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How this campaign is renewing its push to keep America's 21 lesbian bars afloat

A new documentary opens with a startling statistic: There were at least 200 lesbian bars, at their peak, in the late 1980s. Today, 21 remain.

The 20-minute film is part of the Lesbian Bar Project's renewed fundraising push to support the surviving bars. Last year, the bars had to adapt amid shutdown orders and social distancing measures throughout the coronavirus pandemic. In November, the Lesbian Bar Project raised more than $117,000 to help the bars. This year, during the month of Pride, they're aiming higher, attempting to raise $200,000 to build on that effort.

Watch the discussion in the player above.

Filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street said they were inspired to help these spaces keep their doors open because of their own formative experiences at a lesbian bar. Rose said when she walked into Cubbyhole, one of three lesbian bars in New York, more than a decade ago, the space was crucial to her because "I never had a tangible expression of queer women around me. It always felt so abstract and so distant," she said. "I knew that when I was ready to come out, I would have a safe space where I could go and be my authentic self."

READ MORE: 21 lesbian bars remain in America. Owners share why they must be protected

Street, who also has a strong attachment to the same bar, said her experience at Cubbyhole was "very educational" because of the intergenerational dialogue that happened within the space.

"I met some mentors who really helped me understand who I was, my identity, and also just what the community was all about," she said.

The Lesbian Bar Project released this documentary in early June in a renewed effort to raise money for the nation's surviving lesbian bars. The documentary was made in partnership with GO Magazine, Merrill Lynch's Mariam Adams, The Katz Company, and Jägermeister's Save the Night initiative.

Comedian and actor Lea DeLaria, who executive produced the short film, asks early into the documentary why lesbian bars are disappearing. There's not just one reason, but several bar owners told the PBS NewsHour that assimilation, gentrification and the prevalence of dating apps have been factors. Several also mentioned the economic inequality women face, especially women of color and queer women, who earn less than their male counterparts.

The NewsHour's Amna Nawaz spoke with both filmmakers on why lesbian bars were hit particularly hard during the pandemic, the mission behind their documentary, and how these spaces are evolving to be more inclusive.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Back in the late 1980s, there was at least 200 lesbian bars in the U.S. Today, that number is 21. Why is that?

Erica Rose: First off, gentrification. We all know that gentrification is wiping out communities run by marginalized people and businesses that service marginalized people. And that's especially high in our coastal cities and that contributes to the erasure of a lot of our neighborhoods. One thing to note is that lesbians didn't occupy neighborhoods in the same way that gay men did. We can talk about Park Slope [in Brooklyn, New York] and its brief heyday in the '90s that was very lesbian-centric. But for the most part, we didn't occupy neighborhoods in the same way. So often our bars were confined to discrete areas that people only really heard about through word of mouth.

Another big issue of why these bars are disappearing is assimilation. I think after gay marriage passed across the country, our most privileged members of our community were swept up with a bit of complacency. On one hand, it's an extraordinary privilege that I can go down the street and go into a bar that's not specifically queer and feel safe there. And I'm so thankful for the activists that came before me to ensure that. But on the other hand, it erases some of our gathering spaces and our community. And, with that, it's essentially saying that, as a society, we're complacent with space being heteronormative and that doesn't reflect our population. Our population isn't just straight. It isn't just binary. It isn't just white. And we need space that reflects that.

Another big reason why these spaces are disappearing is the economic situation, I mean, the wage gap is real. And I think we all know that. And it's especially high end with queer women and women of color. And we don't necessarily have the leisure dollars that is gendered or heterosexual people have. You know, there's not income disparity with cis, white, hetero, homosexual men, gay men. So just a note there. But, you know, with us, it's that we don't necessarily have the leisure to patronize these bars. And a lot of queer women are also parents. So all of their disposable income will go to their families and their kids.

During the pandemic, when you talk about bars, restaurants, everything closing, lesbian bars were hit particularly hard for all of those reasons.

Erica Rose: Absolutely. And another big issue is that most of these bars are owned and operated by queer women. So there's definitely discrimination there. It's difficult to negotiate with a landlord or get a small business loan or get investors. And I think the last reason we could really point to, besides the pandemic, is really that as a culture, we've moved online. In terms of dating, in terms of how we meet people in general, how we consume media, how we eat — it's really moved online. So there's kind of a de-emphasis on-brick-and-mortar space. I think the pandemic really put that into perspective. It's like, "OK, what if we lose these spaces altogether, and we took it for granted?"

As filmmakers, what was the mission behind the documentary?

