Built in 1896, The Lipstick Lounge is a standalone bar in East Nashville that couldn’t draw more attention to itself if it tried. It’s slathered in purple, red, and green paint, like a New Orleans painted lady. “It pops, and it’s beautiful,” says owner Christa Suppan, who, alongside business partner Jonda Valentine has been running the Nashville lesbian-owned bar for 18 years.
There’s little issue with being such an attention-grabbing queer bar in Nashville today. “Nashville is cool. It’s a large city, but we’re in the Deep South; gay people aren’t loved in Tennessee. We’re the buckle of the Bible belt, so to speak. Tennessee is the little prong that goes in the hole,” she says.
Flicking through recent news, the belt seems to be tight as ever. A month prior to our chat, Tennessee county commissioner Warren Hurst took the mic at a local meeting to say that a “queer running for president” is “about as ugly as you can get,” referring to 2020 Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg. A few months before that, a pastor and police officer in Knoxville went on a wild homophobic rant during his sermon, concluding that, “One of the laws of the US should be to put homos to death,” which apparently prompted an “Amen” and nods of agreement from the congregation. In a nationwide survey, Tennessee is joined by Mississippi and Alabama as the states with the lowest acceptance of homosexuality and the highest number of people who think same-sex lovin’ should be actively discouraged.
Despite the seeming harshness of the wider environment, The Lipstick Lounge is a Nashville institution and a vibrant hangout for queers and non-queers alike. Though having a lesbian owner makes you a de facto lesbian bar, Lipstick Lounge is adamantly open to all. “We’d never be strictly for lesbians, because that’s the whole point: bridging communities and getting people to understand things and not make it so, ‘Don’t go there, that’s the lesbian bar,’” she says. As such, the Lounge is known as a “bar for humans,” with the tagline, “Come as you are, no matter what you are; you’re part of the human family, and this is your home.” Though obviously, Christa adds, “If you have a problem with lesbians, it’s probably not the best place to come, as there’ll definitely be some here,” she says, gesturing to herself.
So on an average Friday night expect to see “everyone, literally everyone,” she says. “We get people from every state and so many countries. We’ll have people in their 20s to 80s, gay, straight, trans, non-binary, questioning, bi, tri,” says Christa, who is pointedly genderless when she speaks of her clientele. The Lipstick Lounge also gets the odd male-caller who’s gotten seriously lost on his way to a strip club. “There are several strip clubs throughout the United States called Lipstick Lounge,” says Christa. “We always get a giggle out of it, because you see them walk in, and after a few moments, the little light bulb goes off and they’re like, ‘Ah man.’ They usually end up staying; we don’t make them feel like jerks.” And in the defense of the disappointed dudes, I almost called an Uber to Lipstick Men’s Club, “Dallas’ Best Gentleman’s Club” when I came back to the bar later that night.
“It’s just so frickin’ beautiful to sit there and look around. I get a little teary sometimes, as there will be eight people sitting on a table from different realms who never would have met in any other location than here. God, that makes my heart pump hard,” she says, miming a little heart implosion. The bar, though it’s midday and not open, feels full to the brim with Christa’s energy alone.
Her journey towards owning The Lipstick Lounge was catalyzed by a weekend visit to Nashville. “You know how you just walk into something and you feel like there’s something for you there? I just felt so free in Nashville, like the possibilities were endless,” she says. She then went back to her hometown in Illinois, which was “the whitest town I’ve ever been in my life.” She knew no gay people and couldn’t come out so as to save “embarrassing her family.” The very next weekend, Christa packed up her vehicle and moved to Nashville. “You need to take the jump, take the chance. What’s better: staying in your comfort zone — your known hell? Or going into the unknown? What if it’s worse? Ah, but what if it’s better?” she says, smirking, leaning back in her chair like a queen on a throne. The Lounge popped with colour and life behind her — the embodiment of her jump.
Speaking with queer Nashvillians in New York and Los Angeles, they’re delighted to hear that Lipstick Lounge is still going so strong and that Christa is still exuding such warmth. “I love people, I really do. I give a shit, and Jonda [the co-owner] does too,” says Christa. “If people are having a hard time, we do fundraisers. If we’re being blessed, we turn around and try and do it for somebody else. That’s the whole point. We’ve got this awesome venue, great stage, sound system — we want different charities to host things, we want to encourage people to be better and do better.” I’ve spoken to a few bar owners in my time. When an owner has an outlook like this, it permeates every piece of furniture, every member of staff, every ice cube in that venue.
Later that night, I returned to The Lipstick Lounge (not the one in Dallas) as unforgiving rain pelted on the city. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, a Nashville thing, or a Lipstick Lounge thing, but walking in felt like being embraced by a long-lost friend. Everyone was so chill and warm, gently greeting me as they ate wings and nursed cocktails. “How are you doing, darling? What are you drinking?” said the bartender in the silkiest southern drawl. Music City is everything it’s acoustically hyped up to be. It was a Tuesday — trivia night — and the question “How do you spell pterodactyl?” (yes, the dinosaur, with a very chaotic silent ‘p’), was delivered by a voice that belonged on a late-night jazz radio show. The ‘ows’ from the crowd were somehow in harmony, and smooth soul played as the teams pulled their hair out trying to spell “terror-dak-til.”
Too late to join the quiz, I sat at the bar with a locally-brewed pale ale and grilled cheese. I minded my own business, admiring the gold-framed portraits on the wall (painted by Jonda). Sometimes I chatted with people at the bar; sometimes I just sat with my own thoughts. Though I didn’t know a soul in the city, I didn’t feel alone for a second in that bar. It demanded nothing from me, no pressure to perform or act up in any way. I could just chill and sip my beer; I was a Lipstick Lounger the moment I walked in.
“Every night is karaoke night,” Christa had told me earlier. “We are karaoke. Our sound-system is amazing. We’ve got over 135,000 songs, and we’re in Nashville, so everybody can sing. It’s like getting a live concert in here.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. As the rain continued to pour outside, people flocked to the stage and sang exquisitely. All night, the Lipstick Lounge roared with the warmth of a fire — an ode to Southern hospitably, an ode to Nashville, and an ode to Christa and Jonda, its iconic lesbian owners.
The Lipstick Lounge, 1400 Woodland Street, East Nashville, TN 37206. Open Tuesday Sunday until 1 a.m., Saturday until 3 a.m. Brunch Sat & Sun is meant to be wild.