On a recent summer evening, a woman-dominated crowd was gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whose bright yellow facade beams across from a Greyhound Bus depot. The occasion: a happy hour sponsored by the Women’s Center for Creative Work, a feminist workspace and gallery. Guests toured the museum after hours and browsed the boutique Days LA, whose spiral table held lucite jewelry, flower essence sprays, and a palm-sized brass sculpture of an especially beautiful freeway interchange.
The crowd, wearing silver Oxfords and linen blazers and rainbow hoop earrings and so many different kinds of overalls, clustered at the bar, which was capped by a marble table shaped like a gnarled hand flipping the bird. Bartender Danielle Gavaldon mixed peach mules and mezcal margaritas in gleaming gold barware. Gavaldon’s business partner, Lauren Amador, worked the room, handing out coasters and matchbooks emblazoned with the name of their project, the Fingerjoint. It is the only lesbian bar in Los Angeles. And it’s a pop-up. That’s right: The lone lesbian bar in the second-largest city in America isn’t a historic, beloved dive or a new space in an emerging queer neighborhood. It isn’t anywhere at all, yet.
The crowd was the kind you see at a lot of Los Angeles arts events, but queerer and less gender conforming. Conversation buzzed and enthusiastic hand gestures were performed like a dance; the room vibed with connection. It was a queer LA I knew and occasionally felt a part of. Amador, a couple coasters still clutched in her hand, marveled at the crowd. That night, one attendee said to her, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.”
Amador has wanted to open a lesbian bar in Los Angeles since she turned 21 and discovered there was not a single one in the city. Queer spaces, especially lesbian spaces, are shuttering across America as former gayborhoods gentrify — a dynamic the writer Sarah Schulman traces back to the AIDS crisis in her 2012 book The Gentrification of the Mind — and as queer life in America is undergoing a generational realignment. Lesbian bars as they’ve existed in America are in danger of being lost in a very real way; in Los Angeles, there’s been a full-on extinction event. The last lesbian bar in LA’s gayborhood, West Hollywood, called the Palms, closed in 2013. The last remaining lesbian bar in all of Los Angeles County, which spans 4,000 square miles and is home to 10 million residents, was the Oxwood Inn in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys. It shut down in 2017.
The history of gay and lesbian bars stretches back to a time when queerness of all stripes was criminalized and forced underground; these bars were the only place to exist in semi-public. By that logic, gay and lesbian bars are less needed today because you can maybe now hold your girlfriend’s hand in your local dive or that hip new natural wine bar. But in most places, you will probably be the only two girls on a date there. And forget showing up to find a new girl to date.
For the vast majority of queer people, community is something attained in adulthood, and it can’t be built in even the most welcoming straight-dominated settings, state-sanctioned marriage or not. The loss of queer spaces threatens to destroy much more than a comfortable night out — everything from future romantic relationships to political organizing is at risk, including the opportunity to build solidarity between cis and trans queers. Before it closed, the Oxwood Inn was host to a popular Saturday-night dance party for trans women; the coffee shop Cuties, run by a trans woman and her queer femme partner, is a rare Los Angeles business striving to create a more inclusive queer space. Losing historic lesbian bars, and seeing few new ones open, hurts the community the way a local newspaper shutting down hurts a small town — institutions still exist for other people, and they might welcome your money, but they no longer serve you. A recent feature on Curbed Philly about the city’s disappearing Gayborhood included this quote from the guestbook of a long-gone gay club, written to the owner: “If it weren’t for you, we’d all be lonely.”
The lack of a lesbian bar in the second-largest city in America is a big, flashing warning sign. And it’s infuriating. In an interview, Amador and Gavaldon recalled searching “lesbian bar Los Angeles” and finding articles suggesting the very fine (but not particularly Sapphic or bar-like) Skylight Books, or the Silverlake dog park. “Which is just bullshit,” Gavaldon said.
The absurdity of lesbian public life in Los Angeles, or lack thereof, is a problem many of us bemoan; Amador, a trained architect, decided she wanted to fix it. During her search for a bartender partner, Amador attended a queer night Gavaldon hosted at Bar Caló in Echo Park. Amador went with her ex-girlfriend (“Like, we were exes at the time”) and sat in the corner — in other words, as she puts it, “the actual experience of queer night.”
Lesbian culture in Los Angeles, even when there was a lesbian bar or two around, has long revolved around such weekly or monthly “nights,” often in gay male spaces but also in other lesbian-friendly businesses. These days, organizers increasingly prefer the word “queer” in order to be more welcoming to bi women, gender nonconforming people, trans people, and anyone else who might not identify as the typical clientele of gay male bars. (Gavaldon says she chose the word “queer” to describe her event so her trans men friends would know they were welcome, for instance.) Nights can have regulars, but there’s a scattershot, catch-as-catch-can feeling to attending one. And if you’re used to being the only lesbian in a room, it can be downright weird to suddenly be in a room full of them. “Sometimes I feel like when we are in lesbian spaces, we’re all so nervous and out of our comfort zone that we can’t even enjoy ourselves,” Amador says. “It’s an event that only lasts 2 to 4 hours so you don’t even have enough time to get past that.”
