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LGBTQIA+ Bars Find Resurgence As Queer Culture Shifts, Comes Under Threat

After nearly two decades of decline, the number of bars and restaurants catering to members of the LGBTQIA+ community began ticking back up in the wake of the pandemic. Research from the National Institutes of Health indicates the number of these establishments nationwide grew by 10% from 2021 to 2023.

This shift has occurred despite a challenging, sometimes dangerous landscape for queer communities in particular and an uncertain playing field for the broader economy and real estate industry. But for a community intimately familiar with carrying on in the face of difficult circumstances, keeping these spaces going — and even growing them — is worth the hard days.

“Our queer spaces across the country are incredibly important,” said Danielle Spring, co-owner of Femme, a lesbian restaurant and bar in Worcester, Massachusetts, that welcomes everyone but places a specific focus on providing a haven for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I’m in my 40s, and when we were growing up, we didn't have safe spaces. We invite our patrons to come as they are, no matter how they identify,” Spring said. “We provide the space for them. Anyone who walks in the door, we embrace them.”

In honor of Pride Month, rainbow flags line Market Street from the Castro to the San Francisco Bay.

The number of gay bars in the U.S. declined 41% from 2002 to 2019, according to the NIH. The last five years have brought a pandemic that shuttered establishments of all kinds, rapidly escalating prices and a wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation and sentiment in some of the most populous states like Florida and Texas.

Lesbian bars across the U.S. cater to women who identify as lesbians, but they welcome all LGBTQIA+ members of the community, as well as supportive straight people.

Anyone is welcome at Femme, as long as they are respectful of the other patrons, Spring said.

But even with these hurdles, and in some ways because of them, owners like Spring have taken the financial gamble that comes with opening a bar or restaurant, betting on a community of patrons in search of gathering spaces.

Spring has owned Femme with her wife, Julie Toubin-Spring, since March 2023. It was important for the couple to open this establishment, despite the frequent building maintenance expenses that come with it.  

“There's always financial issues,” Spring said. “Some nights are really slow, but on other nights we’re packed. And that’s because of the people who come in here. We have been extremely lucky because of them and are so very thankful.”

In a little over a year, Femme has established itself as a safe gathering place for the entire LGBTQIA+ community in Worcester, offering events that draw in crowds like live music, painting nights and tarot card readings.  

The local government in Worcester has been “incredibly supportive” of the establishment, Spring said. 

But not every city is as welcoming as Worcester, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Last year, HRC released a municipalities index measuring which cities best protect LGBTQIA+ rights.

“Following an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year, the Human Rights Campaign officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the United States for the first time in its more than 40-year history,” the index says. “The sharp rise in anti-LGBTQ+ measures has spawned a dizzying patchwork of discriminatory state laws that have created increasingly hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ+ people.”

Among those state laws is a recently proposed piece of Ohio legislation that has raised concern among the LGBTQIA+ community. Ohio’s House Bill 8 is similar to Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which prevents educators from teaching or even mentioning queer issues in the classroom. However, the proposed Ohio law gives parents the right to review any alleged sexually explicit materials in the classroom and makes it legal to out students to their parents, Cleveland NBC affiliate WKYC reported.

Slammers in downtown Columbus has been a Central Ohio institution for 31 years.

The political backlash in its own state hasn’t deterred Slammers, a lesbian bar just blocks from the Statehouse in downtown Columbus. The bar and restaurant on East Long Street has been a pillar of the Central Ohio LGBTQIA+ community for more than three decades.

Slammers struggled to keep patrons and stay in business during the lockdowns. Around the same time, former owner Marcia Riley decided to retire after running Slammers for 26 years.

“We did struggle but have really bounced back,” said Carson Nethers, Slammers’ owner since 2022 and managing partner at Columbus-based Archaic Properties.

“Slammers is incredibly important to the community and Central Ohio. It's huge and has grown in the last year,” Nethers said, citing a new monthly lesbian dance night and a constant stream of patrons from across Ohio, West Virginia and other parts of the Midwest. 

Slammers’ customer draw from well beyond Columbus city limits demonstrates the ability of some gay bars to serve as destinations for LGBTQIA+ communities, especially in regions that are less queer-friendly.

Worcester’s Femme has entertained people from all over the continental United States, Spring said.

“We are definitely a destination,” she said.

To accommodate growing demand, Femme and Slammers both plan to expand.

At the roughly 3K SF Slammers, Nethers said he plans to reinvest in the bar. Slammers is gutting its patio and installing a new glass-and-concrete roof to create a three-season patio to accommodate more patrons during the winter months. 

The bar is being renovated as well to deal with the high volume of drinks slung by the bartending staff.

Expansion is also happening citywide in Los Angeles, which in 2023 gained two new lesbian bars, Ruby Fruit wine bar and Honey’s at Star Love dance bar. Before those openings, Los Angeles didn't have any lesbian bars, according to The Hollywood Reporter

In Portland, chef Jenny Ngyuen opened Sports Bra, the city’s first lesbian bar, in 2022. By most accounts, it is the most profitable lesbian bar ever to emerge on the scene. In its first eight months, the Sports Bra brought in $1M, according to CNBC.

Cubby Hole comes by its name honestly, as the lesbian bar has packed people in its tiny space for decades in the West Village.

The bar and restaurant has a unique theme that contributed to its success. It only shows women's sports, itself a growing draw for restaurant patrons and investors, and its walls are lined with women’s sports memorabilia.

The number of bars in New York has also expanded, namely with the addition of The Bush in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The Bush joins West Village institutions Henrietta Hudson's and Cubby Hole.

San Francisco, which is home to Wild Side West, one of the oldest lesbian bars in the country, added a new offering as well, the Scarlett Fox. It is the latest addition to the queer nightlife scene in the famously gay-friendly city and brings San Francisco’s total of lesbian bars to three. 

Just 33 lesbian bars remain in the U.S., a stark drop from the roughly 200 that existed in the 1980s, according to The Lesbian Bar Project. But the number has doubled since there were 16 in 2021.

The number of lesbian bars is in stark contrast to the 1,000 bars nationwide catering to cisgender gay men, according to Oberlin College sociology professor Greggor Mattson.

There are many reasons for the shifts in specific types of gay bars in the past 25 years, according to Mattson. For one, younger generations tend not to identify as lesbian.

Instead, younger generations are eschewing labels altogether or identifying as queer or nonbinary. In addition, in the early 2000s, online dating was in its nascent stages and catered heavily toward straight people, so bars often served as a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people to find each other and start dating.

“The bars that are closing fastest most recently are bars serving only cisgender men, and all the lesbian bars that I know of are all-gender spaces, suggesting that gender segregation is in decline and that bars that serve the breadth and depth of our diverse community have a better chance of thriving,” Mattson said.