“There was a time when we weren’t allowed to let customers dance,” Audrey Corley said the other day. “Can you imagine that? A lesbian bar where you were telling people, ‘Don’t dance. Just sit in your chair and listen to the music.’ But that’s how strict the rules were for a while there.”
Corley, who owns lesbian club Boycott Bar (4301 North Seventh Avenue), wasn't talking about the dark ages of queer bar culture. She was remembering how things went earlier this year, once pandemic restrictions were finally lifted, and she was able to reopen her bar.
Like many local businesses, Boycott was hurt financially by the pandemic shutdowns. “I won’t lie,” Corley said. “As soon as we were allowed to open back up, we did. I didn’t have the financial freedom to stay closed.”
Once she was able to open, a lot of her customers were uncomfortable. “We were open, but everyone was scared of getting sick. Also, they were mad about the no-dancing thing. I was mad, too, because our governor let restaurants open first, before bars. So our customers started going to restaurants with bars in them, and we just went on losing money.”
Boycott wasn't alone in that. Things are bad for the few remaining women’s bars in the U.S., according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraising and awareness venture that raised more than $100,000 for gay women’s bars during recent pandemic-related shutdowns. Most of these places were unable to access government assistance and had to scramble to survive. “One of our customers seen the campaign and reached out to them,” Corley said of signing up for dues-free support from the project. “They’ve been reassuring us that we should hang on, because the community needs us.”
Boycott Bar, which reopened for business in August 2020, began as a roaming party, Corley said. “There was no real nice places for women to go. I think there was one girls’ bar at the time. Maybe two. But they weren’t upscale. We wanted something more upscale, so we did this roaming party thing for a long time, then in 2017 we opened up in a permanent spot on Seventh Avenue.”
According to a report from the Lesbian Bar Project, there are 90 percent fewer lesbian bars in the U.S. than there were in the 1980s. Boycott is one of only 21 bars that identify themselves as "lesbian bars" currently in business. That, Corley believes, is both a good thing and a bad thing.
“Fewer bars means we’re more comfortable being ourselves out in the world,” she thought. “Lesbians are feeling good in their own skin. Still, we need to keep our spaces for the rest of the people who maybe aren’t feeling safe yet, you know, just going places around straight people.”
She understands why fewer people needed a safe space to meet. Dating apps were the norm, and the world was evolving into a place where same-sex dating wasn’t such a big deal anymore. She remembers how, before there were internet dating sites, you either met someone in a bar or relied on personal ads in the newspaper. Sometimes, she admitted, she felt old and a little out of it.
“The younger generation are changing their mindset,” she said. “They’re more open-minded, more — how do you say it? More queer-centric. They don’t care about gender. They don’t really give a shit what you do in bed, and that’s great. It’s the fruits of our labors, so to speak. We fought for what we didn’t have, and now they have it. A freer world. And dating apps.”
One of those apps, Hinge, has partnered with the Lesbian Bar Project to offer stimulus checks to places like Boycott Bar, and to encourage queer singles who meet on Hinge to go on a date at a lesbian bar. (So far, Corley admitted, she hadn't received a stimulus check from either Hinge or the Project.)
Even though they aren't necessary in the way they used to be, Corley insisted, lesbian bars are still important. She’s been thinking lately about people who don’t have a community or a support system outside of a bar.
“You forget that some people don’t have a family they can turn to,” she said. “We’re family for those people — the youth who get kicked out of the house for being gay. I was in a hurry to reopen the bar for those people, not just because I had bills to pay. We serve alcohol, but we’re a place where you can build a community.”
Corley doesn't believe for a minute that dating apps or a kinder world would make gay bars unnecessary.
“It’s a beautiful thing that the world is more inclusive, but you have to protect the safe spaces,” was her take on things. “Gay bars are part of our history, and if we don’t keep our history alive, we’re going to just forget the journey that got us here.”