Amador herself experienced that awkwardness, ironically, when trying to start a lesbian bar. She was impressed by Gavaldon’s drinks and hosting, but was too intimidated to say hello. Instead she sent her a message a month later on Instagram. “When Lauren came to me with this [idea], I was a little bit hesitant,” Gavaldon says. People outside the industry talking up their plan to open an amazing bar were a familiar and not entirely welcome phenomenon for Gavaldon. Amador brought the coasters and matchbook for the Fingerjoint, which she had already made, to their meeting; she described a plan for building sliding hooks into the bar, so if people moved, they could take their bags with them — a detail especially accommodating of women and femme customers. Gavaldon realized, “She’s detail-oriented, and she’s not messing around.”
Amador had the coasters on hand because the Fingerjoint began as a design concept. She worked on several restaurant projects as an architect; the Fingerjoint debuted earlier this year at the Unmentionables design symposium, “a forum for rarely mentioned ideas in spatial practice and theory,” which definitely includes lesbian bars. That’s what Amador crafted the bird-flipping marble finger for (it anchors the bar at their events). It’s based on a photograph of Frank Gehry giving the finger to a reporter; she traced his hand and fabricated an exact replica out of marble. A fingerjoint is an architectural term, too, for a specific kind of wood joining; the name obviously also furthers the grand tradition of bawdy names for lesbian bars (see: the Cubbyhole).
At the design symposium, the Fingerjoint served drinks all day, with a cocktail happy hour by Gavaldon. Next, they popped up at the launch party for queer clothing company Gay Garb, and continue to do events for queer- and women-centric organizations like Outfest and Yola Mezcal’s recent music festival. Starting as a pop-up has its disadvantages, but Amador and Gavaldon are using it as a way to meet potential investors (they recently found their first) and get to know the community they want to serve before they plunk down money on a space.
The Fingerjoint will explicitly be a lesbian bar, but one in the spirit of the Oxwood Inn. (This is part of a larger trend in lesbian culture as more community members come out as nonbinary or trans; Los Angeles’s major lesbian pride event, Dyke Day, is for “dykes of all genders.”) Much like Cuties Coffee, which started as a pop-up, the Fingerjoint is using the pop-up model to find out how to offer whatever the bohemian, design-savvy, cocktail-sipping Los Angeles lesbian and queer community actually wants in 2019. “I’m willing to be vulnerable to have that conversation and learn as I go,” Amador says.
The community-building extends to building relationships with suppliers. Gavaldon is using the pop-ups to identify local alcohol brands that would be a good fit for a lesbian bar with craft cocktails, as well as wine and beer. Using products from women-owned companies is a commitment the partners have made for the pop-up phase; the happy hour featured women-owned Future Gin, Yola Mezcal (in a tart and smoky mezcal margarita), and wine from the shop VinoVore, which only stocks wines made by women winemakers or teams that include them. “[Focusing on women-owned products] narrows down my options in a nice way, and then it’s also going to give me higher quality, because women can’t afford to make bad products yet,” Gavaldon says. “We’re putting our money into other women’s pockets.”
The pop-up has gotten the word out to bartenders, too. Gavaldon is currently the bar manager at Ostrich Farm in Echo Park, and says since she’s announced the Fingerjoint, lesbian bartenders across the city have sent her messages asking when she’s opening and when they can come work there. “It’s the dream, because the masculine toxicity you deal with as female bartender is real,” Gavaldon said. “Specifically for queer bartenders, lesbian bartenders. That’s why they’re coming out of the woodwork. They’re like, I can make drinks and maybe be in charge and not feel like I’m being a raging, you know... It’s so real.” When asked why the bar industry is so toxic, Amador says, “Because men own the industry.”
The Fingerjoint’s most powerful promise is just that: ownership. Any type of women-owned bars are vanishingly rare; there are only a few in Los Angeles. Right now, events for queer women aren’t just peripatetic; they usually happen on men’s turf, whether it’s bars owned by gay men or, say, the roof of the Ace Hotel, where popular event Lez Croix holds its Pride parties. Amador and Gavaldon want to offer a more stable home for the pop-up parties that already serve the community, if they want it. And they hope this permanent space, with daily hours, will help break the disconnect cycle. “What happens when you go to a space where the bartender greets you by name?” Amador asks. “Now you’re building relationships that you can have more frequently, that are going to last longer.”
It’s so easy to imagine, it’s shocking it doesn’t already exist: an art-studded bar in blond woods and on-trend splashes of color, with ample hooks, crowned by the improbable marble finger warding off those who mean ill, like an evil eye. LA dykes and their queer co-conspirators crowd the bar; out back there’s a patio, host to a queer-run pop-up serving food (the Fingerjoint just partnered with queer-run Jamaican pop-up Noisy Library). A DJ is setting up for the dance party later that night, and there are posters for everything from environmental organizing to an L Word watch party, since, after all, it’s back. People show up with their exes to meet their new lovers, friendships and collaborations spark, and long-paired-up couples come by for their weekly happy hour. The bar vibes with connection.
Lesbian bars are rarely profitable, or even particularly stable, businesses; the community faces interlocking obstacles to economic stability or power. And no one bar will be able to serve the massive community of queer people in Los Angeles who lack their own spaces. The real tragedy is not just that there aren’t any lesbian bars, but that there’s only one on the horizon. The rising generation of lesbians, bi women, nonbinary people, trans people, and other folks along the queerness spectrum is steeped in restaurant and bar culture, yet has had little chance to develop a queer bar culture of its own. The Fingerjoint is ephemeral at the moment, but it represents the prospect of something needed in a concrete way — spaces where you’re not just tolerated, or welcomed, or invited Tuesday nights, but ones that you actually own.