I won’t lie. When I attended the premiere of “The Lesbian Bar Project,” a new documentary from filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street at the Harbor New York City Rooftop last week, I was more than a little star struck. Not just because of the red carpet, or the fact that I was in the same room as lesbian legend Lea DeLaria, an executive producer on the project (although certainly both were contributing factors).
What really had me awestruck: There, at the bar, was Lisa Cannistraci, owner of Henrietta Hudson, her braids pinned under a blue beanie; over here, at a high top table, were Rachel and Sheila Smallman, owners of Alabama’s Herz bar, resplendent in coordinated blue evening wear; Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel, whose As You Are Bar is slated to open in D.C. sometime in the next year, mingled with other guests beneath the platform where DJ Mary Mac spun sets.
Here I was, surrounded by a who’s who of the women and persons who run the country’s few remaining lesbian bars — those rare and endangered spaces, scattered about the country like stars in a loosely-defined constellation — who’d been brought together under one roof and surrounded by people who’d come out to support them.
The constellation didn’t seem so loosely defined anymore thanks to the Lesbian Bar Project, an initative which Rose and Street, both Brooklyn-based filmmakers, launched during the Covid pandemic. The initiative began as a PSA, narrated by DeLaria, followed by a 30-day campaign to raise funds for the country’s remaining lesbian bars — which numbered 15 known at the time — so that they could survive the pandemic shutdown. In its initial run, the project raised $170,000 which was distributed among the participating bars. It’s success sparked the follow-up documentary, funded by LBP co-sponsor Jagermeister, which takes a closer dive into the history of four of the bars: Henrietta Hudson, Cubbyhole in New York, Herz in Mobile, Alabama, and the soon-to-open As You Are Bar in Washington, D.C.
They have also relaunched the original LBP fundraiser, which will be open from June 3 to July 1, this time with a goal of raising $200,000 to be distributed among the participating bars.
So what made two New York filmmakers launch an effort to save the few remaining lesbian bars across the country? I spoke with Rose and Street via Zoom before the documentary’s premiere in order to learn more about what inspired the Lesbian Bar Project (LBP) — and what they had learned from it.
The idea for the LBP began in March of 2020, Rose tells GO, when both she and Street found themselves out of work and stuck indoors “with nothing but time to reflect on the importance of our gathering spaces,” which they’d suddenly lost. Their conversations often drifted toward the last time they’d been together in person, at Ginger’s, a lesbian bar in Brooklyn. Around the same time, Rose had come across some articles that chronicled the “disappearing” lesbian bars from the American landscape, which were further imperiled as a result of the pandemic.
“We knew we needed to do something as filmmakers and as storytellers to alert the community,” Rose says. “We consider ourselves pretty invested in the queer community, and we didn’t know the numbers were so bad. So we wanted to tell the stories about our bars, alert the community and really provide a call to action to save our spaces.”
In addition to raising $170,000 to help save these spaces, the LBP also attracted the attention of other lesbian bars around the country that had previously gone under the radar, bringing the total number involved from 15 to 21 (although unfortunately Philadelphia’s Toasted Walnut — one of the original 15 — closed its doors in February). The positive response told the duo that they had started something special — and that their skills as filmmakers gave them a unique opportunity to keep the conversation going.
“We wanted to go further into the stories of the bars, of the patrons, of the bar owners, of the community activists surrounding these bars because they’re more than bars, they’re community spaces,” Street says. “And our mission as filmmakers is really to make sure that we can spotlight that.”
With the help of LBP sponsors Jagermeister, they were able to secure funding for a 20-minute documentary film. Although they are hoping that subsequent funding will allow them to turn the project into a documentary series that delves into more stories, the question remained for the original film: Which of the bars gets their stories told first?
At least two of the bars were pretty easy to decide upon. “We’re New York filmmakers,” Rose tells me. “We wanted to visualize and tell the story of our hometown heroes and capture them. Cubbyhole and Hens have played such a pivotal role in our queer identity and also New York is arguably the heartbeat of queer culture, and it’s important to cover that story.”
They also decided to spotlight Herz both for its location — “when you think of Alabama, you don’t necessarily think of a lesbian bar,” says Rose — and also because it’s the only bar of the 21 that is Black-owned. Rachel and Sheila Smallman, the wife/wife duo behind Herz, “really bring us back to kind of like the roots of what a bar really is,” Rose says. “It’s a community center, they’re all about hospitality. It’s all about back to the basics with them.”
As for the fourth selection, As You Are Bar is currently a virtual queer events space, but owners Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel — formerly the general manager of the D.C. lesbian bar, A League Of Her Own — plan on opening a brick and mortar establishment sometime within the next year. They also, Rose says, represent the future of lesbian bars, not only as a rare new entry into lesbian barscape but also in how they envision what As You Are Bar represents. For example, McDaniel and Pike plan on “banning the box” — the euphemism used to describe the traditional employer practice of screening applicants for criminal backgrounds — in their own hiring practices.
As You Are Bar “presented a really exciting opportunity for us to show the future of what lesbian bars and queer space look like,” says Rose, “because often how we talk about lesbian bars is through loss, through trauma, through disappearance. It’s really important that we flip the switch on that and talk about it in a news lens.”
