In the universe of all things LGBTQ+, perhaps no space is more cherished than the gay bar. For us women who love women, the romanticism of the bar — specifically, the ever-elusive lesbian bar — is even more pronounced. Unfortunately, few lesbian bars remain around the country — just 21 following the closure of The Toasted Walnut earlier this year. We hold those that remain like precious stones, constantly fearing that they’ll somehow slip through our grasp.
But for as important as they are, bars — lesbian or otherwise — tell only part of the story. It’s the full story of our “queer spaces” that Jack Gieseking, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky and author of the book “A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbian, Dykes, and Queers,” the first lesbian/queer historical geography of NYC, is interested in telling.
When it comes to the recording the history of lesbians, queer women, trans women, and the gender non-conforming, “Everything’s about lesbian bars,” Gieseking tells me when we connected by Zoom late in April. “And that’s what we are, and that’s where we are. And I was just like, ‘Okay, not everyone went to a bar.” As a researcher interested in exploring queer history, and space, he found himself asking, what was everyday like for queer people living through the turbulence of the AIDS crisis, the 90s and early 2000s?
In “A Queer New York,” published last year, Gieseking, who is a trans man, studies the history of spaces occupied by New York’s lesbians, trans, queer, and gender nonconforming persons from the early 1980s to the late 2000s — from AIDS to “The L Word” — to see how they claimed, made, and navigated physical space in the city. To learn how lesbians and queer people made space for themselves, Gieseking conducted a series of group interviews with New York lesbian, queer, and trans persons of different races, classes, and ages, starting in the summer of 2008. He asked participants to create “maps” of their spaces: where they lived, where they socialized, where they went to meet other queer persons; in short, any place that related to their queerness.
What he learned during these interviews was that lesbians and queer people didn’t necessarily claim any one single space. Rather, individual participants claimed space in what he calls “constellations” — multiple set points across the city and the physical paths connecting them.
“The stories that people tell, especially women and trans people, is about the travel story,” he says, referring to how many of the participants recalled their journeys to and from specific places as part of their larger connection to those specific places. The reason for this, Gieseking says, is “because we’re navigating space with our bodies — our cool punk haircuts or rainbow pins, whatever our bodies look like. There’s a constant awareness of what’s happening to us on the street and how we get from one place to another is really important. And that’s part of our queer life, too.”
He learned that numerous participants would somehow all end up at the same pizza joint after a night out at Cubbyhole or Henrietta’s. Or, as he writes in the book, they “frequently preferred to gossip about goings-on at the Park Slope Food Co-op rather than in bars.” It’s a part of queer life that was neglected in other historic and geographic studies, which were more centered in singular, particular spaces. “Naming other spaces as ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer’ was really important to me,” he says, “because we don’t have that power and that economy to keep [bars.]”
In addition to learning more about this space-making, and claiming, Gieseking was motivated to study queer history through space by a question: Just how did we get from the AIDS crisis to “The L Word” in a mere quarter century? A child of the 1970s and 1980s, he came of age in a time when being gay was at best taboo, at worst, a death sentence.
“I was conscious through all of that, like watching AIDS come on the news as a gay-related immune deficienct, as gay cancer,” Gieseking tells me. “I was always very masculine and butchy, and I’m watching all that unfold, being utterly terrified, and being sure I would go to hell and be a pedophile. And then, all of a sudden, we’re fighting for marriage and, like, what the hell just happened? How did 25 years happen?”
So what did change? In a word: mobilization. The AIDS crisis, while undeniably tragic, galvanized gay rights into a visible and organized political movement. “There was so much to do,” Gieseking says. “There were so many issues and there was so much to fight for.”
Bars were often sites for this organization during the 1980s which did help centralize them in the queer cultural landscape. They were often the only spaces specifically named as “gay” or “lesbian,” making them easy to identify as gathering spots. But as much as these placed provided much-needed space for some members of the LGBTQ+, they excluded others which, for Gieseking, and many of his participants, also reduced their role in the historic creation of queer space.
