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What Happened to DC’s Lesbian Spaces?

Local historian Bonnie Morris talks about the loss of gay bars in the District and the "mainstreaming" of gay culture.
What Happened to DC’s Lesbian Spaces?
Omega, in Dupont Circle, closed in 2013. Though not a lesbian bar, it's one of several gay spaces in the District that have shuttered in the last few years. Photo by Flick user NCinDC.

In January, Phase 1, a lesbian bar in Capitol Hill that’s been open since 1970, appeared to close for good. The closure turned out to be only temporary, allowing the bar to upgrade its sound system and lighting, but until it finally reopened in late March the future of one of DC’s last lesbian spaces seemed murky at best.

A slate of gay bars and spaces, including the Hung Jury, Apex, Omega, and Remington’s, have closed in DC in the last few years, but many of the city’s lesbian spaces—Lost and Found, The Other Side, Pier 9—had closed years earlier.

Earlier this week, we spoke with historian Bonnie Morris about what the loss of gay and lesbian spaces means for DC’s LGBT community, the “mainstreaming” of gay culture, and why lesbian bars have had a tougher time than bars catering to gay men. Morris, a part-time women’s studies professor at Georgetown and GW, grew up in Bethesda and went to college at American University in the early eighties. She’s also a board member at the Rainbow History Project, a group chronicling LGBT history in Washington.

You were in a panel discussion at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago, “Lost Lesbian Spaces.” Can you explain what that loss is, exactly?

It’s very generational, specific to people who came out in the seventies and eighties when, although DC was better than most states, there weren’t very many protections for gay and lesbian people.

There were two very different communities then, with far more places for gay men to congregate, including some really wonderful bars, restaurants, and clubs. Women primarily had Phase 1 on Capitol Hill, The Other Side, Lost and Found, and the Pier 9, near what’s now the Nationals baseball stadium. Tracks, the dancefloor, really brought everyone together—even my mom went dancing with me. That was really a good place to be kinetic. You didn’t go there to have a cultural conversation.

The Hung Jury was really popular, beginning in the mid-’80s, and closed in the early years of the twentieth century. Apex in Dupont Circle was really popular for women’s nights. But you could essentially walk to multiple places from any Metro stop. When I came out the drinking age was 19, so there was much more of a floating university population, and then everything changed really quickly. A lot of people’s formative memories might have been in any one of these bars, or—if they weren’t in a relationship or an activist—they might have seen the full range of DC’s population there.

It’s really hard to reconstitute what some of these places were like. What’s intriguing is two big changes that my college students talk about. There’s so much getting together in cyberspace, you don’t really need a physical site, you don’t really need a particular place to get into that serves your population, your tribe.

And people are coming out earlier, while they’re still in school, often before they can drive, so they’re not really making it to spaces like these.

If you are young and have this online community, though, is it really that important that there be bars or bookstores or other physical spaces?

I think it is. I’m actually writing a book right now, The Disappearing L, about the vanishing of lesbian spaces. Having discussions with people across the country—artists, musicians, activists—we all feel that having a place to go to is very important, say, when there’s a negative event, like a hate crime or a loss, or a celebration. Let’s say the Supreme Court affirms the right to marry; or there’s, say, the murder of Matthew Shepard. People could go to their gay bar or their gay bookstore and immediately start organizing. You can do that online, but being able to hug and cry, jump up and down and party—in a lot of ways, those spaces, although they weren’t maybe meant as “you have to be a progressive activist to come here,” they serve to bring people into the larger meeting of advocacy. I don’t want to say the “r” word, recruit. I mean that you would be moved to be more than just a party animal by encountering people that were there.

For women it was particularly important, dealing with sexual harassment on the job and so forth, to have a women-only space. For lesbians the idea of having a women’s bookstore or a women’s bar was to have a place to go where you wouldn’t have guys trying to hit on you, which was commonplace in social life elsewhere. And also finding a literature or a cultural currency that was very specific to what lesbians experience. Lesbians were not trying to dress up to attract gays; they were dealing with things like low pay and custody battles, and possibly lack of access to a partner in a hospital in the same way gay men were, but women were far more likely to be nurses, social workers, intimately involved with personal care but suffering the same biases that gay people were. So these were places that you could do a lot of strategic checking-in on what kind of outrageous backlash we needed to address, and if you were hurt and upset by those things you could have a drink.

But if you were trying to get sober, having a bookstore or a site that was not based around alcohol was super, super important. In a lot of ways, women’s bookstores and Lambda Rising really saved lives, because you could browse and be in an environment that affirmed you, and you did not have to be nursing a gin and tonic. Moreover, for women there was a whole cultural movement that advanced that vibe: women’s music performance. Concerts and festivals. Any age could go, and you would hear a great entertainer who would rouse the audience to be more of an activist but would also sing music that affirmed your relationship. And you sure weren’t hearing that anywhere on the radio.

