D.C. contains lots of people who look like extras in House of Cards. They stride around in navy overcoats, engrossed in their phones and their very important business on Capitol Hill ( “The Hill,” as they call it). It can feel quite rigid, serious, and normative, especially if you’re a big old gay from out-of-town who had to Google what this famous Hill is.
I was in D.C. for a weekend, delving into the dyke scene. The community had been without a home since 2016 when Phase 1 — a 45-year-old lesbian bar, the oldest continuously operating dyke bar in the US — closed down. With no permanent venue, roving events became vital night-lifelines. And then, in the summer of 2018, not one, but two lesbian bars opened.
The first of which, XX+ Crostino (@xxcrostino), is painted a striking black and gold. It’s somewhere you’d be proud to rock up to. Peering through the curtain, there are two men in suits drinking Chianti, plowing through plates of pasta and looking a lot like they’re in scenes from an Italian restaurant.
Oh wait, they are. Al Crostino is a Neapolitan eatery owned by Lina Nicolai and her mother, Juliana. They moved to D.C. from Naples when Lina was eight years old. “I went to school, college, got degrees, went to do the whole immigrant thing, white collar industry, this is why we brought you to America, to level up and all that,” said Lina. Then one day, Juliana turned to Lina and said, “I want to open a restaurant, you with me?”
For nine years, the pair roasted octopus, strained pasta, and grilled salmon, gaining a firm reputation as the place to go for grandma-standard Neapolitan fare. And then, in spring 2018, Lina turned to her mom and said, “I want to do something different upstairs. I want to turn it into a space for queer women.” Juliana replied, “You remember what you told me? So yeah, I’m down; let’s do it.”
And there we were. Up the stairs, past the sounds of silky Italian classical and the scent of irresistibly creamy spaghetti, sits XX+ Crostino, a svelte lesbian lounge bar.
The black and gold exteriors continue inside with a black marble bar, golden busts of feminine physiques, black wing sofas, and gold mirrors. The sleek space is topped off with a vibrant mural — “The Spirit of Stonewall” by local artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer — and peppered with trans flags and eight-colour pride flags.
The playlist up here is ’90s and ’00s classics. Celine, Britney, *NSYNC, and Shakira play as queer women — mostly after-workers — chill, sip mixers, and chow down on plates of ravioli they ordered downstairs. It’s remarkably relaxed, a very approachable, mellow space; there would be no qualms about coming alone, but also, it would make a very cute date place.
The pride of the place is a pool table where women tend to the unending love affair between lesbians and pool. Tonight, they pass the cue around and cheer each other on. “I’ve been playing pool since I was 12,” said Lina. “It’s my yoga — my meditation. People rotate, put their name up on the board, play some pool, talk shit on the side-lines. It encourages communication in a much more chilled way than, say, a dance floor.”
There seems to be a real hodgepodge of women tonight: those in the army, teachers, nurses, and government workers. And there are lots of first-time conversations happening, the “Who are you?”s and “What do you do?”s. “D.C. is like that,” says Lina, who gets a bird’s eye view from behind the bar. “When I go to N.Y., people don’t ask me so much, but because this is a political place, it’s a transient city. People come in and move out eventually, so there’s a strong networking mentality.” If people seem alone, like they’re not getting to know the whos and the whats, Lina is always on hand to make introductions. “It’s easy to be a queer person in your space, but it doesn’t feel like your space, so I like to make people feel at home,” she says.
Though not open every day, XX+ is open most weekends Thursday through Saturday, but it is “completely open to any queer person who needs a space.” There may be vendors in that day, different roving parties one day to the next thanks to Lina’s collaborations with various pre-existing queer women’s groups. “They know there is a space they can go to, rather than a random space that was never LGBT+, this one always was.” This healthy symbiosis between moving parties and brick-and-mortar venues seems to be what makes D.C.’s dyke scene so vibrant, and tonight, XX+ was hosting LezLink.