As You Are Bar is still a rarity, though. Much of the conversation around lesbian bars is still of loss, and is filled with enough lost spaces to populate an entire downtown center. The reasons for these losses probably aren’t surprising. Gentrification has driven up rents, putting many owners out of business. There’s the economic gap, which means that women’s spending power is less than that of men. Many of the bars “sort of had to claim their territory in places that didn’t necessarily cater to them, so that wasn’t geographically an easy thing to do,” Street says. Then there are the online spaces, like dating sites or other virtual forums, which are supplanting bars as meeting spaces.
But perhaps somewhat ironically, Street and Rose are now using virtual space to bring these bars together, many for the first time, in the common cause of survival during the global pandemic — a project which made us realize just how valuable these physical spaces are. “Even though we couldn’t be together in person, [LBP] was a way to virtually connect to the bars,” Street says. Now, in relaunching the campaign, “we can keep telling people that the bars are still there, and we have to show up for them.”
So how is it that the bars, despite the odds, are able to survive? And, I wondered, what did Rose and Street think the future of lesbian bars looked like?
“I always call the bar owners cultural architects because they’re really not just bar owners,” Rose tells me. “They’re shaping culture, they’re shaping how we commune and it’s incredibly innovative.” For example, she points to the renovations Lisa Cannistraci recently made “reshaping and reinvesting in Henrietta Hudson as a cafe.” Instead of a more traditional bar, associated primarily with alcohol and nightlife, the cafe space offers alternative options for members of the sober community, and is also a more viable option for those with families or who might prefer to do their socializing during the day. There’s also As You Are Bar, which Pike and McDaniel also imagine as a daytime cafe/nighttime bar hybrid, with 18+ nights so as to welcome in queer folx who are under legal drinking age.
“It’s really exciting that there’s different ways in which these spaces are coming together and how they’re operating,” she says. “And I think that a lot of that is going to stick and they’re going to keep transforming and being spaces that are more inclusive to all different types of people.”
On this note, I was curious to know a little bit more about what they thought regarding another recent change at Henrietta Hudson — no longer a “lesbian bar” but rather “a queer bar built by lesbians.” The announcement, which Cannistraci made in April on Instagram, had been met with both praise for its inclusivity by some and condemnation for its erasure of the term “lesbian” by others (Cannistraci, herself, addresses her decision in the documentary).
Street tells me that although they did have some backlash for including Henrietta Hudson’s in the LBP following Cannistraci’s announcement, she and Rose stand by their decision to include the famed NYC bar in the list. “It’s not just about the past, and it’s not just about the present. It’s also about the future. And I think now that we have the language, spaces are more inclusive and know how to open up better,” she says. “We’re not erasing the term ‘lesbian.’”
Not that they intend the answer to be definitive; rather, it’s part of an ongoing conversation about what a lesbian bar is, not just historically, but as a continuing cultural artifact that is very much alive. The owners’ abilities to adapt, by opening up cafe hours, hosting board game afternoons, and other innovations designed to broaden their appeal, have helped these spaces navigate, and survive, an uncertain economic landscape.
But the biggest takeaway from the LBP is how much we need these spaces. They are for the community but, Street tells me, they are also for ourselves; they are the places where we have come of age, where we have learned about our sexuality and found a place for ourselves within a larger social framework. An online culture, she says, can’t replace that.
“The pandemic made us realize that we took a lot of these things for granted,” she says. ”Memories are created in spaces where we can define four walls, where we can define the spontaneity of an encounter with someone. And so I think how these spaces survive is that a lot of people need them and crave them.”
But in order for these spaces to remain, we need to be there for them. “Show up to the bars,” Street tells me. It’s not enough to lament the loss of the lesbian bars of old; we have to support those that are still here, “to show up to the brick and mortar. It’s a form of activism.”
I thought about her words on Wednesday as the lights dimmed in the Harbor NYC Rooftop, the film coming to life on the screen — a film about these separate places scattered across the U.S., brought together virtually for the sake of keeping them alive physically, and how we had all gathered here to celebrate them.
The film begins with a black screen and the words, “In 1980, there were 200 lesbian bars in the United States. Today there are only 21. Meet the people keeping the bars alive.” The screen is followed by a montage of photographs that leads into a live shot of Lisa Menichino, standing at the bar of the Cubbyhole, her face gradually turning upward to the camera as it zooms in toward her. As soon as she appears on the screen, the audience erupts into cheers.
They continue to cheer as the shot pans to Cannistraci, the Smallmans, Pike and McDaniel, each owner getting her or their share in the proverbial spotlight. Each new face is greeted with the same warm, thunderous welcome.
I couldn’t help but think back to Street and Rose’s message, that their project is a call to action, urging us all to save our lesbian bars, to recognize that their story isn’t just about trauma and loss — rather, to recognize that it’s also about recognition and reclamation. The spaces are ours, just so long as we show up for them.
Sitting in the dark, listening to applause, I couldn’t help thinking that the message was heard, loud and clear.
To donate to the Lesbian Bar Project, visit the donations page on their website. The pool fund remains open through July 1. You can watch the documentary, “The Lesbian Bar Project” on the organization’s website, or on Jagermeister’s Global YouTube channel.