"In 1980, there were 200 lesbian bars in the United States. Today there are only 21." The title card of Erica Rose and Elina Street's powerful documentary, The Lesbian Bar Project, presents a heartbreaking statistic. In an effort to celebrate, support and preserve the handful of bars that remain, the New York-based filmmakers banded together to document the owners and patrons fighting to save these sacred spaces. Alongside the documentary, the pair have kickstarted a fundraising initiative to support the brick and mortar institutions as they re-emerge in the wake of the pandemic.
In a concise 20 minutes, The Lesbian Bar Project charts the history of a handful of iconic lesbian bars across the United States. It then brings the subject right up to the present day, capturing the unfolding activism that aims to protect these essential landmarks of social validation and political empowerment, while addressing issues of inclusivity that these venues have neglected in the past.
The depletion of America's lesbian bars follows a wider trend of LGBTQ-centered venues shutting down when faced with competition from dating apps. There's also the fact that — while there are many barriers to still overcome — society is overwhelmingly more accepting of queer dating and nightlife than it was just one or two decades ago, somewhat reducing the need for these kinds of safe spaces. Add gentrification, high rents and a pandemic-induced economic meltdown to the mix, and you can see why minority-owned spaces like lesbian bars are having a particularly hard time staying open.
Shooting during the pandemic, whether in Manhattan or Mobile, Alabama, brought the host of issues facing lesbian bars into sharp relief. It also presented a dilemma: how to capture the importance of physical space and collective community during a time when we were all quarantined, an irony not lost on the filmmakers.
"It was really interesting to document the tension between the desire to gather versus the restrictions that were placed on us," Rose tells PAPER over Zoom. She adds that the pandemic, alongside continued issues of gentrification and a lack of financial support, has illuminated the conditions of these struggling businesses: "It puts, especially marginalized business owners, in a really precarious situation. They have to decide between the safety and the health of their staff versus actual potential economic stability."
As The Lesbian Bar Project highlights, lesbian bars and queer venues in general are still vital — and their loss is deeply felt. It is essential that we do not simply take these institutions for granted. In the documentary, comedian and actress Lea DeLaria (Orange Is the New Black) notes the need for LGBTQ+ youth to understand "how hard we fought to have [these spaces]." An executive producer on The Lesbian Bar Project, DeLaria's narration bookends the film.
"We wanted someone who is really a pillar of the community," Rose says on the choice of DeLaria's inclusion. "Beyond her being an icon, she's one of the few really notable famous queer women that still patronize the bars. We really have viewed New York as the heartbeat of queer culture and wanted to centre Lea at the heart of that."
The documentary also makes clear that lesbian venues need to move with the times in order to survive and thrive, reflecting on how lesbian bars have not always been entirely inclusive, especially when it comes to people of color, trans women and non-binary patrons. The documentary looks back on Bonnie and Clyde, a Manhattan lesbian bar that closed in 1982 and was an essential marker of progress for female-owned businesses. Some of that progress was an illusion: unofficial race-based quotas at the door discriminated directly against members of the community the bar supposedly served.
"We have to break the cycle of being exclusionary within our own communities," explains Lisa Cannistraci, owner of the iconic New York City bar Henrietta Hudson, in the documentary. The sentiment is echoed by The Lesbian Bar Project's mission statement, with Street detailing that "lesbian bars are not just for lesbian people, they're for all queer women, regardless if you're cis, trans or non-binary."
The new label "Lesbian and ..." is adopted by some of the documentary's featured bars in an attempt to make room for the flexibility of identities beneath the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. For example, the documentary explores Henrietta Hudson's choice to re-brand with a new gender-neutral logo. Although met with some controversy, the expressed aim is to open their doors to a wider spectrum of queer-identifying people. "I believe there is no need to be so militant over what lesbianism means," Rose says. "I think it's fluid, and I'm really excited to see how it's evolving. For me, it's been really important to reclaim that identity and give it more flexibility and nuance."
"Spaces for marginalized communities are extremely important, first and foremost," Street adds. "It's really about that, going back to the fundamental principles of being together in a space where you feel safe and you have your chosen family."
It is this optimistic outlook that underscores the documentary. Rose expresses the desire to move away from depicting queer spaces through the lens of "trauma, erasure and disappearance." The Lesbian Bar Project, instead, is bursting with collective hope for re-establishing a togetherness post-pandemic, uplifting the voices of the "cultural architects" to whom the LGBTQ+ community is indebted.
The documentary is just the start of what Rose and Street want to achieve. Their enthusiasm is palpable as they discuss their goal to create an episodic documentary series. "We're really excited to see how this project expands, there are so many more stories we can tell," says Street.
For now, The Lesbian Bar Project aims to raise an additional $200,000 to divide between these essential bars and support their re-opening post-pandemic.
"The onus is on us as a community and as patrons to show up for the bars," Rose says. "They can do everything in their power to stay open, but if we don't show up and support our brick and mortar establishments, they're going to wane. It's a shared responsibility."
The Lesbian Bar Project fundraising campaign is taking donations until July 1
Stills courtesy of The Lesbian Bar Project
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