Where Did All the Lesbian Bars Go? Increasingly, They’re on TV
Where Did All the Lesbian Bars Go? Increasingly, They’re on TV
The Palms. Hershee Bar. The Hideaway. Railroad Crossing. The Normandie Room. Oxwood Inn. The Hold Up. Dana’s. Vida. Those last three lesbian bars are the only ones still open. And they’re fictional.
Caroline Dries, the showrunner for the CW series “Batwoman,” remembers well the ones that closed. In the early 2000s, she found a community in Los Angeles at spots like the Palms, where the woman who is now her wife used to work, and at the Normandie Room. As these spaces gradually vanished — the Normandie Room closed in 2009, the Palms in 2013 — it felt, as Dries described it, “like seeing a tree you planted get cut down.”
Creating the Hold Up on “Batwoman” was partly a chance to resurrect that culture, she said — for the women of Gotham City, at least. It was a surreal and incredibly personal experience to see her bar brought to life.
“I remember just standing on the set with Holly Dale, our directing producer, who’s also a lesbian,” Dries recalled, “and I just said: ‘We’re in this multi-hundred-thousand dollar set. I cannot believe we are standing in a gay bar set right now.’”
“Batwoman” isn’t the only series indulging in this particular form of wish fulfillment. As the number of real-life American lesbian bars continues to dwindle — and those remaining face economic hardship from the coronavirus pandemic — at least three current TV shows imagine worlds in which, despite supervillains, gentrification and financial uncertainty, there is no last-last call.
In “Batwoman,” the lesbian superhero Kate Kane (played by Ruby Rose) opens the Hold Up to anger a homophobic restaurateur across the street. In “Vida,” currently in its third and final season on Starz, the sisters Emma and Lyn (Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera) run the show’s titular Los Angeles dive bar. And in Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q,” renewed in January for a second season, Shane (Katherine Moennig) buys a sports bar and turns it into Dana’s, named after a beloved character from the original series.
Part nostalgia, part practicality (it’s useful to have a setting where all your characters can meet), these fictional bars are stable, inclusive havens, standing in for the many real-world haunts that have disappeared over the past few decades. They also recall the kinds of places where, in many cases, cast and crew members of these TV shows first came out and found support.
“I’m not surprised when you say all these shows are doing it,” Dries said. Lesbian bar culture, she added, “is what we came out to, and that was our community.”
The Hold Up, Dana’s and Vida aren’t the first of their kind on TV. In the ’90s, Roseanne got same-sex smooched in a bar called “Lips.” Ellen first kissed her love interest in a bar surrounded by flirty women. But the lesbian bars in those earlier series depicted a reality that has since changed considerably.
Gay bars of all kinds have declined in recent decades, but lesbian bars have probably always been more vulnerable than their men’s counterparts. Income inequality has historically meant less disposable income for women, and experts pointed to a traditionally less robust nightlife culture among lesbians. (As Nico, a bartender and Emma’s love interest in “Vida,” played by Roberta Colindrez, puts it, “We just get all U-Haul domestic and stop going out.”)
The rise of online communities and the legal acceptance of same-sex partnership have further imperiled lesbian bars, according to the historians and research projects consulted for this article. As women feel freer to hook up in mixed spaces, and even closeted women are able to find community online, bars have become less integral to lesbian social life.
That social progress, then, comes with a certain sense of loss as lesbian-specific spaces disappear. On “The L Word: Generation Q,” the showrunner, Marja-Lewis Ryan, wanted to create an idyllic Los Angeles, where the lesbian scene was not relegated mostly to pop-ups and girls’ nights at gay men’s bars.
“All I was really trying to do was imagine a world where the coolest lesbians in L.A. decided to start a place for all of us,” Ryan said.
Dana’s, Vida and the Hold Up reflect a broader cultural shift toward more diversity and fluidity in L.G.B.T.Q. spaces. Like most real-life lesbian bars, they are run by lesbians and made explicitly safe for them. But just as the cast of the “L Word” was expanded to be more inclusive for its “Generation Q” reboot — the “L” stands for lesbian, the “Q” for queer — the fictional bars, like many of their real-world counterparts, have been created to serve all kinds.
