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What Happened to the Lesbian Bar?

Gossip Grill

Claire Heddles visits one of California's last lesbian bars to investigate the slow extinction of women's spaces.

I sat in Gossip Grill at 3 p.m. on a Saturday as the bartenders set up chairs for the night's drag show.

Moe Girton walked up and welcomed me to the bar. With a bleached-blond mohawk and a no-nonsense demeanor, she commanded attention. We sat together at a tall table in the middle of what would later be the dance floor and she told me the tale of opening the mecca that is Gossip Grill. This is the only seven-day-a-week women's bar in California, and its founding was a feat only a fighter like Moe could accomplish. This was in 2009, and the two former lesbian bars in San Diego had long since closed their doors.

Moe knew a new lesbian bar would struggle, so instead she pitched a shift in language and went on to launch a seven-day-a-week women's bar. Moe told me, "It's for everybody; it's for all women. Whether you identify queer, pan, transgender, male to female, female to male, it doesn't matter, it's all-encompassing." This is a key part of Gossip Grill's success. The other facet is the irreplaceable community of a place like this.

"There's something about walking into a gay bar or a women's bar and feeling safe and at home," she said. "We're their home, we're their community center, we're their information booth, we're their psychologists. We have guests that leave their extra set of keys here."

Moe teared up recounting the tale of the first day of opening, when community members fought for their liquor license and helped the founders drag all the supplies into a new Gossip Grill space. She tells me of a citywide power outage when women came in droves to Gossip Grill, a place where they would feel safe. The stories went on, from the wedding ceremony projected in the bar to the memorial for a community member lost to suicide. Moe told me of the bar's plan to host an afternoon children's day where queer couples could bring their kids to play and meet other kids like them on the dance floor.

This place was undoubtedly a home for countless women in San Diego. Later in the night, I spent time speaking to various women at the bar. It was a packed Saturday night, and I met a group of girls celebrating a birthday and a pair in their 50s who giggled about being in love since middle school. There was a synergy between the quiet patio, the lively drag show, and the colorful dance floor. Women of all ages were milling about, laughing and connecting, and the home that Moe had described came alive to me.

Gossip Grill is the last seven day-a-week women's bar in California. Spaces like it have slowly disappeared over the past 20 years. This phenomenon has been documented, but few people have been able to answer why. Where are the bars, bookstores, and coffee shops where women gather to meet friends and hit on each other now? These questions were part of what led me to participate in a documentary project about community for queer women. Throughout the project, I interviewed over 30 women of all ages and backgrounds about where they had found LGBTQ community throughout their lives. This documentary is what led me to Gossip Grill and into countless other conversations. Throughout my research, a few theories about the dwindling presence of lesbian bars began to emerge.

For one, financial inequity amid an increasingly accepting world has influenced women's decisions. As lesbian couples statistically make less money than gay male couples, there's simply less disposable income to keep dyke bars alive with the state's rising rents. As Moe explained to me, more equality means more options for women. Once queer women could go to mainstream bars and be accepted, there was no longer the extra income to spend at lesbian bars.

I also saw evidence throughout my conversations that women who like to date women are increasingly detaching themselves from the term lesbian. This word has been, in many ways, co-opted by affluent white women in popular media -- thus many no longer identify with it. Gender fluidity has become more socially acceptable, and lesbian is a term that locks down both one's own gender and that of any future partner in a way that sounds nearly archaic.

Historically, lesbian spaces have at times been exclusive to trans people and gender-nonconforming people. The lesbian bar may be an antiquated idea waiting to be replaced by a radically inclusive queer space. Activist and business owner Alex Williams told us about the queer scene she's found in Oakland. Rather than specifically lesbian bars, she's found pervasive queer community throughout the city.

"What I loved about Oakland was not only that you were accepted, but that there were people that could tell you how it was for them and how it is now and how it could be for me. ... Up here you see trans families that have babies and have houses and have that life that makes sense in every way that I never saw when I was growing up."

As queer women have distanced themselves from the term lesbian, it may also have also resulted in distance from exclusive spaces.

The lesbian bar was limited to the over-21 and the out-of-the-closet; technology, however, provides a community space for everyone. Tumblr and YouTube host queer forums for women to laugh, hit on each other, and bond in a way dyke bars used to facilitate. Before you could browse #growingupgay for some relatable giggles, you had to find LGBTQ people in real life to commiserate with. It's easy to find LGBTQ people online, making a once-necessary physical space now an optional luxury.

I spoke with Robyn Nexton, the founder of the Her app, and she told me her inspiration: "It was a really cool queer scene [in east London] and it felt like everything that I ever saw online that was built for queer women did not feel like that."

Robyn designed Her to fill this gap, and it has been quite effective. As Her seeks to link physical space and technological community, it may also be filling the void of closed lesbians bars.

While Her and Tumblr offer a powerful community, I'm not sure the sense of home I experienced in Gossip Grill fully translates digitally. As the current administration threatens and demeans the LGBTQ community, physical spaces like Gossip Grill are still vital for solidarity. Queer women may have more options now, but the need for safe gathering places will never go away.

As Moe told me, "Enjoy it, support us, and be here. That day when you have the choice to go see another part of town or go to the women's bar, think about it. It's important to support these spaces for us and for future generations."

CLAIRE HEDDLES is a Los Angeles-based journalist and writer. Check out her work here.

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