A place that ‘feels like home’
In addition to a sense of longing to be with one’s community, another common thread found in lesbian — and lesbian-ish — bars of the past and present is creating a space that is a respite for patrons no matter what’s happening in the outside world.
It’s part of the inspiration that drove wives Danielle Spring and Julie Toupin to open Femme Bar in Worcester, Massachusetts, in March. Billing itself as a “queer human space” that is a “business built by lesbians,” Spring said she and Toupin were inspired after a trip to the Cubbyhole, a longtime lesbian stronghold in New York City, that made them feel at “home.”
“For me, feeling like ‘home’ is just a space you’re comfortable being yourself,” Spring told NBC News.
With an interior that feels like a “classy dive bar” and a range of programming from a book club to drag brunches, Femme Bar gives its regulars a space where “they just are who they are,” Spring said.
“I’m very lucky that I live in Massachusetts, so I’m watching them go after rights, and I’m really sad about it,” Spring said, referring to the wave of anti-LGBTQ state bills being proposed across the country. “But when we thought about the idea of Femme, it was always to create a space where we can be ourselves and be safe and be away from the rest of the hubbub that is the world.”
There have been almost 500 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. so far this year, an all-time record, with 78 of these bills becoming law, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union.
During time periods when political attacks on LGBTQ people increase, longtime bar owners and managers describe a sense of urgency around the need to gather in brick-and-mortar spaces. Christa Suppan, co-owner of The Lipstick Lounge, a lesbian-owned “bar for humans” that opened in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2002, said there was a change in mood from the Obama administration to when Donald Trump was elected.
During the Obama years, there was a sense that people came into the bar just to “have a good time,” she said. Then, when Trump was in office, her patrons had a stronger sense of, “Yes, I need to be with my people,” which has since re-emerged in the current political environment, she added.
“People go to bars for conversation, they go there to feel accepted, they spend their time with people with similar ideas and ideals,” Suppan said.
The Texas Legislature has introduced more anti-LGBTQ measures than any other state this year, 53, and has passed five of these proposals into law, according to the ACLU. Kathy Jack, general manager of Texas’ oldest lesbian bar, Sue Ellen’s in Dallas, which first opened its doors in 1989, said that when LGBTQ rights are walked back, her first response on behalf of the bar is, “What can we do?”
Similar to Suppan’s experience with the Lipstick Lounge, Jack has seen political organizing at the bar increase in times of crisis for the community, whether it was during the AIDS crisis when it first opened or hosting benefits more recently for groups like the Stonewall Democrats.
“You can’t let your guard down. You just have to keep fighting,” Jack said. “And that’s what we do — we get together and find ways to make things better in our community.”