As new generations embrace the term “queer,” the gender-specific “lesbian” has fallen out of fashion. The phrase “lesbian bar” is rarely used in these shows. Characters in “Vida” use terms like “safe space,” or a bar for “girls like us,” to describe Vida, which was left to Emma and Lyn by their secretly gay mother and is located in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
“It is a lesbian bar, but it’s also a queer bar, and it’s also a mixed bar,” Colindrez said. “And it’s also just like a neighborhood bar, a place for Latinos for all sorts of backgrounds to come and hang out and be themselves.”
For all the ways in which some lesbian bars may be expanding, their numbers have drastically shrunk. According to Greggor Mattson, an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College who tracks the closure of gay bars through the Damron travel guide for L.G.B.T.-friendly establishments, lesbian bar listings in the United States had waned to 15 in 2019, down from 31 in 2007. (Gay men’s bars dropped to 387 from 699 in that same period.) In 1987, the guide listed 206 lesbian bars.
Alexis Clements, whose 2019 documentary “All We’ve Got” explores queer female spaces across America, said she believed that gentrification is a major factor in the closure of lesbian bars. As real estate prices increase in major cities, she said, “that bar can no longer afford the rent, but also the people who would’ve walked a few blocks to go to that bar, they don’t live in San Francisco anymore.”
Some TV series have taken on gentrification directly. In the first two seasons of “Vida,” gentrifiers and money problems threatened to close the bar’s doors. In Freeform’s “The Bold Type” last year, the protagonist, Kat (Aisha Dee), tried but failed to save her favorite lesbian bar from being turned into condos.
“To not have as many of those places around to me feels like a loss,” said Amanda Lasher, who oversaw “The Bold Type” in its second and third seasons.
“And you know we feel that even more right now,” she added. “The isolation can be hard.”
It is difficult to envision any kind of nightlife in the middle of a pandemic. But as online meet-ups lose their charm, and as even the most dedicated introverts find themselves longing for the end of quarantine, there is hope that whichever lesbian bars survive the shutdown could become hot spots again.
“I think it would be absolutely likely that there will be a revival of women’s bars because of the desire to gather together,” said Bonnie J. Morris, a professor of women’s history who documented shifts in lesbian culture in her book “The Disappearing L.” “I think that there will be a lot of socializing as a celebration of life in 2021.”
For now, TV’s rainbow-decked oases must help fill the voids left by shuttered lesbian bars, which have long provided safety and emotional support. And even those fictional havens look to decline, at least in the near term. When “Vida” ends in June, audiences will lose one more such space. The show’s interior bar set, constructed on a lot in Los Angeles, was taken down months ago.
One of the set’s most prominent features was what Tanya Saracho, the showrunner for “Vida,” described as her “lesbiana wall.” Gay lotería cards hung near a “love is love” bumper sticker and among snapshots of kissing women; photos of the crew’s real-life queer and lesbian friends were crowded by affectionate graffiti: cartoon hearts and couples’ names.
“This is your bar,” Nico tells Emma in the show’s second season. “This wall? This says, ‘This is a safe space.’”
In the end, the TV bars may prove to outlive their series’ finales. Already they seem to be responding to — or perhaps reawakening — an under-fulfilled need. Before the shutdown, a group of enterprising fans in Los Angeles had taken over the Semi-Tropic, the Echo Park locale where some of the Dana’s scenes for “Generation Q” were shot, for a monthly party dedicated to the fictional bar. Their “L Word” watch parties are still going strong on Zoom.
Moennig, whose character on “Generation Q” opened Dana’s, said the Semi-Tropic takeover showed how “important for our community” lesbian bars can be.
“I don’t think I’ve been out to a bar in maybe 10 years,” Moennig mused. But social distancing had given her a new appreciation for them as gathering places.
“Whenever the world gets back to normal,” she said, “I might actually just go into a bar to feel some sort of normalcy again.”