LezLink Social Club
Perching up against XX+’s bar sipping her trademark tequila on the rocks is Nikki K, the person behind D.C.’s much-loved LezLink Social Club (@lezlinksocialclub). Nikki is an excellent person to get chatting to at a bar. She has recently been described as a “relationship anarchist,” aka someone who “doesn’t like to adhere to societal ideas about what relationships should be, whether platonic, romantic, or sexual,” Nikki says.
“I’ve always been obsessed with the concept of love and relationships,” she says. Yes folks, she’s a lesbian. “So I really learnt to navigate that space, learnt about myself, about different relationship styles, and soon realised I wanted to start something so that queer people can meet.” At first, she thought this would take the form of an app, but she soon decided that, “events seemed a lot healthier than apps,” and that the events would need to be “more of a social club. More broad that just drinks at a bar.”
And five years later, broad is an understatement for LezLink. There has been apple picking, wine tasting, haystack riding in orchards, museum visits, scavenger hunts at the Smithsonian, go-karting, happy hours, and parties, all created so that queer woman can make buddies and baes. Beyond apple picking and hayrack riding, Nikki is looking to evolve the ways queer people connect in her city.
“We’ve gotten to this point where we can get married. We’re out here in the world a lot more. We’re visible in the media. This means we should start examining some of our toxic behaviours — behaviours that were always cool because we were always oppressed, so everyone knew why we had to cope. Now it’s time to start talking about healing, talking about things that keep coming up in our community: alcoholism, sexual harassment, [and] consent — not just consent, enthusiastic consent [with] authentic, genuine enthusiasm,” she says.
Nikki’s full-time job is now LezLink, drawing a huge cross-section of the community out into healthy, safe, curated spaces. “[There are] people who are 65, 24, who make six figures, who make $30,000 a year. I’m dealing with so many different types of people in the same community,” she says, before enthusiastically reeling off all the conversations happening within this group. “Trans women are always welcome at our events, so we’re having conversations about that,” she says. “It’s D.C., so you talk policies, but you can also talk culture, so we can have conversations about how our culture is being erased and diminished.” Gender, race, accessibility, generational gaps, you name it — someone has discussed it at a LezLink.
Tonight is single’s night, one of their smaller events, where twenty women get together and get to know each other in the intimacy of XX+. Two friends in their early twenties from North Carolina — both lobbyists doing internships in D.C. — are chatting with a financial analyst from China. She was married to a man for years but left her husband, heterosexuality, and her life in Asia when she moved to D.C. a year ago. She’s found that super chilled events like LezLink have been crucial for connecting to friends, community, and her sexuality.
Everyone at one point or another seems to chat with Nikki. Her presence adds a grounded, relaxed energy to the gathering. D.C. is lucky to have such an informed, community-minded matchmaker and space creator.
She’s not the only one in town though. “There’s loads of us,” she says. “We’re all communicating, supporting each other; we’re like family.” Keeping it in the family, Nikki told me to check out The Embassy Row Hotel tomorrow night, where “hundreds of women get together for a real fun night.”
D.C.’s Lesbian Happy Hour
In order to balance out my day of rudimentary D.C. sightseeing — gazing at statues and buildings dedicated to important white men (Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt) — I vowed to dedicate nightfall to lesbianism.
It was the third Friday of the month, and thankfully, if you waltz into the Embassy Row Hotel on this night, you can expect to be greeted by the sweet chorus of 200 queer women having a bloody good time.
D.C.’s Lesbian Happy Hour attracts all kinds of dykes, queers, bis, curious, and trans women (Monika Nemeth — the first transgender woman to be elected to a City position in D.C. — for example, is a regular). The party is easily one of the most diverse queer women’s get-togethers I’ve been to in ethnicity. Name a continent, someone’s descendants come from there. And in age? People pushing 22, others in their 60s, and representatives from every decade in-between.
