If iconic British novelist Virginia Woolf came to Minneapolis to attend Pride, what might she say about our lack of consistent public gathering places for queer women?
Sure, the bisexual Woolf—whose landmark 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own” argued the importance of physical and figurative women's-only spaces in the male-dominated literary world—died in 1941. But ask enough people around town who are intimately familiar with the gay scene, and you’ll soon find that the idea of a lesbian bar reappearing seems nearly as fantastical as the notion that the queer literary icon might return from the afterlife to march down Hennepin Avenue in Saturday’s parade.
That’s not for lack of apparent interest. The Twin Cities has one of the most robust LGBTQ populations in the country. We claim a number of gay bars, a handful of which have been around for decades (and are so popular with heterosexuals, to the dismay of some, that bachelorette parties are rampant). Yet if we’re such a queer-woman-friendly culture—according to The Advocate magazine, we even boast “no shortage of lesbian-centric bike events”—why doesn’t Minneapolis or St. Paul have a bar, cafe, coffeehouse, or designated socializing spot for queer women that’s not someone’s living room?
This enigma is not unique to Minneapolis/St. Paul. From Manhattan’s Meow Mix to Los Angeles’ Oxwood Inn, long-running lesbian bars (the Oxwood opened in 1972 and closed just last year) are shuttering from coast to coast. Even in San Francisco, a city LIFE magazine nicknamed “The Gay Capital of the U.S.” in 1964, lost its last remaining lesbian bar, the Lexington Club, in 2015.
“Dyke bars all across America have been closing for the last 15 years,” confirms Minneapolis bartender and blogger Ty Yule, who opened Pi Bar, Minneapolis’ most recent brick-and-mortar lesbian bar, in 2006. (It closed, to much lamentation, in 2008.)
Somehow, this disappearing act doesn’t extend to gay bars for men.
“In most cities, ‘queer’ bars cater almost exclusively to gay men,” Minneapolis writer Krista Burton asserts in a 2017 New York Times editorial titled “I Want My Lesbian Bars Back.” That’s not simply an issue for the lesbian community, she suggests, but for anyone who identifies as non-hetero on the increasingly vast spectrum of gender and sexuality. While broadening social acceptance may have weakened the vital social role of the lesbian bar, Burton muses, an essential mystery remains.
“Since lesbian bars tend to absorb all the queers who aren’t gay men,” Burton writes, “and since more people than ever before are identifying as L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+, don’t you think it’s kind of weird there are so few bars?”
That does seem, well, weird. And yet Shannon, a drag cabaret performer known by their stage name Randy Dandy, suggests that the past two decades have seen a fairly radical cultural shift within the so-called lesbian community, which might account for the the loss of these defined gathering spaces.
“In the early 2000s, people who identified as lesbian began opening up to other identities,” says Shannon, who quips that their friends jokingly refer to them—they use gender-neutral, non-binary pronouns—as “the mayor of Gaytown.”
Burton hypothesizes that broadening social acceptance of gay culture might be, ironically, one culprit. “As queer people become normalized,” Burton writes, “have these tight-knit families and communities once found in lesbian and gay bars just melted away into a puddle of casual societal acceptance?”
Ty Yule seconds Burton’s idea. “For dykes, to have a meeting place used to be a life-saving necessity. That solidarity was paramount to survival,” Yule says. As for why cisgender gay male bars thrive while lesbian spots wither, Yule, who is a trans man, is blunt: “Men will always go to bars and pay for drinks to find people to have sex with,” he laughs.
Tucked into Minneapolis’ quiet Seward neighborhood, Pi Bar was a friendly, inclusive spot that became the de facto community center for the local lesbian community. From trivia and movie nights to karaoke and food—the “Mozzarella Lady Fingers” were apparently semi-legendary—Pi Bar covered a lot of bases.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘I miss Pi Bar. I wish it was still around,’” says Ms. Valor, one of the three-woman crew who currently runs Soul Friday, the Twin Cities’ longest-running roving dance party for queer women. The event kicked off at Pi Bar a decade ago.
“Soul Friday was a response to not having one location for queer women to gather,” says Ms. Valor. She remembers the 1990s as a very different time. “That was a hot time in the scene,” she adds, recalling spots like Club Metro and Lucy’s in St. Paul, both of which closed in the early 2000s.
Prior to Soul Friday, Twilight, which opened in 2002, held the lesbian dance-party longevity torch, welcoming a spectrum of queer women before the term “cisgender” hit the streets. It celebrated its final night at Dinkytown’s Kitty Cat Klub in late 2011.
As the queer female community evolves, so too do these dance events. “You notice,” says Shannon, “that none of these nights are described as ‘lesbian’ nights.”
Soul Friday, for example, is “a space for queer women and people of color that celebrates our lives and our existence,” explains Ms. Valor. With its mix of hip-hop, R&B, and world music spun by resident and guest DJs, “it’s a really fun, celebratory space with a community feel.”
“Every month, someone approaches me and expresses gratitude for us being there,” Ms. Valor reflects. “We’ve kept going with it so long because there’s such a need for it.”
Grrrl Scout is another dance event that “strives to create safe and inclusive spaces” for queer women and trans and non-binary people. In an emailed statement, the Grrrl Scout team suggested that the lack of a bar for queer women could be chalked up to “a combination of lifestyle and economics,” including gentrification and the marginalization of queer community members as well as the notion that “queer women are often known to go out less than gay men.”
So, where’s a queer girl or genderqueer person to go?
With Pride around the corner, don’t despair. Soul Friday will be at Icehouse on Friday, Grrrl Scout’s fifth annual Summer Camp Pride Party comes to the Cabooze on Saturday, and both crews are known for putting on some serious parties. And if you’re not in a dancing mood, why not keep it classic and head to Minneapolis’ oldest gay bar, right around the corner from Pride epicenter Loring Park?
The friendly spirit of the 19 Bar, a lovable brick-walled dive that’s been going strong since 1952, might be best summed up by this Yelp reviewer: “I like it here because it’s casual, gay, and even though it’s male-dominated, nobody’s ever been a prick to me for being a gay girl in a gay man’s world.”