Lesbian Bars Make a Much-Needed Comeback

As the United States emerged slowly from pandemic lockdowns, a curious phenomenon has taken place: the resurgence of bars for lesbians and queer women. New York City has doubled its lesbian bars since 2022, and the US as a whole saw at least a dozen new bars open up. These bars have long served as a third space for queer communities, and in the face of legislative attacks against LGBTQ+ people, their importance has only grown.

“I started searching right around the time I came out. Searching for community or a sense of belonging. As queer people, we’re told that there is a community out there for us to find. But for many of us it’s not so simple,” noted director and Hyperallergic contributor Alexis Clements in her 2019 film All We’ve Got, just released on PBS. Clements continues:

Age, race, class, gender, ability, and countless other factors impact whether we can access communities where we’ll find other people who share in our experiences. As a queer woman looking for community, what I was finding was that a lot of the spaces everyone was telling me to go to were already closed or they were on the verge of closing.

An arts and culture journalist and regular contributor to Hyperallergic, Clements brings herself into the film on a journey to places like the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, WOW Café Theatre and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, and Alibis Club in Oklahoma City. Through the director’s eyes, we see the range and possibility of spaces designed as community hubs, performance venues, and places for dancing and partying.

Blending interviews and archival materials from the different spaces, All We’ve Got shows the power of intergenerational thinking and communities, something she argues is essential for sustained and successful spaces. As Deborah Edel, co-founder and coordinator at Lesbian Herstory Archives observed, “I think a lot of organizations ran their course. One generation had a philosophy, had a vision, did their thing, and then didn’t know how to open it up so that there would be multiple generations involved. The [Lesbian Herstory Archives] can only survive if there is — and there is — intergenerational connection and understanding.”

And the spaces that have survived have turned out to be essential in an environment that is increasingly hostile toward queer communities. “As a performance artist, I was just attacked yesterday, like on a local newspaper site,” explained Saakred, a queer performer and former staff member at the Esperanza in San Antonio. “People are calling me ‘demon woman’ and all of these things because I’m very vocal about being a queer artist. Sometimes I go and sit with [Esperanza founder Graciela Sánchez], and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to do. This is scary.’” Saakred relayed the advice Sánchez shared back: “I’ve dealt with this 20 years ago. We’ve dealt with this 20 years ago.” 

The film also challenges the idea that queer spaces need to be bars, or even have a consistent physical space at all. Clements spoke with organizers for Trans Ladies Picnic, a pop-up event series in a variety of cities organized exclusively for trans women to gather. In a world where women make 84 cents to the dollar that men make, pop-up events are practical solutions but also fun ones that help queer people literally take up public space in ways that center joy and celebration.

“A huge part of my motivation in making the film was to make something that is not exclusively about bars,” Clements noted in conversation with me, “because almost all of the media that exists about LGBTQ+ spaces in particular focuses relentlessly on bars, when I am part of communities outside of bars … we have done much of our best political work, honing of community, preserving our history, and having a gay old time outside of bars.”

Indeed, some of the most poignant moments come through in scenes from the WOW Café Theatre, where we see a diverse array of queer New Yorkers performing onstage together and negotiating the realities of being a collective. It’s a vision of a diverse, sustainable, and enduring queer space focused on creative development, and with it some of the challenges of trying to work together in community. As member Maria Bauman-Morales points out, “It’s been a real-life lesson in entering community. You don’t go to somebody’s house and say ‘I really like your house, you should probably move your couch.’ And the same thing with WOW. But you also don’t want to be part of something where you’re voiceless.”

Though completed in 2019, the film’s historical perspective ensures that we see this most recent wave of both liberatory and oppressive movements related to LGBTQ+ rights in context. Clements skillfully weaves in archival photos and videos to offer a broader perspective on the spaces she studies, and she brings some hard truths: sustainable spaces exist when there’s a strong need and when the organization either owns the land or has a longterm, affordable lease. I asked the director what she thought of today’s wave of new bars: “Having been steeped in this history for a minute now, I would strongly suggest it’s actually cyclical, and it’s a mistake to think of this as something new, though of course how it’s happening now has its own particular flavor.”

In one scene, she narrates over pictures of the civil rights, antiwar, and queer liberation movements from the 1960s, imagery that feels like it could be depicting today’s struggles. It’s been nearly a decade since the United States achieved marriage equality. What felt at the time like a major turning point presaged a much bleaker decade to come. In the film, Clements reminds us that “Trans women, queer people of color, and many lesbians were pushing for more than tolerance and assimilation. They sought a revolutionary shift in power structures.” And as the film reaches a wider public, its lesson, perhaps, is the same one that Saakred took away: We’ve been here before. 

All We’ve Got is currently airing on select PBS stations.

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