Bartending at the only lesbian bar in Tennessee is much more than a job for Eli LaFlamme — it is where they first felt safe to embrace their sexual orientation, LaFlamme said, and where they hope to create the same experience for others.
“When people first come in, you see them really uncomfortable, and slowly over time, you see them get more and more comfortable with who they are and find friends and community,” said LaFlamme, 35, who works at the Lipstick Lounge in East Nashville. “Observing people do that really challenged me to embrace my authentic self.”
After grappling with covid-19 restrictions for the past year-and-a-half, many lesbian bar owners and workers are still worried about the uncertainty surrounding the delta variant. The Lipstick Lounge is one of 21 lesbian bars remaining in the United States, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a campaign to preserve lesbian bars in the country. In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200, according to the project. Labor Department data shows that the hospitality industry at large remains unstable: About 892,000 workers in restaurants, bars and hotels quit in August.
When Christa Suppan, co-owner of the Lipstick Lounge, went back and forth between opening or closing the bar during summer 2020, she thought of her customers, employees and the LGBTQ community in Nashville. At a time when the Human Rights Campaign, an LBGTQ advocacy organization, has called 2021 the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history, Suppan said she understood the importance of operating one of a few lesbian bars located in the South.
“We’re just not done yet,” Suppan said. “There’s more that needs to be done, and not that we can do it all, but we can at least be this safe space for people to come to and go, ‘I’ve had a really bad day, and I just want to be around people who love me.’ ”
Many lesbian bars, including the Lipstick Lounge, serve more than just food and alcohol. They are a place where people can watch drag queen shows, play bingo, attend mix-and-mingle events and dance. Pandemic quarantine and social distancing measures revealed the importance of spaces dedicated to the LGBTQ community, said LaFlamme.
“Because everyone was so isolated, just thinking about people who really need that connection and to be seen for their own mental health made me realize just how important it is to champion those spaces,” LaFlamme said.
But the outlook for many of these spaces is dire, according to owners. Nineteen months after California’s first coronavirus-related stay-at-home order in March 2020, Gossip Grill is still reeling from financial losses, said owner Moe Girton. Covid forced the San Diego-based women’s bar to diversify its income streams because a majority of sales came from alcohol, she said.
Gossip Grill started offering food and drag queen deliveries, drink kits, and virtual trivia brunches during the first wave of the pandemic. Drag queens would dress up in full drag and deliver food to people’s homes.
The uncertainty of the past year taught Gossip Grill to pivot and be creative, Girton said: To celebrate last year’s holiday season, for example, the bar hosted an outdoor, socially distanced pop-up market where guests could order drinks and food and support local women and LGBTQ artists who sold their products. She hopes to continue to host pop-up events in the future.
For Girton, the hardest part of closing the bar’s doors during the pandemic was not being able to be a physical space for community members to explore and express their sexual and gender identities.
“We just did a lot of virtual happy hours to make sure we stayed connected,” Girton said. “It wasn’t a money thing — it was, ‘Hey everyone, how are you doing?’ It was a check-in.”
Historically, queer women have not always felt safe in straight bars or welcome in bars that were dominantly associated with cisgender, gay men, said Japonica Brown-Saracino, a Boston University sociology professor and author of “How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities.”
At lesbian-specific bars, Brown-Saracino said, women could build romantic connections and friendships, learn about educational or activist opportunities, and discover what it meant to be a sexual minority. They were places that helped spur activism and launch social movements, she said.
“They were a safer space where people could gather without fearing as much violence as they’d experience in other spaces because of their identities and their interactions with other women,” said Brown-Saracino.
We should mourn lesbian bars while also remembering that the spaces sometimes excluded people who did not identify as a woman, cisgender or lesbian, she added.
When pandemic stay-at-home measures went into effect in D.C., 33-year-old health-care worker Nati Reyes said the virtual trivia nights hosted by As You Are Bar gave her the chance to meet people in the LGBTQ community across the country. The online setting afforded her a chance to engage in more in-depth conversations that she probably wouldn’t have experienced in a crowded bar, she said. One of the women she befriended over virtual trivia even booked a flight from Colorado to celebrate Reyes’s graduation from Southern New Hampshire University, she said.
“The trivia nights felt very intimate because the same people would go over and over again,” Reyes said. “Being able to sit in your house and relax and communicate with people online in a very chill and productive way was really nice to have.”
As states across the country drop coronavirus-related restrictions and bars operate at full capacity, Reyes hopes owners prioritize accessibility. People who do not have the financial means or physical capabilities to attend bars should still have the chance to find inclusive communities, she said.
Jo McDaniel and Rach Pike, former employees of D.C.’s A League of Her Own, or ALOHO, are preparing to open an LGBTQ bar in D.C. before the end of the year. The co-founders started As You Are Bar during the pandemic in a virtual setting, where they continue to host free, weekly online happy hours and feature local activists on Instagram Live.
The virtual events attract people outside of the D.C. area and were initially an effort to make community-building opportunities accessible to people from lower socioeconomic statuses, the co-founders said.
“People having to be in the bar and spending money in order to participate is a little bit antiquated,” McDaniel said. “The idea of hosting virtual events and allowing for participation outside of a physical location only serves to include more people.”
Pike and McDaniel also said they witnessed many people who were regulars at ALOHO mingle with others outside of their social circles at virtual events. They plan to host hybrid and virtual events even after As You Are Bar has its first bricks-and-mortar location.
For 28-year-old Beth Gilson, seeing people wait in a line wrapped around the block to get inside Cubbyhole in New York City during Pride Month in June felt liberating. Gilson, who identifies as queer, has regularly frequented Cubbyhole ever since going on her first date with a woman in 2016.
While the Internet served as a great resource to explore her sexuality, as well as meet other LGBTQ community members, physical spaces offered an unparalleled component, Gilson said.
“Being in intentionally queer spaces has given me a true relief and outlet,” she said. “I feel like I can go and be myself and dance and make out with whoever I want to make out with.”
Gilson first visited Cubbyhole when she was 23. Before that, she said, she had never been in a space solely dedicated to the LGBTQ community.
“It was a really beautiful moment for me,” said Gilson. “It made me more open to my own queerness and experiencing things and dating and just putting myself out there.”
She hopes people understand the importance of preserving spaces like Cubbyhole as local businesses navigate the ever-changing pandemic.
The Lipstick Lounge, the bar located in East Nashville, celebrated its 19th birthday in September. Suppan said she and her co-owner, Jonda Valentine, are hoping to expand the Lipstick Lounge by adding an additional cigar bar inside this year.
“That’s what our mission was: to still be here a year later, and we’ve accomplished that,” Suppan said. “To me, no matter what it looks like on paper, we are a success just by being here another year.”