A Brief Background on Lesbian Bars in America: Why Are They Waning?

In the past few decades, the number of lesbian bars in the United States has reportedly dipped from more than 200 in the late 1980s to a mere 21 today.

Customers pose outside Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar in the West Village on June 17, 2021, in New York City. Credit: Getty Images
Customers pose outside Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar in the West Village on June 17, 2021, in New York City. Credit: Getty Images

Within the context of the broader LGBTQ+ social scene, lesbian bars in America are a unique focal point. Though their impact on queer history is undeniable, the shrinking number of lesbian bars has cast doubt on whether they will retain their status as important nightlife spaces for LGBTQ+ women. COVID-19 only made matters worse, forcing many owners of lesbian bars across the country to shutter their doors due to the unsurmountable financial challenges imposed by the pandemic.

In the past few decades, the number of lesbian bars in the United States has dipped from more than 200 in the late 1980s to a mere 21 today. The Lesbian Bar Project, which was started to “ensure the Bars not only survive but thrive in a post-pandemic landscape,” claims that these spaces are “disappearing at a staggering rate.” The Lesbian Bar Project’s website includes a map of the remaining bars across the country, and some of those “sacred spaces” are featured in the collective’s June 2021 documentary film.

Writer, social commentator, and Los Angeles resident Roxane Gay expressed bewilderment at the dwindling numbers of lesbian bars nationwide and the total lack of these spaces in her city. Gay told Smithsonian magazine, “It doesn’t make sense that a city of this size, with a lesbian population that is significant, has no bars … They’re community centers, they’re fun places to meet other lesbians and/or bisexual women.” Gay added, “And they can be sexy spaces. I think that they’re vital.” USA Today reported that Los Angeles County lost its last lesbian bar, the Oxwood Inn, in 2017, on the heels of the 2013 closure of The Palms, the only remaining lesbian bar in LA’s West Hollywood.

Owners and general managers of 12 of the 21 surviving lesbian bars in the U.S. gave PBS a number of reasons why these spaces are being forced to close, including oppressive financial barriers, assimilation of LGBTQ+ folks, and gentrification, and an ever-evolving digital landscape rife with dating apps.

Ally Spaulding, the owner of lesbian bar A League of Her Own in Washington, D.C., pointed to wage gap discrimination as another glaring factor. “The wage gap discrimination is a huge part of this. Obviously, women earn less than men, and on top of that, Black women, Latino women, Asian women earn significantly less. So if you’re looking at the capital of white cis gay men versus the capital of white, Black, brown, Asian, Latina, queer women, the disparity is huge,” Spaulding said. “And therefore, it takes twice as much work for us to gain the capital because we are underpaid across the board.”

Some members of the LGBTQ+ community note that a number of queer spaces pander largely to specific demographics, such as white cis gay men. However, lesbian bars haven't escaped this criticism either, with the lesbian separatist movement championed by some cisgender lesbians and trans-exclusionary radical feminists encouraging the exclusion of transgender women from lesbian spaces.

Still, progressive establishments in the lesbian bar community overwhelmingly dominate the narrative of these spaces’ individual and collective legacies. As the Lesbian Bar Project asserts, “what makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders,” saying “the label Lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them.”