Keep Them Coming: Where have all the lesbian bars gone?
It pains me when lesbians who are new to Kansas City ask me: What’s a good lesbian bar in town?
The unfortunate answer is: There are none.
There are about two dozen LGBTQIA+ bars and restaurants in the metro, but there is no longer a dedicated gathering space for queer women.
Gay and lesbian bars have historically been hangouts that helped alleviate the worry of being threatened or assaulted in a public space. As seen in many recent events, it’s still not entirely safe everywhere for LGBTQIA+ folks to openly approach people they might be interested in, let alone exist. It’s understandable that the community wants more environments where they can feel protected while being their authentic selves.
Despite the lack of lesbian social spaces, KC actually has a rich queer history. The 18th & Vine District attracted famous lesbian and bisexual artists like Ma Rainey. Tiny Davis, whose musical talent on the trumpet rivaled Louis Armstrong, was run out of town because she was a lesbian.
Between the 1970s and 2000s, queer women had fewer choices than cis gay men, but at least they still had places to go. Billie Jean’s, Sappho’s, and Soakie’s were hoppin’ back in the day. Tootsie’s moved three times before it closed in 2010. Wetherbee’s was a lesbian pool hall north of the river that hung on until 2011.
The fault doesn’t lie entirely with the proprietors of the businesses. I saw a TikTok last year pointing out that there are only 27 lesbian bars left in the entire U.S., compared to the roughly 200 establishments in the 1980s. Why are they going extinct?
One of the greatest impacts is that singles no longer rely on bars to meet like-minded people. Digital dating has shifted our behavior. A Stanford study found in 2016 that 65% of queer couples met online. Only 9% of women say they met their current partner at a bar.
There has also been a general decline in bars in the U.S., with the pandemic having a share of the blame. Bars centered around gay men are closing as well, but not at the rate of lesbian establishments. The Lesbian Bar Project suggested that gay bars have staying power because men have more disposable income in our society, especially when they are childless.
The pay disparity is such that queer women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) earn 79 cents on the dollar compared to the average cis man in the U.S., according to an April 2023 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add any form of intersecting marginalized identity on top of that (e.g. Black and bisexual or Latinx and lesbian), and the disparity widens.
Another perspective is that seeing queer bars close over the last two decades isn’t entirely bad. It’s partly due to some queer people feeling like they no longer need the security and anonymity of exclusively LGBTQIA+ spaces. “Safe” is arbitrary, and this may only apply to people in larger towns and cities.
In 2001, Pitch reporter Deborah Hipp wrote this about Tootsies: “Lesbians risk being killed, losing their jobs, and losing custody of their children simply for being gay. Bars like Tootsie’s have always served as a refuge from social discrimination.”
Making the argument that queer people are, in general, safer now than in 2001 when Hipp penned that sentiment is short-sighted. With Kansas and Missouri vying for a spot at the top of the list of “Worst States To Live If You Are LGBTQ+,” more safe spaces are indeed needed.
Some people might ask: Isn’t queer-friendly good enough? As in, can’t all queers just hang out like one big happy family at a gay bar?
Let’s first consider what makes a bar a lesbian bar. The Lesbian Bar Project says: “What makes a bar uniquely lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders, including women (regardless if they are cis or trans), non-binary folks, and trans men. As these spaces aim to be inclusive of all individuals across the diverse LGBTQIA+ community, the label ‘lesbian’ belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them.”
The Lesbian Bar Project seeks to support the remaining lesbian bars and to revive the industry through awareness and conversation.
Gwen Shockey of TLBP says, “When one doesn’t have a sense of history or belonging in our society, it can feel incredibly dislocating.”
Community and camaraderie are crucial to marginalized communities. Widespread acceptance of queer folks in our culture doesn’t mean they don’t need gathering places of their own.
If you want to know more about the city’s LGBTQIA+ history, download the new app for the Kansas City Rainbow Tour. This audio-led driving tour launches June 3, and lesbian bars of the past will be featured, as their memory and legacy are the only way to interact with them now.
You can find Kristen @OpenTheDoorsKC on Twitter or openthedoorscoaching.com