After months of barely holding on, America’s few remaining lesbian bars have found an unlikely patron in the German digestif best known for being dropped in beer and chugged by frat boys. As a part of its larger “Save The Night” campaign, Jägermeister has partnered with an organization called the Lesbian Bar Project to raise funds for 15 lesbian bars across the country. The campaign launched with a short video narrated by Lea DeLaria (of Orange is the New Black fame) that covers the broad strokes of why these bars matter, and how many have already been lost, in conjunction with a 30-day donation drive for the month of November.
Pandemic lockdowns and closures have decimated wide swaths of the bar industry, but few are more vulnerable than lesbian bars. Decades of rising urban rents, lack of capital, and cultural shifts have winnowed their number down to as little as 16 locales, even as these bars serve as essential community hubs for queer women, nonbinary people, trans men, and others who feel more at home in those spaces than in a gay-male-centric one. In June, I spoke with lesbian bar owners around the country who described maxing out credit cards and skipping rent hoping to keep their establishments afloat until bars could open again.
This moment of crisis has connected lesbian bar owners with each other in a more meaningful way, and they began to think of themselves as one big, threatened group, rather than trying to survive on their own. For months, the bars have been supporting each other on social media and sharing strategies. Now, the Lesbian Bar Project aims to boost the 15 participating bars. The money raised this November will be split evenly between them. The short film’s co-directors, Erica Rose and Elina Street, are also developing a documentary series about the history of these bars. Through a representative, Rose and Street say, “It started with a phone call between us back in April. As filmmakers our industry was shut down and we had nothing but time to think about our lives pre-pandemic. We were reminiscing about the last time we had met in person, which was at the Lesbian Bar Ginger’s in Brooklyn. That was our last moment before lockdown, our last time inside a bar. When it came to our attention that lesbian bars were disappearing at a staggering rate, we knew we had to act fast and put our filmmaking skills to good use.”
Julie Mabry, who owns Pearl Bar in Houston, says thanks to a generous GoFundMe campaign that raised over $40,000 and a preservation grant from Showtime and HRC, her business is surviving, and she will donate her share of the proceeds to bars with greater need. But she is enthusiastically participating in the campaign and documentary because she knows how essential it is to keep these businesses alive. “Lesbian bars are hard to open and hard to maintain,” she says. “I don’t know when or if another bar will open. I don’t want to see any more bars close.”