Originally published 1/5/15
Note: The words ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer woman’ are offered here to describe non-straight women. Feel free to substitute the identity descriptor of your choice.
Around the country, big cities are losing their only lesbian bars, including The Palms in West Hollywood and Chances Bar in Houston. The Lexington Club in San Francisco will soon close its doors, too.
In San Francisco, Lili Thirkield, owner of the Lexington Club, gave an interview last October about the role of economic gender inequality and gentrification in her decision to sell the Lex. “Why is there only one lesbian bar when there are so many gay male bars?” she asked. “Even if you take the queerness out of it, women make less money than men and a two male household is going to have more capital potential to start a business than a two female household.”
Certainly gender-based income disparities and increasing gentrification are at play here in Seattle. For lady-loving ladies in Seattle, the trend seems to be to socialize in spaces that are not lesbian-specific and that don’t revolve around alcohol, although it’s not clear if this is by choice or by necessity.
So what is keeping the Wild Rose, Seattle’s sole lesbian bar, afloat?
Many of the historically gay bars in Seattle – Neighbours, R Place, and Pony, for example – do host ladies’ nights, but the only official lesbian bar in town is the Wild Rose. Although everyone with manners is welcome, the Rose caters solely toward queer women, offering enthusiastic Pride parties and a laid-back atmosphere that appeals to baby dykes as well as seasoned and partnered gay women. Any young lesbian fresh out of the closet can Google “lesbian bar Seattle” and find the Wild Rose at the top of the page.
With its prominent location on Pike Street, large windows, and several different zones to inhabit (bar with standing room and televisions and a street-facing main room with pinball and seating toward the back), the Wild Rose provides a space for queer women looking to get laid and also for queer women who are simply out with their sweeties.
There is no doubt that lesbians (and other historically marginalized groups) still require separate, specifically-designated spaces both for safety and for the development of subculture.
But let’s consider a perhaps-controversial question: In this day and age, and in a city as liberal as Seattle – do lesbians need more than one “lesbian bar”?
In the first few decades of the 1900s, the area around Skid Road and Pioneer Square was the hub for Seattle queers (and others looked down upon by local police) who wanted to socialize in public. As time went on, these dance clubs began to serve the dual purpose of both entertaining queer people as well as organizing them politically.
This is something the Wild Rose does very well: It hosts various fundraisers and partners with lesbian community groups, functioning as an event hub for the development of Seattle lesbian culture, not just for drinking.
It took time for lesbian-specific venues to develop in Seattle. In 1946, the Garden of Allah opened, which served both gay men and lesbian women until its closure in 1956. Lesbian-owned bars began to prosper in their own right in the wake of the Garden of Allah’s closure – The Hub, The Madison Tavern, and Sappho’s Tavern among them.
Notable non-bar gathering spaces for Seattle queer women in the 1950s were Daughters of Bilitis (founded by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin) and the Dorian House (after The Dorian Group, Seattle’s first gay rights organization), which opened its doors in 1969 to provide assistance to job-seeking and struggling gay people.
For the most part, Seattle gays continued to socialize only in queer-specific spaces throughout the 1960s. This was partially a result of a Seattle police force and legal framework that despised gay people in combination with negative media representations, but it was also a result of the many gay couples who settled down and took on the rhythms and accouterments of hetero-normative “married life.”
In 1974, Seattle finally hosted its first official Gay Pride Week, which was immediately followed by the grand openings of various gay community centers and clubs throughout the city, including HIV/AIDS-centric organizations in the 1980s.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Wild Rose is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Lesbian bars may be disappearing, but more importantly, lesbians no longer have to hang out in “lesbian bars” and can instead choose to safely gather in non-specifically “lesbian”-designated spaces. Maybe having only one “lesbian bar” actually signifies a flourishing lesbian community, and an evolution away from secretive, shameful spaces toward a more open and accepting culture, where queer women can socialize in public together without endangering themselves. As Dani Cone wrote, “You no longer have to go to a gay bar to be gay.”
Besides the Rose, Seattle is flush with places where queer women gather regularly with other queer women, both formally and informally. Some of these are queer-specific (queer reading groups, kink clubs, media production companies and nonprofits), and there are also creative collectives, restaurants and other businesses (queer-owned and not), where queer women have made themselves at home regardless of any explicit “queer” or “lesbian” identifier.
So what is lost when lesbians are lumped in with the rest of the queer community? If you ask an out lesbian-on-the-street in Seattle today, the answer might be ‘not much’. Still, the Wild Rose absolutely serves a fundamental purpose in Seattle for women who are just now coming into their sexual identities as lesbians and need the safety of a “lesbian bar.”
The Rose also serves as the heart of lesbian community organizing in this city, standing on the shoulders of gay giants to provide the lifeblood and assurance that sustains the radical lesbian knitting groups and queer artists collectives that make Seattle special. Perhaps lesbian bars are disappearing, but the Rose is firmly planted in the Seattle queer scene, and the growing preference for flexible “queer” gathering spaces rather than “lesbian” spaces speaks only of greater community, not less.
Spots to check out:
2600 California Ave SW, Seattle, WA, 98116
“We have created a community space and are offering it as a safe place for all. We offer space for regular dining or for meetings and events to support the queer/straight/female community. We share the space with another woman-owned business, The Flower Lab. Let’s get women meeting, talking and supporting each other!”
Based out of Cornish Playhouse Studio at Seattle Center
201 Mercer Street, Seattle, WA, 98109
“Queer founded and operated, it our intent to be Seattle’s LGBTQ Theatre Company, representing this underserved population by staging works by queer playwrights and representing queer characters while working towards creating more opportunities for local queer artists, designers, actors, etc.”
Various venues – see their Calendar for more information.
“It’s been said that a lot of traditional gay culture is not inclusive of these sorts of interests (SF/fantasy, board games, D&D, video games), and that traditional geek culture is not always queer-friendly (i.e. Gamergate, or offensive headset chatter during online games). Queer Geek! offers an alternative way to meeting friends and dates outside of the bar scene, hookups and apps.”