Lesbian bar

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A lesbian bar (sometimes called a "women's bar") is a drinking establishment that caters exclusively or predominantly to lesbian women. While often conflated, the lesbian bar has a history distinct from that of the gay bar in the United States.


Lesbian bars predate current LGBT offerings such as queer community centers, health care centers, bookstores, and coffeeshops. While few lesbian-specific bars exist today, lesbian bars have long been sites of refuge, validation, community, and resistance for women whose sexual preferences are considered "deviant" or non-normative,[1] they have been spaces for intergenerational community building, where women had the opportunity to come out without being "outed", which can result in the loss of jobs, family, and social status.[1][2] They could, however, also be sites of intense isolation.[1]


While women have historically been barred from public spaces promoting alcohol consumption, women's saloon presence rose in the 1920s. Prohibition's speakeasies allowed women to drink publicly more freely.[3] San Francisco's Mona's 440 Club, opened in 1936, is widely cited as the first lesbian bar in the United States;[4] in the 1950s, bars began to emerge for working-class lesbians, white and black.[1][5] Very characteristic of these (often referred to as "Old Gay"[6]) bars was binary heterosexist models of coupling and an enforcement of a (white) butch/femme or (black) stud/femme binary,[7] because of a lack of economic capital and segregation, house parties were popular among black lesbians.[8] Lesbians who changed roles were looked down upon and sometimes referred to as "KiKi" or "AC/DC".[9] There were not, however, alternatives available at this time.[10] Out of this early organizing of lesbians came the Homophile movement and the Daughters of Bilitis.[10]

Lesbian and gay identification and bar culture expanded exponentially with the migration and passing through of people in big cities during and after World War II.[1][5][6][9][11]

In the 1960s, with the rise of the gay liberation movement and an increasing identification with the term and identity "lesbian", women's bars increased in popularity, the 1970s saw the rise of Lesbian Feminism, and bars became important community activist spaces.

Policing and backlash[edit]

Policing has been a constant for lesbian bars in the US, some bar owners banded together to fight back against this, collecting funds to defend patrons who had been arrested in raids.[10] Undercover[5] and off-duty police officers[1] have terrorized lesbian bars since their inception. Lesbians could be harassed and detained by the police for publicly gathering in a place where alcohol was being served, dancing with someone of the same gender, or failure to present identification.[1]

Men were often the landlords of lesbian bars, in order to secure liquor licenses and navigate relationships with the police and the Mafia.[12][13] Bar owners often bribed police to warn them just prior to raids, upon which they would turn on the lights in the bar and lesbians would separate.[1]

As a form of protection, some bars covered their windows, did not have identifying signage, or could only be entered through a back door,[1] some bar owners tried membership-based models, which heightened security but was also exclusionary.[1][7]


In addition to drinking, lesbian bar culture has also revolved around community building, dancing, and pool playing, this targeted but not lucrative patronage was not always profitable and caused many bars to shut their doors.[1]

These pieces of history are being lost as the "neighborhood lesbian bar" is increasingly unable to make rent payments, and as gentrification contributes to declining patronage. Gay male bars persist as gay men have more economic capital, and the rise of internet dating culture is displacing the cultivation of intergenerational lesbian communities historically created in lesbian bars,[2] because lesbian women are more likely to be primary caretakers of children than gay men, lesbian neighborhoods take on a different shape than gay neighborhoods, and as a result, lesbian night life decreases.[14]

With the mainstreaming of queer culture, a rise in "queer" over "lesbian" identification and the rise in internet dating culture, lesbian-specific bars are very uncommon today.[7]


The "Lex" was San Francisco's last remaining lesbian bar.

Today some queer-friendly, though not exclusively lesbian, bars host "lesbian nights".[2]

San Francisco

Notable establishments in San Francisco were Peg's Place, Maud's Study and the Lexington Club in the Mission, which closed in 2015.[2]

Others include: Paper Doll, Artist's Club, Beaded Bag, Blanco's, Chi-Chi Club, Beige Room, Tommy 299, 12 Adler Place, Miss Smith's Tea Room, Tin Angel, Copper Lantern, Anxious Asp, Front, and Our Club.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Wolfe, Maxine (1997). Invisible Women in Invisible Spaces: The Production of Social Space in Lesbian Bars; in Queers in Space. Seattle, WA: Bay Press and Gordon Brent Ingram. pp. 301–323. 
  2. ^ a b c d Samson, JD (27 August 2015). "The Last Lesbian Bars". Vice. Retrieved 21 March 2017. 
  3. ^ Pictures, Culver. "Women at a speakeasy bar". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 23 March 2017. 
  4. ^ "Lost Womyn's Space". 21 March 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c Miller, Neil (2006). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York, New York: Alyson Books. pp. 1–100. ISBN 1-55583-870-7. 
  6. ^ a b Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2003). Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 68–158. ISBN 0-520-20415-8. 
  7. ^ a b c Morris, Bonnie (2016). The Disappearing L. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. pp. 189–190. ISBN 9781438461779. 
  8. ^ Lapovsky Kennedy, Madeline D. Davis (1994). Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. New York, NY: Penguin Books. pp. 113–123. 
  9. ^ a b Newton, Esther. "Lesbians in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1999". OutHistory.org: It's About Time!. Retrieved 26 April 2017. 
  10. ^ a b c Wolf, Deborah Goleman (1979). The Lesbian Community. Berkeley and Lose Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 7–44. ISBN 0-520-03657-3. 
  11. ^ a b Shaw, Randy (2015). The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. San Francisco, CA: Urban Reality Press. pp. 1–100. ISBN 9780692327234. 
  12. ^ Stein, Arlene (1993). Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation. New York, NY: The Penguin Group. pp. 39–40. 
  13. ^ Boyd, Dick (Winter 2010). "Before the Castro: North Beach, a Gay Mecca". Shaping San Francisco's Digital Archive @ Found SF. Retrieved 27 April 2017. 
  14. ^ Adler, Sy and Johanna Brenner (1992). "Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 16: 24–34.