One of the most confusing, unanswerable question in LGBT culture has to do with culture itself: why are gay bars disappearing?
I’ve written about the subject before and have been unable to pinpoint an exact source but the fact remains: these safe spaces are going away. While many traditional gay bars still exist, these spaces largely for same sex men, the reality is that all the micro-communities within queer culture are losing their designated spaces. The largest, most troubling example is the disappearance of lesbian bars all over the country. Why is this happening? How can we push back to ensure these spaces exist or can be reborn?
It’s a tough question made more tougher by more specific and more open sexual and gender identities. How can someone open a same sex bar for women when the idea of being a same sex woman is seen as passé or limited in view? Not that it is “passé” but younger generations might view it as mainstream when compared to more complex identities.
This clash between old and new queerness is already being seen in more liberal enclaves like Portland. Willamette Week shared a fantastic story on how identity politics are killing lesbian bars. Written by Ellena Rosenthal, the story chronicles old and new lesbian bars and parties that have shuttered or been barred by myriad factors related to the norm, like gentrification and the mainstreaming of queer culture.
Those are red herrings though: the expanding of the queer rights movement—specifically as it relates to gender—is calling into question spaces that are designated for certain genders and sexualities. Rosenthal explains as it relates to Portland’s lesbian scene.
In the past two years, events catering to lesbians, like the monthly meet-up Fantasy Softball League, have been targeted online as unsafe spaces for trans women and others who don’t identify with feminine pronouns. This past summer, semi-regular parties for lesbians, like Lesbian Night at Old Town’s CC Slaughters, changed their names and focus to avoid controversy and be more inclusive. And lesbian-owned bars that draw lesbian customers, like Escape, shun the label so as not to offend.
The fights over language may seem academic and obscure if you’re not part of them. But they are increasingly the battlegrounds over how people see themselves and how the world sees and treats them—and those views strain friendships, shutter events and start internet flame wars.
This makes sense yet it’s absolutely frustrating since there doesn’t seem to be an animus or intention to block people out. It’s a me-first point of view, sure, but representation matters all around—and it’s not wrong for people to want, crave, and need spaces “just for them.” (And, obviously, “just for them” doesn’t literally mean just for them.)
There are many examples of this pushback in Portland as women are trying to create spaces specifically for women who love women. Here’s an example regarding a lesbian night led by Emily Stutzman that was targeted because it wasn’t inclusive enough.
In summer 2015, Stutzman, who has wavy red hair and wears an enameled “I Love Cats” pin on her jean jacket, recalls walking through Vendetta greeting people when someone she’d never met—someone who didn’t identify with traditional female conventions like the pronoun “she”—confronted her.
“The person was hostile, and wanting to pick a fight,” Stutzman recalls. “This person was offended and said they would tell their friends that we were a group of people that were non-inclusive and not respectful of their gender.”
The person—Stutzman never got a name—left the event, and Stutzman was left feeling confused. As she looked around, she saw many people who fell between male and female. She thought her event was inclusive, even if the vernacular wasn’t.
Stutzman’s event eventually ended and, unfortunately, this situation isn’t unique.
You can imagine how frustrating this is and, funny enough, it feels very much in the Venn diagram of now, where there is perhaps too much of a push for individuality or inclusion amidst a need for people just wanting to be people. When the fringes evolve too fast, the thread creating the cloth of community unravels. That certainly feels like what’s happening in Portland and, unfortunately, is probably going to continue outward.
If this is a reminder of anything it’s that the LGBT politics are very complicated and, no matter how hard you try to “do something good,” people will translate what you are doing as something bad. We’re going to hear more and more stories about this (For better or worse, oy.) and, in the interim, here’s hoping everyone can get a little bit of the space they need—especially lesbians. Inclusion is key, yes, but so is the maintaining of a culture that led the way for such inclusion to exist.