Preserving LGBT History Means Saving These Spaces

Preserving LGBT History Means Saving These Spaces

The Lexington Club:

Nate Allbee stood in a room surrounded by crying women and he realized that something was terribly wrong. They were dykes and lesbians and queer women of all races, ages, and backgrounds, who had gathered to mourn the passing of the Lexington Club. A bar that had — for almost 20 years — been the beating heart of San Francisco’s lesbian community. A place where generations of queer women met, organized, and shared in the communion of the dance floor. It had been their home, their church. Now it was closing its doors for good. So they had come — from all over the San Francisco Bay Area and all over the country — to pay their respects, to celebrate its memory, this place that had been their home, as well as mourn its passing. They laughed and sobbed and told stories about how this bar had changed their lives, until the Lexington Club’s ample hall could not contain them or their stories, and they spilled out into the street and the warm summer night.

There are certain cities around the world that have been places of sanctuary for queer people, none more so than San Francisco. Perched as it is, at the edge of the world and the end of the American frontier, it’s the last refuge for trailblazers and those who think differently. Nearby gold fields and tech booms have served as convenient excuses for those who needed to escape the small towns and farmsteads of their birth in order to be their authentic selves.

When Harvey Milk ran for office, he ran at least partially on the idea that the best thing any of us can do for our community is to come out of the closet and come to the city, where we would find a place for ourselves.

“And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out,” Milk once said. “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great.”

That vision of San Francisco as a city of queer sanctuary had attracted Lila Thirkield to the city in the early '90s. There, when just 25 years old, Thirkield had been inspired to open the Lexington Club to serve a growing lesbian community in the city’s Mission District.

Lila Thirkieldx750

Above:  Lila Thirkield, who opened the Lexington Club in 1997, poses with plaque memorializing the now-closed bar.

Nate Allbee was drawn to the city a decade later. A tall and handsome man with a broad smile and a booming voice, he moved to San Francisco in his 20s to work as a nightlife promoter before falling into political organizing when City Hall began passing restrictions on his chosen industry. And though Allbee was not a lesbian, he too found a home in the Lex, and its loss in 2015 sent him reeling. It wasn’t the first establishment to close that year. Other valued S.F. gay institutions had already sunk beneath the surface of the rising tide of hyper-gentrification, but the Lexington Club was one of the most respected and celebrated queer bars in the country, if not the world. “I was stunned. I realized if the Lex can close, no gay bar is safe,” said Allbee. “People kept asking ‘What can we do?’”

But in the end there was nothing to do; the last lesbian bar in San Francisco closed. The Lex was gone.

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