The interesting thing for someone like me is that while women went out to dance at women’s bars, women’s bars did not play “lesbian music.” No matter how hard people tried, mostly it was the same Madonna everywhere you went. So what the bars were playing was mostly music by straight allies, gays, and disco. So women would buy women’s music and listen to it at home or in the car or at concerts, and being able to get that in a bookstore meant you could get everything to outfit your home, and literature and art that affirmed your life, in just a couple of places. In my neighborhood—I live on Connecticut Avenue—pretty much all the bookstores, except Kramerbooks, vanished within a year or two. It wasn’t a particular anti-gay wave: we had a mystery bookstore, a used bookstore, a pride bookstore, and Lambda Rising. You can have a wonderful experience at Kramerbooks, but it’s not specifically gay. So there isn’t that sense of knowing you’re going to see other people like you.

One of the more poignant things I associate with the big pride marches held in DC—I missed the one in ’79, but I marched in ’87, ’93, and 2000—is you would see people from all over the country flocking to Lambda Rising or, if they were women, Lammas Books. You’d see all these folks with their Lambda Rising bags, T-shirts, and bumper stickers; they would just load up. My whole neighborhood would be filled with folks who were doing the very beginning of gay tourism. And that was still at a point when you weren’t necessarily going to receive a warm welcome, except maybe in Amsterdam or Provincetown. So DC, during the various marches, was a place where the physical sites—the dance clubs, the bookstores—were full of people experiencing what it was like to see a bunch of happy gay people. So I think there’s something to be said for spaces where you went where you were happy or sad, where you knew you would see other people processing the same emotions.

Then it started to shift a little bit in 2001. I became involved in spoken-word poetry slams that were pretty adjunct to gay culture. So Mothertongue, which lasted from 2001 to 2013 or so, was held at the Black Cat and was a pretty lesbian, bi, women’s spoken-word event. It was just packed, packed with hundreds of young lesbian writers and poets—black, white, Asian. We would migrate from reading work to going over to the gay bar Chaos, which had a women’s night Wednesday night, and eventually a drag king show. So many of the same women were beginning to do two different kinds of performance art, poetry slams and drag king. Those became huge in Washington, with competitions and prize money. Mother Tongue’s big annual event was an anti-Valentine’s Day slam every February, with prize money for whoever did the best poem for being broken up or stomped on—it couldn’t be about successful love. [Laughs.] So you had a literary community, a lot of young MA grad students in poetry and fine arts, and a very literate, educated, culture of lesbian activists. You had this readymade population that showed up at some of the same events, but none of that was attached to a permanent bar or a permanent club. Drag kings performed at Phase 1, which also had open mics, but it was supposed to be a bar that anyone dropped in on, so it couldn’t have entertainment events every night of the week. So eventually these floating communities also lost their homes. Chaos shut down, the Drag Kings have floated around, and [earlier this year] Phase 1 closed [for renovations]. So where do lesbians go? You got me.

What other lesbian-specific cultural spaces are left, besides Phase 1?

There are a number of groups in places like Takoma Park, where you’re more likely to find social groups, women who go out and dance together. There are a lot of affinity groups organized through social media, like Nice Jewish Girls, which go out and do social events.

But as for physical spaces?

Yeah. There are a lot of queer poetry readings that are run through Split This Rock—a progressive, very LGBT poetry group that uses Busboys and Poets—including an LGBT spoken-word event called Capturing Fire that’s run by Regie Cabico. Mothertongue just couldn’t get enough people to commit to getting a space or to have a board.

I think what’s happened is in the mainstreaming of gay culture a lot of people got married and settled down, and the DC community is sort of haves and have nots. There’s a lot of affluent high-powered lawyers and government folks working on gay issues who live in the suburbs, and then there’s folks who are really struggling to get support services and medication and housing. Their issues are very different. Then somewhere in the middle are people like me, women’s studies professors who are trying to historicize very recent history, which I think will be more interesting to people in another 10 or 20 years.

You think the mainstreaming of gay culture has been one of the main reasons so many of these spaces have closed?