“Bars were deeply raced,” Gieseking says. From his participants in the group interviews, “there were stories about having to show three or four forms of ID in the 80s,” he tells me. “I don’t even know how a Black woman got into a bar. And that was the point, keeping people of color out, supposedly to keep policing out of gay spaces.” While inclusive, perhaps, in name, bars could effectively preserve the racialized status quo even as they provided a space for the marginalized to mingle.
Over the course of his interviews, Gieseking remarks that numerous respondents would often say that “Well, the gayborhood wasn’t for me,” yet they all would identify it as a “queer” or “gay” space. The “why,” he says, has to do with a broader cultural sense — a settlers’ ideology — that space has to be claimed through ownership, and economic advantage. And, as neighborhoods like the Village become more popular and desirable, they also become more exclusive and expensive — excluding many of the queer folx who once sought them out. Yet the concept of finding this “safe space” in the neighborhood to call one’s own is “very American dreamy,” Gieseking says. “It’s in the subtext of so many queer films that we’ll find our liberation in the city.”
But actually finding that liberation doesn’t always come to pass for many queer folx, at least, not in the ways portrayed by Hollywood. Not all were welcome into the bars. And if they were, there was no guarantee that those bars would stick around for the long haul.
There’s also the threat of gentrification. Gieseking uses Park Slope as a prime example of this problem. While still ranked as a gay-friendly neighborhood — and even a “lesbian neighborhood” — Gieseking argues that lesbian-led initiatives to create community centers through the decades included in his study was ultimately undermined by its own success. As he puts it in his book, “the (mostly white, middle-class, and/or college-educated) labor of lesbians and queers to create spatial community [i.e. community gardens, animal shelters, co-ops] also generates the conditions of their own spatial demise — even as their geographical imagination kept the idea of a neighborhood intact.” In his study, he reports that the majority of his participants agreed that the lesbian/queer decline in the neighborhood occurred during the 2000s, as they were drive out by rising prices. (Working class participants, and participants of color, were less likely to believe that Park Slope was ever “theirs” than their white, middle-class, and college-educated counterparts.)
Lesbians and queer persons move to these neighborhoods, “and, you know, they improve the playground, and they donate to the local space, ad they have bake sales, and they’re really committed to [the] place,” Gieseking tells me. “And then that [neighborhood] gets marketed to straight, white, middle-class, wealthy people because there’s been neighborhood improvement.”
The problem we run into when we speak of the long-closed bars of old, or when we mythologize specific neighborhoods as “gay,” we forget how problematic these spaces can be to queer folx of intersecting identities. We also forget how fleeting these spaces can be. Businesses close, as we have seen with the declining number of lesbian bars around the country. And neighborhoods change, becoming less affordable and more exclusive, sometimes, ironically, because of the very “betterment” projects initiated by lesbian and queer residents.
All this isn’t to say that we should give up on claiming “queer” space because it’s problematic, or fleeting. In fact, there’s a certain nostalgia that comes across when listening to Gieseking talk about places like Park Slope and LGBT Center in the Village. (In “A Queer New York,” his respondents often share this nostalgia, too.) Such spaces retain the power to bring us together; bars, especially, with their specific designation of “lesbian” or “gay,” give us space where ideally “we can be completely ourselves in every way.” As we become more aware of the different identities that fall under the “queer” umbrella, we are getting closer to realizing this potential.
Like stars, our spaces can burn bright for a time before flickering out, and the constellations that they once formed need to take on a new shape. Individually, queer spaces are fragile. However, when seen as a cluster of interconnected spaces throughout physical space and time, queer spaces take on a more lasting and durable power. When one burns out, we need to remember that another can be born in its place.
The point is, “lesbians and queers see their spaces in relationship, and [as] interdependent,” Gieseking explains, and that we need to “think beyond the territory and beyond the gayborhood, to think about what we create next,” in order to survive.
Ultimately, as our interview ends, we come back full circle to the beginning: Of knowing that our history is not built on a singular place that can be taken from us, but rather a multitude of points that intersect and change over the years, some flickering out, others burning bright, but all evidence that we were, and still are, here.