own histories of racism and trans exclusion; many think inclusion can only be a good thing.
It’s what Cannistraci attributes to helping Henrietta Hudson stick around.
When Annette Chevalier first entered Henrietta Hudson more than 20 years ago, she found a haven. “This is my safe space,” says Chevalier, who is now a Henrietta Hudson bartender.
A lot has changed in the past two decades. Yet looking around at the people gathered tonight under Pride-bright decorations, it’s hard to worry too much about the fate of queer nightlife. Queer women’s presence in public spaces has always meant resistance. That will continue. After all, before they became revolutionaries, the Stonewall activists were just a group of queer people at a bar.