Hollins University is a women’s college in Virginia. The place is, as you might expect, crawling with lesbians. The library is peppered with zines about queerness, feminism, and activism; people speak loudly about their “lesbian awakening” in the canteen; and they recently smoothed out their inclusion policy for trans women (trans men and non-binary people can graduate, but they must have joined the uni identifying as women). People wave and smile at each other as they stroll through the bucolic grounds, others sit on rocking chairs on a grand porch, someone bakes a spread of rockie roads and apple pies to celebrate the Harvest festival. It’s a pretty queer and wholesome place to be.
On Friday afternoon, I sat in one of the drawing rooms – Hollins, built in 1842, is beautiful, with heavy period drama vibes – covered in paisley chaise lounges, chandeliers, and gold-framed portraits of stern white people in bonnets. At 4 p.m., people in New York started posting preparation pics for their Friday night out, and people in London started uploading stories from sweaty dance floors. I started to feel like I’d aged two centuries in one afternoon and was now confined in 1865, preparing for a riotous evening of sewing petticoats for my mother.
I went into flight mode. I asked around and discovered there’s a lesbian bar called Babe’s of Carytown, in Richmond — the state’s capital — a couple of hours away. “There are such hot queers in Richmond,” someone said. “The bar is lit,” another raved.
I looked it up; Babe’s Facebook had some interesting rules on clothing. “Casual but polite,” it read. “You must wear shoes at all times (unless in the sand)’.” Um, okay, there’s sand, I thought. Shirts, blouses, and tops had to be less that a 4-inch mid-rift, tank tops had to have than a 6-inch opening under the arm, and all private parts must be covered at all times. Cool, I thought, I suppose “lit” has its limits at this place. I’m still going.
And so, two buddies and I packed the car, made sure our “private parts” were adequately covered, stocked up on leftover harvest snacks, and hit the road. We left at 7 p.m. It was two and a half hours of soaring down the highway, gazing at the stars, pondering the thirst of this lesbian quest. With 103 miles to go, spirits were high, and we were excited. At 57 miles, one friend fell asleep and the driver lost the will, so we nearly aborted our pilgrimage to the closest dyke nightlife.
At 9:40 p.m., we arrived disheveled. We walked through Babe’s gold door, paid a $5 entry, and bee-lined to the bar for a shot of tequila. The shots interestingly came in plastic condiment cups; though, at this stage, they could have come from the bartender’s bare hands.
There was definitely a lesbian majority inside, plus lesbian bartenders and security. “It’s a lesbian bar, a lesbian-owned bar. Just, over the years, it’s become everyone’s bar,” says Diana, who’s been working at Babe’s since it opened 32 years ago. “It’s kind of cool in today’s world to have everybody here, in one place, getting along. It seems like there’s so much strife on the streets, at least in here you’ve got boys, girls, gays, straights … who what, who whatever can come in, have a good time, and be themselves,” she said, while perched on a stool checking IDs at the door.
It’s an incredibly impressive space: A hybrid diner-dive bar out front has mahogany benches, oxblood tables, and islander ceiling fans. Past this, the dance floor (which used to be a t-shirt store) is a cavernous warehouse, flanked with pot plants and two pristine emerald pool tables. It’s a very retro, respectable joint.
But where are the humans? A massive venue and twenty people is a lethal combination that’d nearly have you mourning the t-shirt place.
Turns out, at 10 p.m., we’d been caught in a vibe-less transition period. Having just missed a drag show, the DJ was playing some nice — but inappropriate — groovy soul music. One dyke couple slow-danced (ironically) in the corner, while the rest of us stood around looking at our feet like a cluster of hungry cats waiting for food.
As strobe lights streaked across the deserted dance floor, it reminded me of how you might imagine a gay bar in America’s conservative, rural midlands: dry and underappreciated. My longing for the big city’s juice crept back. Our lesbian pilgrimage, so it seemed, had been for nothing.
We decided to head to the bar and regroup, unsure whether to ride it out, leave, or get our mid-drifts out to spice things up. As we spoke, as if by divine intervention, a cavalry of ex-Hollins students piled into the bar. They live and work in Richmond now; they were cool, tipsy, and ready for a wild night at Babe’s.
After their arrival, the space did not stop filling up. “At 11 p.m., people start coming in,” Diana said. “At midnight on a Saturday, there’s usually a line all the way down the road.” The DJ caught the vibe, and in a pendulum swing, we leapt from Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” to Khai’s “My Neck, My Back.” Though the giant dance floor was now fully loaded, it retained a spaciousness that allowed people to experiment. Some shuffled, krunked, vogued, twerked; a duo did the ’60s swim dance, and a trio did the Macarena. Fashions were all over the place too. People served distinct looks, be that dungarees, orange corduroy trousers with a black turtleneck, or platform espadrilles with an off the shoulder ruffle blouse. It was a hodgepodge of styles, to be expected in the only LGBTQ+ bar for miles and miles. Virginians were loving-life, waltzing around holding stacks of rainbow-coloured shots in condiment cups. The pillar in the middle of the room had now doubled up as a chunky pole-dancing pole.
Feeling high on the suddenly very lit night, I started to explore.
I uncovered a second cozy cabin bar out back, and up a small flight of stairs stood a massive wooden patio dotted with bamboo umbrellas that overlooked a full-sized volleyball court (solving the mystery of the sandy shoe policy). Never take a small queer bar on face value. Explore every crevice; they’re free from the space constraints we have in big cities, so you never know what you’ll discover.
Back inside, things were popping off. FISHER’S filthy house anthem ‘”I’m Losing It” thundered through the sound system and people were doing just that – within limits, private parts stayed under wraps, of course. It was like the whole of queer Virginia had come out to play — the lesbians, gays, straights, queers, all those who whats and who-whatevers.
There was some notably adorable non-lesbian activity in the state’s only lesbian bar that night. One dude (not a born dancer) stood next to his girlfriend and rumpapapum’ed along to Lizzo’s “Juice” between nervous swigs of his beer. Close to him, a lone guy danced to “Cash Shit’” by Megan Thee Stallion with the innocence and glee of someone at a Christian folk festival. He was beaming, causing no one any harm, no one reading harm in his presence (as can happen in lesbian spaces sometimes). He was happy to be there, delighted to be alive, and Babe’s was pleased to host him too.
Babe’s of Carytown had all the kindness and tenderness of a hometown bar: people chatting to you, dancing with you, offering you onion rings (“We’ve got really great, home-cooked food, served all day, all night until 1:30 a.m.,” said Diana). This merged with the electricity and mayhem of being an open, queer space in a less obviously queer terrain. Babe’s really is everybody’s bar, and it’s a very powerful place because of it.
Babe’s of Carytown, 3166 W Cary St, Richmond, Virginia, open daily, Friday is great, Saturday night is when all hell breaks loose at Babe’s.