Erica Rose: These spaces have been so vital for me and Elina. I always say, "Cubbyhole [in Manhattan, New York] knew I was gay before I even did." And that space was crucial for me because, before I walked in there over a decade ago, I never had a tangible expression of queer women around me. It always felt so abstract and so distant. I don't necessarily have the privilege of going into every space and feeling authentically queer. And in our lesbian bars, we were able to. We wanted to drive people to a call to action to support the bars both financially and to show up to the bars when it was safe to do so.

Babe's of Carytown in Richmond, Virginia, has been around for 35 years and counting. Photo by Dorothy Hastings/PBS NewsHour

It was really about humanizing the statistic [of 21 lesbian bars left in the U.S.]. We wanted to tell the stories behind the bars. So often of how we talk about queer space is through loss, through trauma, through disappearance. It was really important for us to say, "Here are people behind these spaces who are working actively to ensure their survival and they're evolving." And we wanted to end on a hopeful note saying our community is not giving up. We're actually getting stronger, we're getting more inclusive. There's still work to be done too, but they're not going to give up on us, and we can't give up on them.

Elina Street: I share a very similar sentiment to Erica's feeling towards the bars, but I actually grew up in France. And even though France has the stereotype of being very open with your sexuality, I never actually felt like I could come out there. I also didn't feel like I knew the language to come out. And when I moved to the U.S. eight years ago, I also walked into Cubbyhole, so I like to see that I walked out of the closet into Cubbyhole. But for me, Cubbyhole and the lesbian bar experience was very educational and there's a lot of intergenerational dialogue there. I met some mentors who really helped me understand who I was, my identity, and also just what the community was all about. And once again, what we're doing with this new iteration of the Lesbian Bar Project documentary film is that we are describing the lesbian bars as "lesbian bars and." We're really opening up the conversation to now embracing and celebrating that we have the language to really define who we are in the community and including everyone.

In telling the stories — of the ones who are working to preserve these spaces — did anything surprise you as the storyteller?

Erica Rose: We always knew that lesbian bars had a troubled history. It wasn't perfect, and a lot of spaces were exclusionary. We talk about Bonnie & Clyde, which was around the '70s. And on one hand, that was one of the first businesses owned and operated by a woman. They couldn't get a line of credit on their own or couldn't get a liquor license up until fairly recently. So it's pretty shocking. Bonnie & Clyde was run by a woman, but it also had a race-based quota. So Black lesbians didn't feel accepted there. And in response to that, they created Salsa Soul Sisters, which is the first Black and Latina lesbian organization in the country. Learning about how specific the exclusivity was, was really shocking to me. And Meow Mix was around in the '90s in the Lower East Side. It was kind of like a central place for the riot grrrl scene. Brooke Webster, the owner of the Meow Mix, talked about [how] it wasn't necessarily police brutality that was her biggest obstacle, it was the [then-New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani administration. They had a lot of health code violations and city violations that they would inflict on small businesses, especially small businesses that catered to marginalized populations, to try to shut them down. So, through the fines, she was facing bankruptcy.

A question from the audience: "I'm in San Francisco, and one change is that bars are wanting to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary communities. Thoughts on that, and what it means for a 'lesbian bar'?"

Elina Street: I think it's crucial that the bars are inclusive to the queer community, the nonbinary community and the trans community, because here's the thing: These bars are catering to a marginalized community, and we need to make sure they stay alive because if this marginalized bar ends up disappearing, that means we're actually canceling and just erasing a part of our past that brought us to who we are. And also we are normalizing these spaces as well. So we still need to highlight everyone from the community and make sure that they feel valued as well.

Erica Rose: Part of what we outline in our mission statement is that lesbian bars are not just for lesbians, they're for all marginalized genders within the LGBTQ community. So that's all queer women, cis and trans, nonbinary people and trans men. And Lisa Cannistraci, owner of Henrietta Hudson [in New York], says it best; back in the '90s, when you thought that you were just in a lesbian space, you weren't. There were trans men there. There were trans women there. They were pansexual people there. There were bisexual people there. I think that it's really important that we acknowledge that the lesbian community has always included these identities that are not just necessarily lesbian, but they haven't held space for them. And now, in order for the bars to survive, they need to hold space for this part of the community.

And we thought about it, we were like, "Do we call it the Lesbian Bar Project?" That was a question that we asked ourselves earlier in this process. We decided to because I don't believe that the word "lesbian" needs to be such a militant definition. I think that there's fluidity in that word, and the language evolves and changes. And I think that the label "lesbian" is doing that. I think that at the end of the day, all of our bars on this list, use that label and all of them use additional labels, whether it's "queer bar" or a "space for everyone." Henrietta Hudson says it's a "queer human bar built by lesbians." There's a diversity in how we label ourselves, and I think that's really beautiful and a way in which our community and spaces are evolving.

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