Sure. I don’t know if folks just aren’t aware of what’s out there, or they didn’t feel like they had to go to a specific gay bar—I think people have very specific taste now. We’re in the era of the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain; people want to go out to restaurants and bars that have something cool or chichi that isn’t just that we’re all gay here. And in fact, I’m sorry to say, back in the day a lot of gay bars were pretty crummy, not welcoming or clean. Their restaurant quality was negligible. Now, because you’re not being afraid of being asked to leave because you’re a “homo” or picked on, you can go wherever you like. I go to lots of happy hours that are very mixed—straight, gay, bi—and people are really there because they want to try the basil-infused drinks or whatever. I think that’s very much DC. In other cities I’ve gone to some really wonderful old bars. I think England is an example where you have traditional gay pubs that will go strong for a really, really long time. I think in the US we have a different relationship to the neighborhood bar, and we also, it must be said, have been on a health kick where a lot of people have given up alcohol and smoking and just don’t want to go out drinking every night. I think there’s a lot of young people that do. But it’s hard to say. I think the mainstreaming of gay culture has in part—well, we’re a victim of our own success. We don’t need to hide, so we don’t need places to hide in.

Can you foresee a time in which there aren’t any gay bars or bookstores?

Yeah, I do. I think that’s happening in a lot of cities. Until quite recently there used to be a women’s bookstore in every state and women’s music festivals in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. There were lots of gay bookstores. But this is a whole other phenomenon, too—because of the shift to reading on glass, bookstores have really taken a hit. Will gay spaces become museumlike? I think what’s hard to see is that there’s also been a long tradition of house parties, particularly in African-American culture, and floating events like raves. I think locations like Provincetown, Key West, Greenwich Village will continue to be popular.

But I do think it’s important to say that we can afford to be thoughtful and critical, but if you’re coming out in Mississippi etc., it’s still a godsend—haha—if you have a chance to go into a gay bookstore or a gay restaurant that’s really all about you. It’s so inconsistent in the United States. And it’s inconsistent even in places that are urban. Obviously you can be gay in Orange County, where you’re right next to LA, but you can be in a very right-wing community. You’re in a high-density population area that goes from left wing to right wing on the freeway. So it’s not fair just to say, If you’ve come from Kansas to Provincetown, you’ve found heaven.

As physical spaces go, do you have a sense of whether what’s happening in DC is different from what’s happening in other major US cities?

I think it’s similar. The Park Service is marking new national historic landmarks through an LGBT initiative, but we can’t really go around and put purple flags everywhere there was a gay disco (although I would love to). A lot of people have a personal attachment to bars that were never really great shakes as institutions. There was a place called Rascals down the block from me on Connecticut Avenue where I had one of the hottest nights in my entire life as a teenager—but it was never a bar that was particularly noble or brilliant. It’s closed, and now I see it all the time and it’s like some kind of shoe store or something. But the thing that’s happening nationally is similar to what happened to the black community. (Obviously there are people who identify as both black and gay, to be clear.) In the years of segregation, you had black-owned businesses and black-owned baseball franchises and all of that because you couldn’t belong to or go to other places. And then when that changed, people stopped going to the black-owned ball game or restaurant, unless you really had a loyal neighborhood clientele. It’s the same thing [in the gay community]. With integration, the old independent joints vanish. Some of that is because people believe it’s better to go with a nationally known brand, better to have a chain restaurant than a gay restaurant. People will go with the familiar, or they think it improves the neighborhood to have a big shop or restaurant rather than a gay bar. Or frankly the people who own or manage the independent places just can’t afford the overhead. That was true of music festivals.

We can rattle off the names of gay bars in DC, bars that seem to cater more to gay men than women. Why is that? Why are there so few lesbian bars, comparatively?

I think traditionally, young men have come out earlier and had more experiences with what we would now call hooking up, and have been more involved in the late-night party scene. Women have had less money, which is still true, and have gone out less because of the discretionary income thing. Women have tended to pair off and settle down; although that’s a stereotype, there’s a grain of truth to it. Their going-out years have been fewer, and that has made it harder for women’s organizations to sustain, because women don’t go out as much and they don’t drink as much. I think women have met one another in other places, sometimes vacationing or through work, and are possibly more interested in meeting through online dating where you can find someone based on similar interests. There’s also a different kind of need to find women in alternative sites; women in the military were often so closeted and afraid, and they’d try to have immersion in a specifically lesbian space on their time off. I think that women still like to go out dancing, and they like to do so in a place where they don’t have guys pinching them or whatever, but women have just not had access to the real estate that guys have enjoyed. A lot of it really is economic, or it’s the community where the bars are, or it’s that women have kids and don’t stay out as late. And the women’s movement has changed. The movement of the seventies, and into the eighties and nineties, made women want to be with other women for political reasons. So they put their lesbian dollars into supporting women’s businesses, and they don’t do that now. That feminist imperative has waned, unfortunately.

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Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith (@harrisondsmith on Twitter) has contributed to the Washington Post and Chicago magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]