The first time I went to a lesbian bar, I already had a girlfriend, so I wasn’t really looking to find a date. It was early on weeknight so it was pretty dead, and we sat at a two-top in the corner by the windows overlooking a quiet Chicago North side neighborhood. We lived on the West side, but we purposely drove up to the bar in hopes of meeting some other gay women. We had a drink apiece and silently hoped we’d be able to meet some friends, but there were only a handful of others in the bar, and no one seemed to be there for the same reasons we had.
It’s hard to make friends as you grow older. If it’s not through school or work, then you’re kind of on your own to seek out new relationships, and approaching someone for friendship can often seem weirder than if you were asking them on a date. So when I realized at 20 I was a lesbian and might want some other sapphiclally-inclined friends, I started with going to a lesbian bar, as women have for decades.
Sadly, that bar, T’s, closed last week. It’s been a trend for lesbian bars to close in the last decade, and there have been several reasons as to why this has been the case in metropolises full of gay and bisexual women who are interested in like-minded ladies, for friendship or otherwise. One theory is the idea that women go to bars to meet partners and then, once coupled, go into hibernation, staying home and making families outside of the nightlife scenes they once frequented. Another is that bars just don’t make that much money from lesbians, that lesbians are cheap. (This is a notion I completely resent and have never found to be true amongst my peers.) And now there are just a lot more cross-pollination of the queer community in general who prefer attending themed events to having a Cheers-like experience at their local women-ran waterhole.
Sadly, lesbian bars have a bad rap. When they do exist, they are usually a joke to a lot of hipper than thou patrons, who view their attendance there as ironic. I have no shame about my obsession with lesbian bars, past and present. I love the Wild Rose in Seattle and Cubbyhole in New York City and lament the loss of others I’ve been to in the past that are now deceased, including Stargaze (Chicago), Rubyfruit Jungle (New Orleans), and Sisters Edge 2 (Austin). Whenever I’m traveling, going to the local lesbian bar (or gay bar in the absence of lez-specific options) is one of the best ways for me to visualize what my life would be like in that place. That would be part of my subculture, inevitably, those friends I had yet to meet had I the courage to strike up conversations with people I at least some kind of commonality with. Just like people who attend conventions or meet-ups or go to sports bars that play games for only one city or state or region, even if that team is located across the country. When I go into a lesbian bar, I’m part of something that is self-contained, even if no one else is in the room.
So many other times I went to T’s and it was equally as uneventful as the first night. But there were a lot of other days or nights I spent on their patio, having conversations with new friends or old acquaintances, sharing cigarettes and gossip and slyly pointing out ex-girlfriends or terrible first dates, or meeting a friend-of-a-friend who would eventually just become a friend.
It’s not easy to make friends sometimes, but when you’re part of a community of any kind, you’ll eventually find them if you know where to look. It’s arguably getting easier these days, the more comfortable everyone is with being out in even the most straight of spaces. But part of me will always long for the Melissa Etheridge poster on the wall of Portland’s now-defunct E Room wall, and the post-flag football double pints on a sunny Chicago day at T’s.