Lesbians Have Nowhere Everybody Knows Their Name: the Paradox of Lesbian Bars in New Orleans

Stephanie Holden

THE INTERSECTION of Bourbon and St. Ann streets is the heart of gay life in New Orleans. On any given Saturday night, three of the biggest gay bars in the city – Oz, Bourbon Pub Parade, and Napoleon’s Itch – have the streets teeming with drag queens and gay men in leather and mesh. Look at any poster for Southern Decadence, and you will find oiled six-packs and well-trimmed beards. There is a clear theme to the New Orleans gay scene: it is distinctly male.

In the midst of an era of acceptance for the LGBT community, women-exclusive queer spaces are dying out on a drastic scale. New Orleans, a city known for its prolific gay presence and its extreme party culture, is no different. Gay clubs are filled with men, pride parades are overwhelmingly male, and even activism is limited mostly to men. Queer women – who face unique, intersectional problems – are forgotten or fetishized while queer men are celebrated.

“There is no specific event at the Center that focuses on queer women at this time,” says a representative from the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans, despite advertising a mission statement that touts combatting misogyny and creating equitable spaces for gender and sexual minorities.

The most prominent space that the queer women of New Orleans have to themselves is GrrlSpot, a pop-up event hosted on the first Saturday of every month at different locations around the city. While gay men have three brick and mortar institutions at one intersection alone, lesbians in the city don’t have a single solid space, bar or otherwise.

Jenna Ard, the Co-Founder and Co-Organizer of the event, says it was created as a means of reunion for queer women who returned to the city after Hurricane Katrina. In the beginning, in 2006, there were several lesbian bars where the women could gather. Now, there are none. GrrlSpot has to make its own space.

Shelby*, a closeted lesbian who moved to New Orleans from a small town in Northern Louisiana to find a more accepting space, recounted a night of bar-hopping after Southern Decadence, an LGBT pride parade held annually in September. Of the sixteen LGBT bars in the city, not one is dedicated specifically to women. Though some of them are marketed toward the community at large, Shelby says that finding lesbians or otherwise queer women in those venues is difficult. The spaces are often packed with straight women accompanying their gay male friends, pushing queer women to the periphery. Finding single queer women is especially difficult.

On the evening of Southern Decadence, Shelby says she started her night at a small, quiet bar where she hoped to meet women. She dreamed of a club where she could avoid the leering eyes of straight men, who she says find ways to make her uncomfortable whether she’s alone or with a date.

“The bar was advertising a fundraiser event for the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling team, and it was right after Decadence, so we kind of assumed that there would be lesbians everywhere,” Shelby says. “But the music was so soft that no one was dancing, and there were only a handful of people there. My friends and I ended up leaving to look for a younger, livelier crowd, and the only place we could think to go was a gay bar.”

The group found their way to The Corner Pocket, a gay men’s club to which Shelby says she never wants to return. She remembered that the floors were sticky and the men were scantily dressed. It was far from the night of dancing and meeting women that she had envisioned. She and her friends left less than an hour after arriving.

“Besides [my friends and I], there were two women there,” says Shelby. “And they were together. It wasn’t a way to meet people. I was uncomfortable. There were so many men there.”

Clubs and bars are one of the most anonymous places for queer people to meet. Of the reasons that are proposed as to why lesbian bars have endured a steady decline in popularity in the past twenty years, very few consider the oasis that they provide for members of the community who don’t have the ability to be publicly out.

“The reason that they kind of died out was because they weren’t as necessary to meet a partner or for safety, because there are a lot more places where you can be queer and open about it and no one really cares,” Ard says. “Certainly, the climate now is a lot more accepting than it was when there were ten lesbian bars in New Orleans. You can walk down the streets in the Quarter and hold your girlfriend’s hand and you’re fine.”

Dating apps like Tinder or Her can be dangerous for closeted women, as they present the threat of digital proof of queerness. Gay men have significantly more options to subvert their visibility, even on the apps designed for them. Grindr, for example, has many users who advertise themselves as “DL”, or down-low about their sexuality. Queer women’s apps or other dating apps that offer services for women looking to pursue women are plagued by couples looking for threesomes and men hoping to ‘convert’ queer women. Between problems with misogyny and fear of being outed, Shelby says it’s best to avoid Internet dating altogether.

In the darkness of a lesbian bar, there is a safety blanket of anonymity. But there is also a familiarity that Ard says is the reason lesbian bars can’t sustain themselves. The niche is too small, she says, to host a variety of locations. A bar specifically for queer women targets less than five percent of the total population, and 23 percent of lesbians live under the poverty line. Include women who are younger than 21 or don’t drink, and suddenly a lesbian bar has no source of revenue.

“I don’t know that New Orleans could really support a brick and mortar lesbian bar,” Ard says. “Also, who’s going to go to the same bar all the time? You get tired of it. You think, ‘My ex is definitely going to be there, it looks the same, it smells the same.’ Straight people don’t have to do that, gay boys don’t have to do that. I don’t think lesbians would really be into that either.”

For that reason, Ard tries to keep GrrlSpot as eclectic and unique as she can. She changes venues every month. GrrlSpot, which she lovingly refers to as a “roving lesbian bar” instead of a pop-up event, has faced criticism for requiring a cover fee and lacking accessibility. Ard responds by saying that she has a “no queer turned away” door policy and fights to keep her events 18+.

“There’s no place for baby dykes to go except GrrlSpot,” she says. “I want people to have a place to go.”

But with only one event a month, many queer women find GrrlSpot lacking. Last Call, a New Orleans organization focused on keeping the history of lesbian bars and other spaces for queer women alive, advocates for new locations, bars or otherwise. They also provide oral histories of lesbianism in New Orleans, including stories about the last bar to close: the Rubyfruit Jungle, which shut its doors for the last time in 2012 but whose building on Decatur Street has since been the location for several GrrlSpot and other queer organizations’ events. None of them, though, have offered the steady comfort of a constant, physical lesbian bar.

Bonnie Gabel, a contributor to Last Call, found that the women who participated in the Dyke Bar History Project – with its motto of “Keeping the Legacy of New Orleans’ Lesbian Bars Alive” – had theories as to why the bars have disappeared that ranged from “women just don’t like to drink” to queer women’s tendencies to prefer homebuilding over hooking up. Many concepts regarding the death of lesbian bars are related to the U-Haul Theory, or the stereotype that lesbians move quickly into serious relationships, which Gabel described as reductive and inaccurate. As for the proposition that women drink less than men do, GrrlSpot’s continued prosperity proves otherwise.

“GrrlSpot only gets the venues that it gets and the ability to restrict those venues just to queer people and our invitees because our invitees drink a lot,” Ard says. “We basically rent the venue based on our bar sales. We show them our numbers, and they’re good enough for these bars to give us private space on their busiest night of the week.”

Perhaps there is a reason for the disappearance of lesbian bars and the exclusion of women from gay culture in New Orleans, but as of now, the paradox remains unsolved. The consensus, though, is that demand for queer women-exclusive spaces exists. Until a solution is found, Bourbon Street will continue to run rampant with gay men, and queer women will continue to stay home.

“I don’t know, there’s not just a space that’s safe for queer women,” Shelby says of the nightclub options in New Orleans. “It’s either safe for women or safe for queer people, but not both. You’re always going to be uncomfortable somewhere, so I’ve started to think it’s best to stay in.”

*This name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

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