Lesbian Happy Hour attracts such a mixed bag because it’s part of Meetup. This makes it a fairly autonomous, self-sustaining model of dyke gathering. No one owns or profiteers from the space, it’s just been the monthly go-to, the little star on the calendars of local gays for over a decade. That said, the D.C. chapter is woman’ed by Melinda Wharton, who took the reins two years ago. “The party pretty much runs itself,” she says humbly (she prefers to take on more of a hosting role). “With D.C.’s transience, there are lots of first-timers. People are nervous the first time they come. I can relate to that, so I like to be there to say ‘hey’ if someone looks anxious.”
The atmosphere in the huge hotel lobby is very conducive to coming alone. Chilled lounge music plays in the background — perfect level for conversation. The space is open, and the crowd is very amicable and approachable. It’s nice to see so many over forty out, drinking with their buddies, letting their hair down in a woman majority space. It’s important that cities offer calm socialising spaces like this, especially for those who grew out of sweaty dance floors and raging hangovers two decades ago.
The Embassy Row’s bar is gorgeous, with sleek touches like gold leaf Magnolia and snakeskin bar stools. The boujiness, when paired with the prices (free entry, $5 beers, $10 cocktails) makes for a very nice atmosphere. No one is performing up to the swankiness of the venue; the happy hour is keeping everyone grounded. Note to the Vitamin D deprived: The summer is a golden time to hop over to a Lesbian Happy Hour; they use the hotel’s rooftop pool with 360-degree views of the city. It must be hard being a D.C. dyke.
At the party’s entrance are spotlight stickers: red (taken), yellow (Complicated), green (Single), for clarity’s sake. “Green’s the most common,” says Melinda, “but yellow and its ambiguity, maybe, could be in an open relationship. Single but not looking can sometimes be the most popular.”
Things kicked off at 7 p.m., and two hours in, friendship groups had either expanded exponentially or seen their member’s taper off in search of green stickers and special someones.
Ploughing through the crowd, a lady and her husband want a glass of red to take to bed and have no idea wtf is going on. A man perched alone at the bar necks his whiskey on the rocks, eyes fixed on “CSI” on TV, ruing the moment he decided to grab a quick drink at the hotel bar.
New couples have gone to find some quiet on the sofas. Life-long friends are having good old chinwags. Wandering eyes and flirtatious glances are flying around. There’s also a really infectious playfulness in the air. One woman has reached what can only be described as ecstasy — she’s jumping up and down, punching the air — because her friend hit on a woman, and they’re now exchanging numbers. Someone else has “MILF,” written on their yellow sticker. She says it was placed on her by someone she doesn’t know. “I’m not even a mom,” she says.
With all this frivolity, it’s time to ask the burning question: Do people ever hook-up and rent a room? “It happens,” says Melinda, “but 10 p.m. is early enough in the evening to have inhibitions.” Should that not be the case, there are special rates for those who left their inhibitions in 2019.
One of the beautiful things about Lesbian Happy Hour is its 10 p.m. finish. Those who want to call it a night can, those who want to get a room can, those who were only here to pre-drink can roll on out for the rest of the night. And so, with a little troupe of new friends filled with espresso martinis, the night is feeling notably young, and A League of Her Own is calling.
A League of Her Own
“ALOHO, ALOHO, ALOHO.” Every dyke in D.C. is talking about ALOHO, the acronym of A League of Her Own (@alohodc), the lesbian neighbourhood bar that is the only full-time hang-out for queer women in the nation’s capital. That’s right: At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, 2 a.m. on a Friday, or even 3 p.m. on a Saturday, lesbians rule this roost.
“Go by yourself,” Nikki from LezLink had told me yesterday. “The regulars there are so loving; they’ll take you under their wing.” Nice to hear, but unnecessary tonight seeing as I’ve got my Happy Hour squad jacked up on espresso martinis and cheap IPAs.
