Dyke Bars*: Queer-Trans Spaces for the End Times

With 27 remaining lesbian+ bars in the United States as of spring 2023, the media has long been abuzz about a lesbian bar extinction narrative with each bar’s closing—a 2015 DailyDot headline even read: “Lesbian Bars are Nearly Extinct and This Is Their Eulogy.” The recent intervention of the #TribecaX award finalist mini-documentary and now forthcoming Roku docuseries, The Lesbian Bar Project, shifted this rhetoric to headlines the likes of 2021 Condé Nast Traveler’s “Why America’s Lesbian Bars Need Our Support More Than Ever.” Over the years, these reports of demise also talk of “resilience” and “courage” of LGBTQ people. Such accounts are always undergirded by an assimilationist tale of gays and lesbians choosing to move out of urban enclaves, claims of increased LGBTQ acceptance, and blurring the experiences of gay men’s and lesbian bars. These same articles imply that LGBTQ people are somehow evolving from their radical past—a movement which poignantly erupted in riots at a bar, the Stonewall Inn and Bar in New York City in 1969. But what the dyke bar* was and is, its unique and important role in American culture and democracy, and how these spaces still matter, remains to be written.

The crux of my argument is that lesbian bars do matter but the narrative around why they matter has been oversimplified, and thus oversimplied lesbian, bi, queer, trans*, and sapphic self- and mutual understandings. With limited economic or political power to affect mainstream narratives about us, I argue we must turn away from the any coherent or narrow tale of “lesbian bars.” Instead, I use the trans* asterisk to open up the multiple and contingent meanings of what a dyke bar* was, is, and yet could be–troubling both notions of dyke and bar to argue for a more wild sense of mutual recognition on behalf of resistance.

In Dyke Bars*, I argue that lesbian bars are the crucial geography of U.S. history and LGBTQ people specifically–and I explain why they did and still matter in those permanent places and itinerant parties, clubs, house gatherings, and other related spaces. I unpack how and why the practices, history, and relationality of these spaces reveals ways of radical lezbiqueertrans place-making that must and will continue in the American landscape. I draw on an analysis of media regarding lesbian bars in the U.S. since 2008, particularly New York City, multi-generational interviews with and mental maps of lesbians and queers who came out in NYC between 1983 and 2008, organizational records and periodicals from the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, and my own personal stories.

Dyke Bars* is driven be a series of questions: Why are lesbian bars closing, why are all a small group of lesbian bars opening more recently, and why are we fixated on this space and its demise? What historically drives lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people’s attachment to lesbian bars, and, in more recent times, their dis-attachment and/or reattachment from these spaces as many close? What feeds the public’s obsession with lesbian bars, beyond the male gaze and cis-heteropatriarchal domination of space on one hand, and the liberal nod to place-making by, for, and about “others” on the other hand? In other words, why do we care that so few of these spaces exist now, in the midst of pandemic, climate change, and other “end times” events?

Most importantly: why do we need dyke bars* now more than ever? And how can they help us imagine and feed the lezbiqueertrans worlds we need to survive, thrive, and create the change we must yet see in the world for all to survive and thrive?