When Lisa Cannistraci opened Henrietta Hudson in 1991, getting the word out was a major undertaking. There were no group texts, no Facebook, and no Twitter — let alone a robust internet. She did things the old-school way: spending hundreds of dollars and countless hours mailing advertisements for the bar’s parties. “Six of us would sit around a long table and stuff envelopes, then you had to seal them and stamp them, and then — they were really heavy — you had to carry them to the post office,” she says.
Those humble beginnings, including her first bartending gig at the original Cubbyhole in New York City’s West Village in the mid-1980s, influenced her approach to managing lesbian bars. When that Cubbyhole closed in 1990, Cannistraci never envisioned opening a bar herself. It was Minnie Rivera, community organizer and entrepreneur, who approached her with the idea and, within a year, a bar was born. Nearly three decades later, she’s still standing.
In fact, Henrietta Hudson is now the longest-running lesbian bar in the United States after a wave of recent closings that have rocked queer communities. This epidemic has prompted the death knell of these important spaces, broadcasted in countless news articles and even in a short documentary by Broadly, featuring lesbian icon JD Samson.
This social panic is valid: Lesbian bars have served as refuges for queer women seeking safety, solidarity, friendship, and sex; they’re veritable fortresses against both misogyny and homophobia. And their loss has been reduced to oversimplified observations (“Gentrification!”) and, frankly, sexist blaming (“Lesbians don’t want to pay for anything!”). Despite some notable doors shuttering in recent years — like The Lexington Club in San Francisco and Sisters in Philadelphia — a small but mighty group is still alive, innovating, and serving their people.
While the way our community socializes has changed over the decades, the essential elements of running a small business — namely, staying in the black — have remained fairly consistent. For Cannistraci and many other owners and managers, the most significant factor in their longevity is the cost of the building itself. Henrietta Hudson’s owners signed a 15-year lease in 2016, achieving a major feat.
“What gave me that negotiating power was being a really good tenant,” she says. “If you want to keep any brick-and-mortar alive, you have to be a good tenant and a good neighbor. It’s about building relationships and being mindful of the community.”
Over in Brooklyn, Ginger’s Bar owner Sheila Frayne has had two long leases throughout the bar’s 19 years. Now on a nine-year lease, she attributes the bar’s survival to this, but she also says that rent costs have been the greatest challenge in keeping Ginger’s alive.
“It’s not the business, it’s the neighborhood that’s changed,” Frayne says. “When I moved into the neighborhood [over 20 years ago], there were a lot more lesbians and people who could afford to live there. Because of gentrification, there’s been a lot of change in the community.” She implies that the shifting demographics of the neighborhood coincide with a shift in the neighborhood’s atmosphere. “Now there are more people coming [to patronize Ginger’s] from the suburbs.”
The same goes for spouses Jen Maguire and Jami Seiden, owners of My Sister’s Room in Atlanta. Throughout the bar’s 22-year existence, “increasing rents have always been one of the greatest challenges,” resulting in a handful of moves. In 1996, My Sister’s Room debuted in the city’s Midtown neighborhood; then-owner Susan Musselwhite relocated just outside of the city to Decatur for a decade. Maguire and Seiden bought the bar in 2011 and moved it back to the heart of Midtown in 2015 to their second-choice space. With a little patience and good fortune, they are now in the process of moving to their first choice.
“We are very excited because we have outgrown the space that we are currently in,” Maguire and Seiden write in an emailed statement. “And now we are going to be able to offer…a new location that’s over 5,000 square feet, with three dance floors and bottle service, open six days a week.”
At the Lipstick Lounge in East Nashville, Tennessee, co-owner Christa Suppan circumvented skyrocketing rent by buying the building in 2003. “That was our saving grace,” she explains. “We’re paying in our mortgage a third of what we’d pay in rent.” Gossip Grill, in San Diego, benefits from a kind of cooperative status. The bar, which opened in 2004, is part of Mo’s Universe Restaurant Group, a privately owned collection of local restaurants that serve the LGBTQ+ community. Moe Girton, the partner and general manager of Gossip Grill, credits the bar’s success to the “amazing working relationship” with Mo’s.