ALOHO is an absolute beaut of a bar. Out-front, there are orange awnings on grey brick with a perky logo of a female baseball player preparing to pitch. There’s no cover; you enter through the basement and land in a heaving bar. Conversation rumbles through the space. One wall is lined with black and white portraits of Dykons (actual and honorary: Lena Waithe, Frida Kahlo, Samira Wiley, Katherine Moennig, Lea Delaria, Martha P. Johnson, Madonna, Ellen), the other wall has video games, and women playing Tekken as though their own lives depend on it. A black Pride gay flag hangs from the wall and trans flags hang all around. It is almost exclusively queer women hanging in a warm and inclusive atmosphere. Silliness, excitement, and flirtation surge through the community hub.
Through the crowd and up the stairs a sign reads, “While all are welcome, in this space, you are a guest of the LGBTQIA+ community.” At the top, ALOHO unites with Pitcher’s, the adjoining gay bar — her big gay brother. It’s a high ceilinged sports bar, filled with queer guys talking, singing, and eating chicken wings. Both bars are owned by David Perruzza, who hated to see the dearth of options for lesbians after Phase 1’s closure and decided to fill the void. He hired local lez Jo McDaniel to run ALOHO, and opened their doors a month after XX+.
Above this, up yet another flight of stairs, sits a huge dance floor hosting swathes of people. Lesbian couples, queer groups, straight couples, men of colour, women of colour, genderqueers of colour — it is another notably ethnically diverse crowd, a reflection of D.C. in general.
By 11 p.m., the dance floor is full. By 1 a.m., it’s like a beehive and everyone is dancing. Rigid looking people in blazers from the Hill, Jenny who sheepishly says hi at the water-cooler, Jak from accounting, and your quiet neighbour Susan have transformed and are now manically flinging around like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. The energy is infectious. It’s down to a combo of things. For one, a cheeky DJ plays steamer-after-steamer, coaxing this deep carnal sensuality from people with the help of Nicky Jam, Rihanna, Sean Paul, Drake, and Justin Timberlake. Then there’s the superlative quality of the speakers, throwing out an all-consuming baseline while there is sound insulating foam on the ceiling and fans everywhere to keep the temperature cool. You are encased in music, the rhythms penetrate all. Dancing isn’t really an option, it’s an obligation.
If you can manage to draw yourself away from this steamy mayhem, there’s a final flight of stairs delivering you to another spacious lounge bar vibe filled mainly with gay guys, plus a large wooden smokers patio. Puffs of smoke disintegrate into the deep navy sky.
ALOHO’s merger with Pitcher’s means the venue is a helix — gay and lesbian bars intertwining, coordinating, bolstering each other. Gay men squeeze through groups of college lesbians throwing shapes and lesbian couples eat mac’n’cheese bites in Pitchers. This solidarity union of physical space and no policing of gender or sexuality on the doors makes this is a truly queer space. Trans men and women, intersex, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming people shuffle from floor to floor, not a second thought to their identity or sense of belonging. Gender-neutral toilets read “Whatever, just wash your hands” and host a picture of a pink-haired queen in a bright orange dress peeing in a urinal. The toilet is sprinkled with graffiti: “Trans Happiness is real,” and “no more gender, no more cops.”
This safe, powerful, vivacious community space offers four very different nights in one evening. Streams of people move around gravitating towards their vibe, changing floors when they’re done with it. Pitchers/ALOHO is a palatial LGBTQ+ funhouse — a night of many floors, characters, chapters, and possibilities. For this reason, ALOHA is definitely in a League of Her Own.
More, more, more…
Not satisfied by a wild back-to-back party weekend in D.C.? There are plenty of other parties to sink those gay girl gnashers into. Cocktail bar Wicked Bloom (@wickedbloomdc) has a weekly Monday party run by a trans man. “They close the space down so it’s queer only, and it’s always packed — even on a Monday,” says Nikki.
The Coven (@thecovendc) started life in 2015 as a gathering of gay women in a bar without permission and has since turned into a huge bi-monthly dance party open to all genders, orientations, ideologies, and lovelies. Taste (@tastetakeover) is a roving queer womxn’s Latinx takeover in D.C., while Women Crush Wednesdays is a laid back monthly happy hour for LBTQ+ women at Trade (1410 14th St., N.W).