In search of lesbian spaces
On this lesbian week of visibility, I wanted to discuss our absence of it in the public space. As lesbians, we have always suffered from less visibility than our gay male counterparts, and this becomes blatant when looking at dedicated queer spaces. If gay spaces have managed to survive, lesbian ones are slowly vanishing, with lesbian bars successively closing down. Those lesbian bars were not easily acquired, and with each closure, it’s a piece of history that disappears.
Historically, lesbian bars have served as places for women to gather, for lesbians to resist. They gave a room of one’s own to lesbian and sapphic individuals. Amid women's liberation and lesbian movements, they were the HQ of activists, who squatted abandoned buildings and/or fought their cities to obtain a small site. In the US, the 80s and 90s had more than 200 bars opening their doors to lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. Now, less than 20 survive. What happened?
No definite answers can be given as to what precisely caused this slow extinction. But taking some time to determine the reasons is essential if we want to create them anew. The financial reason seems the most obvious: LGBTIQ+ spaces in general have always struggled to make ends meet. Lesbian spaces are even more likely to encounter financial difficulties as lesbians have comparatively low economic power. With gentrification processes increasing financial pressure, many lesbian bars were forced to close down.
Besides this obvious reason, amplified by the economic crisis and inflation we’ve been knowing since Covid-19, the others are more of a hypothesis. Maybe lesbian bars have had their days, and the need for them now is not as strong. It’s a point often made when talking about their disappearance. With social media and dating apps, cruising can happen outside of dedicated spaces. With growing social acceptance, there is not such a strong need to hide behind closed doors anymore. But how does that add up? Lesbian spaces are much more than just a dating spot, and lesbophobia is nowhere near gone. And if lesbian spaces are disappearing, gay and queer ones are multiplying.
Indeed, LGBTIQ+ spots don’t meet a similar fate. Some lesbian bars are even turning into queer bars, reopening under a more welcoming umbrella term. But those queer spots are far-off from offering what sapphic spaces offered and are gradually made unsafe with trendy straight people taking over them. If lesbian bars are often perceived as “separatist” and anachronic, there is nothing inclusive in making your spaces so open that they are no longer safe for those they were supposed to welcome in the first place.
It’s important to note however that the disappearance of lesbian-only spaces is not caused by more trans-inclusiveness in the queer community, as some transphobes would like to make you think it is. Intrumentalizing the disappearance of lesbianism and sapphic spaces is nothing but an attempt to create divides in the LGBTIQ+ community and spread transphobia. There are trans-inclusive possibilities for lesbian spaces to exist and thrive again. It’s time to update and rethink lesbian spaces, which were up to now night-time and alcohol-focused. As we are navigating an economic crisis and hostile policies, lesbian spaces can provide a much-needed refuge for cis and trans women and women of color to come together and fight back.