Clare Hand is a self-described London lezza. Since October, she’s been working on the door at queer female events across London. She documents the music, the atmosphere (i.e. are you going to get laid or make mates), the clientele, the public’s response to queer female priority spaces, and the people running the nights. When she first conceived of the project, she wanted to take it international — and this that’s exactly what she’s doing here at GO Magazine. In mid-May, she crossed the Atlantic. She started in San Francisco, then LA, then she will be heading down to São Paulo, and then to NYC for WorldPride | Stonewall 50. These are here Lesbian Door Diaries.
San Francisco is the queer heart of America, where the streets are quite literally paved with rainbows. Since setting out on my Pride world tour, I’d covered the basics: the GLBT Museum, Harvey Milk’s old camera shop (Castro Camera), got some naughty toys at Mr. S, and took some selfies on the rainbow roads to send to my nearest and dearests with the Instagram caption: “this bitch is home.”
Queer tourism’ed out, it was time for a drink. I went to Moby Dicks; there were a lot of men in there. 440 Castro, the same. Badlands, ditto. Hi Tops—a gay sports bar, surely some lez action—had not a dyke in sight.
It’s not that I felt unwelcome in these bars, but I was disappointed. I’d pry open the doors and stride in, only to be warmly greeted by eager-eyed gay dudes before watching their faces slightly drop and their backs slightly turn as they see it is just little old lesbian me, not the bear of their dreams.
But there are plenty of queer women in San Francisco. I almost got a cricked neck from all the lesbian nodding in the first couples of days. (There are also very progressive conversations to be had with strangers at parties about gender: conforming to it, fucking with it, renouncing or celebrating it.) As such, there has always been a space for queer women in this city. The city’s first lesbian nightclub, Mona’s 440 club, opened in 1934, Maud’s came in 1965, then Peg’s Place in 1972, then Amelia’s in 1989. Yes, this is the Mambo No.5 of the San Francisco lesbian scene.
However, there hasn’t been a permanent, “friendly neighbourhood dyke bar” in San Francisco since April 2015, when The Lexington Club closed its doors. People were devastated; they got tattoos of the entry stamp, there were gallons of tears, many people still look like they could shed a tear or two today. There has been a lacuna in the lez world since then, leaving San Francisco lesbians—locals and visitors alike—sitting in bars looking like extras in a movie about the city’s thriving Daddy scene.
Jolene is scene royalty. Utter the words “nightlife” to any queer person in this city (dare I say state) and you’ll get a “do you know Jolene?” or “have you been to Jolene’s?”
I’d read good things. Jolene has worked in queer and girls parties for over ten years. Her bar is queer and open to all and its raison d’etre is simple: to provide a space of safety and freedom for women and trans folk. I could have read about Jolene’s all day, but nothing would prepare me for walking into the bar and realizing that I’d been looking for this space for years.
This is how I’d envisaged dyke bars back in the day—effortlessly cool spaces, art and photography on the walls, low-lit, neon lights, a team of (very hot) bartenders, and excellent base from quality speakers all contained in a vast warehouse of a space. It felt like discovering a secret underground Sapphic society.
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There were women in suits sipping cocktails by the bar, trans men playing pool with dykes in snapbacks, and trans women having dinner dates. People chilling, laughing, flirting. It’s a femmes-to-the-front queer utopia that had me squealing like an excited lesbian piglet for the rest of the evening.
Jolene and I spoke for a while. She oozes big dyke energy and says swoon-worthy things like “Everyday is the dream, seeing people walk in and smile and enjoy their time. Girls kissing each other with no one bothering them. That’s a dream.” And “I think that queer, gay, any space; they are all disappearing, it’s not only women… We’ve got to help each other out.”
I asked if Jolene’s has a strict door policy. “A, a strict?” she said back to me, not comprehending the question. “Door policy,” I repeated, “Door policy? Oh no,” she said, “You just have your valid ID and that’s it.”
We like door policies in my city of London. She Soho, our only lesbian bar—the only building in the capital with the word ‘lesbian’ written on the door—is in the center of Soho’s drunken hive. You have men offering you £50 to get them in, others declaring that their love for women necessitates their entry. As such, the bar puts gendered restrictions on the door: men must be accompanied by women and those who identify as such.
Jolene’s is tucked away a few blocks from the lager-infused bustle of the Mission District. Also, I suppose calling your bar queer (with an implicit lesbian and trans core), averts machismo fascination with girls who like girls.
Anyway, Friday nights at Jolene’s are incredible. The party is called U-Haul (no need to explain the lesbian trope behind the name) and is a very successful roving party that Jolene wanted a permanent space for. In London, like San Francisco, queer women have trouble hiring venues for women on the weekends. This was one of the driving forces behind Jolene’s creation: a desire to have a consistent women’s space on a Friday night and overall queer space the rest of the week.
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At 9 p.m., the venue was busy. People chatting, sipping, eating, taking pool very seriously. Weave through the bar to find a big cube of a dance floor, adorned in photos of boobs, chests, and nipples. By 10 p.m., when the party had literally just started, San Franciscans were crunking with a confidence Londoners don’t acquire until it’s ten minutes til close.
As the evening progressed, queers flocked in in batches of two to three hundred. Each mass was greeted by a thumping baseline—the music is trap, hip-hop and R’n’B heavy—and met by the hallowed words, “You Are Safe Here,” written in a pink neon triangle at the entrance. People came in groups and as couples, but there are always a few singles looking ready to pull. The crowd was completely mixed: all races, ages, and lewks.
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The evening escalated, and the music—provided by queer twin DJ duo Amber Valentine & Chelsea Starr —synchronized with the steamy Sapphic energy surging around the building. The pair sprinkled reggaeton, house music, and pop into the mix while keeping it consistently femme, with lots of Cardi, Ariana, and Missy blasting over the speakers throughout the night.
There was a bride-to-be dancing like she was about to call the whole thing off and see the lesbian-light. Dancers in suspenders twerked meticulously on the bar to loosen the room, with sparking clit-pumps and tips aplenty in the baying crowd. It was a hot, hedonistic, wonderful mess. All the while, the pool players kept stiff focus, unperturbed by it all. The chefs kept chopping and frying, resuscitating drunken party-goers.
Meanwhile, Jolene strode around the venue with her shoulders back and head held high. She cleared glasses, monitored the space, received the occasional “I love you” hug of gratitude from a friend, fan, or stranger. I guess we’d all be walking around like this is we owned San Francisco’s latest queer-femme mothership.