Across the country, major cities have become more welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, to the point that queer-run businesses and spaces are often celebrated. That said, many of those businesses, especially lesbian bars, are shuttering.
"In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the country. Now there are thought to be just 21," according to the Lesbian Bar Project's website.
Many bars shuttered as a result of business closings during the pandemic. But for Jody Bouffard, who owns Blush & Blu in Denver, the extinction of queer bars, specifically bars for queer women, goes far deeper.
When Bouffard first moved to Denver in 1996, there were at least six lesbian bars thriving in the city that catered to different queer women's subcultures. She's seen firsthand how the business has changed over the past 25 years.
"Over the years, working in these bars, the price of rent has gone up in the last 10 years," she says. "The decline of lesbian bars across the country, even legendary ones like San Francisco's Lexington Club, have to do with neighborhoods being bought and sold."
Queer bars have historically been lifelines in neighborhoods with wide intersections of queer people and BIPOC. But gentrification has long been a culprit in driving small businesses away or under. And that is true for businesses in Denver as well.
Ever since Colorado legalized the sale and use of marijuana in 2012, rent prices have increased while investors have taken over the neighborhoods filled with those lifelines the LGBTQ+ community needs. It doesn't help that Denver, along with other major cities, doesn't offer support for small businesses like queer bars. Bouffard was denied aid for Blush & Blu during the pandemic.
"If we were to have a third shutdown, I wouldn't make it," she says. "During the shutdowns and prior, we never were given aid to small businesses. The city of Denver has been silent."
Blush & Blu has a distinctive atmosphere, featuring pop art-inspired original paintings throughout the bar. They're painted by Bouffard herself, who has relied on her skills to supplement her income. "The whole [LGBTQ+] community has been a great support system for me. They've been there for us, and we hope we can stay in business to continue supporting our village of people," she says.
During the second shutdown, Blush & Blu was unable to host its annual winter holiday potlucks. The holidays are when the most vulnerable queer people need a place for community, a meal, and support. The continued existence of Blush & Blu and similar bars would be a boon to them.
A major help to bars like Blush & Blu has been the Lesbian Bar Project, an organization that is raising awareness of lesbian bars and offering financial support. Actor, comedian, and bar owner Lea DeLaria has been a major figure pushing the Lesbian Bar Project forward. Bouffard is grateful for DeLaria and the work she does but also admits, "I wish more queer-identifying women in Hollywood would use their platform and do more to help."