Costs certainly matter to these establishments, but they’ve also found that centering their patrons is a key factor in their continuance. “We are not just a bar,” Girton says. “We are a community center, a support center, and a home away from home.”
These spaces have always been welcoming — the Lipstick Lounge has advertised itself as a bar for “humans” — but in recent years, these local lesbian watering holes have become more intentional and vocal about being welcoming, especially to trans and nonbinary folks and people of color. Maguire and Seiden comment that “the community expects a place where everyone is represented, and the diversity [of their staff and establishment] is something [they] take a lot of pride in.”
Cannistraci concisely sums it up: “If you have diversity, you attract diversity.”
Patrons, too, play a fundamental part in these bars’ social mission of racial and gender inclusion, because they hold the management and staff accountable and serve as partners in the social contract of building the community space of the bar itself.
“There is the occasional older lesbian who comes in, who cannot believe their eyes, and my bartenders know how to deal with them. Kind of like giving them sensitivity training,” Cannistraci says. Any smack of exclusivity — of gender essentialism or transphobic ideology — she says, “would never keep a bar open.”
When owners are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, it also makes the business better, because it provides a sense of ownership to everyone, from owner to staff to patron. There’s both a political and emotional investment in the bar as fundamental to the community. “I want every guest to know that they are safe and have a home with us,” Girton says. “A lot of my staff and guests call me ‘Dad’ — and I’m OK with that.”
For many owners and patrons, these bars are spaces of comfort and security, where you are known and seen without ever having to explain or justify yourself. More than one owner mentioned the importance of refuges in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the nationwide greenlighting of hate, homophobia, and transphobia. “This is where I’ve lived the longest. I’ve never been in one place [for] 16 years,” Suppan explains. “This is my home. This is the space I spend my time in. This is the space my family joins in, and we meet together for happy and sad times.”
Luckily for all of us, these mainstays are not alone. In the past year, a trio of bars arrived onto the scene, signaling a new renaissance for queer women’s nightlife and an evolution of the traditional lesbian bar.
Washington, D.C., is now home to not one but two new establishments: A League of Her Own (ALOHO) in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and XX+ in Shaw. Both bars coexist harmoniously in the nation’s capital, filling the void left by the closing of Phase 1 in 2016.
ALOHO was conceptualized as a neighborhood sports bar. General manager Jo McDaniel, who has been bartending in D.C.’s LGBTQ+ spots since the early 2000s, thoroughly surveyed the local queer women’s scene for what was missing.
“While we are by and large touted as a lesbian bar,” she says, “I always put the slash in and call us a lesbian/queer bar, because I want to make sure we’re including the trans and nonbinary communities.”
The bar practices what it preaches, from implementing staff diversity training to having an additional bodyguard on duty specifically for trans women who may feel uncomfortable in cis-male spaces, as ALOHO is attached to its brother bar, Pitchers. “Our primary focus is being inclusive,” says McDaniel, “and making sure that ALOHO is not just one thing.”
Being a “conduit for human connection,” in McDaniel’s words, is also inherent to the mission of D.C.’s other queer women’s hot spot, XX+. Lina Nicolai, co-owner of the restaurant Al Crostino, convinced her business partner (who is also her mother) to convert the second floor of the restaurant into a space designed for queer women.
Nicolai, who has been on the D.C. queer scene since she moved to the United States from Italy 25 years ago, had been wanting to give her community a permanent space in what she had endearingly called a “home base” for some time. The mellow, sexy vibe is emphasized in everything from its décor — a bold black and gold color scheme, down to the velvet couches — to its small bites seasonal menu designed by Kamarreya Baxter, a.k.a. Chef KB.
On the West Coast, Jolene’s Bar has made a splash in San Francisco, a city that’s been hungry for a new queer women’s space since 2015, when the Lexington Club closed its doors. The new bar’s co-founder and namesake, Jolene Linsangan, says she’s “always dreamed about having a safe space” for the community. She’s been on a hunt to make this dream come true and has already promised prized local dance parties like UHAUL and the long-running hip-hop party Swagger Like Us a home at the location. Her latest venture features a dance floor and pool table, giving it a classic vibe, and its predominantly black and gray décor is juxtaposed with a glowing neon sign that boldly declares, “YOU ARE SAFE HERE.”