In 1987, I had a glorious, highly-feathered mullet. It wasn’t uncommon at the time, but my mullet was likely specifically influenced by Rosie O’Donnell. Neither of us were out then, but I just knew we had something in common. Our terrible dyke hair had a cosmic relationship I didn’t fully understand. There was no significant pop culture representation for a butch dyke in the ‘80s. I didn’t even know there were other lesbians in the world.
Later that year, I went to a dyke bar for the first time. I was 17. I’d only found out about them through magic lesbian serendipity. Before the internet, knowledge of these sacred spaces was passed on only through chance encounters with slightly older, closeted acquaintances who’d already been initiated. I ran into a girl who dropped out of school and been kicked out of her house because she was a lesbian. I guess she could tell I was, too. She told me about Robbie’s Bar in Pomona, California. That same week, I walked into Robbie’s and my life changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only sturdy, square-faced softball nerd in the world. Instantly, I swelled with an unfamiliar sensation of feeling attractive. After growing up in a world in which I knew I did not belong, I was given a glimpse of a secret realm that held the first real possibility of a future existence for me.
After that night, I aggressively accelerated my quest for broader horizons. By the time I arrived in San Francisco in early 1991, I was already on episode four of my melodramatic self-discovery and serial monogamy miniseries. I’d dropped out of college and was training hard for the cool dyke Olympics, which is what San Francisco was in the ‘90s. By the time the Lexington Club opened a block from my apartment in 1997, I considered myself “post-dyke bar.” Everyone I knew was making zines or porn or was in a chick rock band. We thought we didn’t need dyke bars anymore. We thought we needed to be edgier, date girls, ride motorcycles, and do tons of drugs. The Lex drew a lot of early twenties lesbians and out of town lesbians; I only went there occasionally in the afternoon for a beer while I was doing laundry. There was a sense of irony associated with dyke bars by then. That’s why I presented myself as a cocky dumbass, which was also the zeitgeist.
I moved to Minneapolis in 2000 to buy a house and be a grown-up. I didn’t really think about dyke bars. I took for granted they would always be available for my sporadic cravings for nostalgia and irony. Then, in 2006, legalizing gay marriage started dominating the holy gay agenda. The campaign to sell our historically reviled affection to mainstream America became obsessed with making our relationships appear as boring as possible. Homonormativity became a syllabus section in academia, and the civil rights of our more eclectic queer siblings were bumped way down the HRC’s to-do list.
I was in the process of sabotaging my most successful relationship to date, fully submerged in my mid-30s and reckoning with a lifetime of terrible decisions. I looked around and saw the queers fighting to be just like everyone else, and it occurred to me I’d lost that fight in the ‘80s. I thought we were about to lose the best parts of ourselves, the ones that push boundaries. That’s kind of our job.
Then, the Great Burning Bush of the Goddess appeared to me during a drunken rant about gay Republicans one night and told me it was up to me to open a dyke bar to save us all. I was called to remind the queers of how fabulous it was to be queer. We needed to get back together as a pack, to remember how much fun we could have. That was in April 2006. At the time, I was stocking shelves at a co-op and finishing my bachelor’s degree; I had no money and no experience. Against these odds, I opened Pi Bar in Minneapolis in February of 2007 — because that’s what butch dykes can accomplish when they are manically avoiding emotional complications of their own creation and choose to believe they are on a Hobbit quest.
Pi Bar was only open until November of 2008. The financial crash happened just when we needed a loan, just when we were becoming exactly what the Minneapolis queer community needed at the time. We’d become known as a safe space for Minneapolis’ blossoming trans communities while other gay bars were still grappling with defining their preferred customer base. We established ourselves as a community hub with a multitude of fundraisers and theme nights cultivated with intersectionality and solidarity in mind. It was the best and hardest experience of my life.
It was an impassioned two-year montage of all the heart-warming and chaotic stories and sexy, scandalous snapshots you would expect from a dyke bar. It was the sanctuary of love and acceptance you’ve heard about so many times. People found courage, community, confidence and love there. It became so much bigger than I anticipated. It still means something for those who remember it.
The 12th anniversary of Pi Bar’s last night just passed this week. People still ask me if I would do it again, but I don’t think I’m the right person to ask anymore. For a dyke bar to succeed, no matter how beloved, people have to show up regularly. In Minnesota, if a bar doesn’t have a patio, it loses summer business. Lesbians are notoriously insular and resistant to talk to lesbians they don’t already know. Even while I was running Pi, no matter how earnestly I wanted everyone to find a home there, I couldn’t make everyone happy. Young, trying-to-date dykes complained about tired disco, which I had to play to also attract middle-aged lesbians, who then complained about whatever pop song was actually popular. Suburban softball frosted tips and ponytails were turned off by tattoos and ironic mullets. I was on the floor every day all day. People felt comfortable telling me all their desires and lodging complaints and suggestions. That didn’t stop unexpected alliances and daily magical moments. Intersectional, cross-generational conversations and alliances are paramount to our collective progress and solidarity, but they are constantly elusive because people are too lazy to talk to someone they don’t already know. As fond as the majority of my memories are, and as much as I love them, lesbians can be a pain in the ass.
I’m still sad we continue to lose lesbian bars. The ones that are left should be preserved as if we’re conserving the dying language of our people. We all still need spaces to come together and share our common adversities and resilience. We need a venue for our history, awkward performance art, and cheesy fundraisers. We will always need safe spaces for confused and sad baby dykes to land and make their own terrible choices.
It’s up to a younger generation to figure out what the current iteration of a dyke bar should look like. Can you still call them dyke/lesbian bars? Perhaps more finesse around identity is required. You can’t smoke in bars anymore. How do you make butches look cool while they’re playing pool? How will you get younger queers to meet IRL? The internet has given lesbians an excuse to be even more awful at initial eye contact. I also feel like alcoholism isn’t as charming as it used to be. The queer bars of the future sound hard to figure out, but I have faith in this new generation of queers. I think about them every time I play the lottery.
For more info on saving lesbian bars, please visit lesbianbarproject.com.