Why America’s Lesbian Bars Need Our Support More Than Ever: Women Who Travel Podcast

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Throughout the last year and a half, we’ve watched as beloved bars, restaurants, and gathering places have closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as writer Samantha Allen says on this week’s episode, that wave of closures has been ongoing for years within the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, there are just over 15 lesbian bars remaining in the U.S., according to the Lesbian Bar Project, an effort to record and protect lesbian bars that’s being spearheaded by filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose. (Editor’s note: Since recording, the project has updated the number of U.S. lesbian bars to 21.)

To talk about how lesbian bars and queer spaces have fared during the pandemic and what is needed in the future to keep them around, we’re joined by Allen and Lisa Menichino, owner of Cubbyhole, one of New York City’s three remaining lesbian bars. One major takeaway? “You have to come,” says Menichino of post-pandemic visits to bars like Cubbyhole. “You have to support us. You have to be there. Because we’re not magically going to be around without you.”

Thanks to Samantha and Lisa for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.

Read a full transcription below.

Meredith Carey: Hi everyone. And welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. I’m Meredith Carey. And with me as always is my co-host Lale Arikoglu.

LA: Hello.

MC: According to the Lesbian Bar Project, which works to catalog and protect lesbian bars, there are just over 15 left across the U.S. The bars, which serve as a safe space for the larger LGBTQ+ community to gather, have been hit hard by the pandemic. To talk about their importance and a way forward, we’re joined by Lisa Menichino, owner of Cubbyhole, one of New York City’s three remaining lesbian bars and Samantha Allen, Traveler contributor and author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Lisa Menichino: Thank you.

LA: To start off. I actually just want to ask quite a simple question, which is what place have lesbian bars served in your lives over the years?

LM: When I first came out, back [in the] early ’90s, the lesbian bar was really the only place you can go to meet anyone romantically or socially. And so that’s the way lesbian bars were important to me. It’s changed since then with the advent of technology and our assimilation, being accepted in the broader community. I think the need for a lesbian bar to socialize with people like you is different because now you can go, a lot of people are out at work—at least in the major cosmopolitan cities anyway—a lot of people are at work. You can go to a straight bar and meet someone. I mean, people are less in the closet. So the lesbian bar is now just a place where you go before a date or after a date or just to socialize with other people like you. So it’s changed a bit from what it meant to me back then.

LA: Out of interest back then, in the ’90s, what was the place that meant something to you?

LM: Well, even before I worked in Cubbyhole, Cubbyhole became Cubbyhole in 1994, but it was called DT’s Fat Cat. So I used to come, it was a year before it changed to Cubbyhole. So I came to DT’s Fat Cat first, and then the year after I used to come to Cubbyhole. Not just because it’s mine now, but I always loved Cubbyhole. It was just always friendlier I found. But I remember back then, there were so many places to go. You had so many choices and it just does my head in that there’s only 15, 16 left. And when I first, I was 21, and the first lesbian bar that I went to is now a Starbucks. I forget what it was called—it’s either called the Duchess or Pandora’s Box or something—but it closed. And it’s a Starbucks now.

MC: And Samantha, what has your experience with lesbian bars and queer spaces been like throughout your life?

Samantha Allen: Yeah. So I’m an openly trans woman. I came out in my mid 20s. The first time I ever went to a lesbian bar, I was deep in the closet. All of my friends in college were lesbians and queer women, which maybe should have been a clue. They took me to Henrietta Hudson one night, I believe. And that was shell shocked… I come from a conservative Mormon upbringing. That was my shell shocked exposure to life differently ordered. I got to see queer people, especially queer women, just being themselves and being themselves in a world that we had built for ourselves. And when I finally came out a few years after that eye-opening experience, I met my wife who is a cis woman in an elevator in Bloomington, Indiana, of all places. We were both studying at the Kinsey Institute. And I was pretty early in my transition at that point. And we ended up spending a lot of time at the Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana, which is this fantastic queer bar in the middle of Indiana.

And to me, at that very anxious early stage of my transition and navigating this queer relationship that was still new to me, being newly out, and figuring out how to relate to my wife, not through a heterosexual lens, but through the lens of both of us being women, having a place like the Back Door was so important, to have that physical space to just be and be around people and see that it was okay to be me.

LA: I’m obsessed that you met in an elevator.

SA: I always joke that we can never break up because our meet-cute story is just too good.

MC: It’s too good. Obviously the last 15 months have been a lot different for a lot of restaurants, bars, and stores across the country. Lisa, what has the last 15 months looked like at Cubbyhole?

LM: It’s looking good now since I last opened, but when this first happened, I mean, it was devastating. The previous owner of Cubbyhole had this thing where we were open 365 days a year, seven days a week, never ever closed. Through 9/11, through Sandy, blackouts, blizzards, even if it was just for a couple of hours, we always stayed open so that the community, if they were experiencing any environmental anxieties, would have a place to go and feel comfortable. The fact that on March 16, 2020 we had to close our doors for the first time in 27 years, it’s hard to describe the emotional devastation that I felt. And no one could say when we were going to open, when it was going to happen. And so all that went through my head was, what am I going to do? The previous owners always taught me you have to put away two months’ savings for a rainy day, whatever. Which I did. But they were saying, this is going to go on a year, year and a half. I was like how am I going to do this?

And I went into a self-pity brooding mode where I was in bed until six. And then I come out and then I pour myself a bourbon and I get these popsicles and I’d stick the Popsicle in the bourbon and I’d suck it up. And then I just brew. I did that for a good two weeks.

And then I started getting these messages from my staff. I have wonderful staff and I always knew Cubby was special to people, but the messages I was getting were “Cubby was where I had my first kiss,” “Cubby is where I met my husband,” “where I met my wife.” “When my dad died, I went to Cubby because I knew that I’d find support there.” “I just celebrated my 25th anniversary there.” “Cubby was the last place I went with my wife before she passed away.” And then I get funny ones, like “I was the one that clogged up your sink at Pride five years ago and I should’ve told you, and I’m sorry.” And it got me out of my funk. And it was like, okay, I got to figure out a way to save this. I mean, it’s too important to me. It’s too important to the community. I got to get myself together and do it. And so that’s what I did. With the help of my staff, we started the GoFundMe and we did.

LA: Was there a point where you started to feel like you were turning a corner and you started to feel hopeful again for the future of Cubbyhole?

LM: Yeah, but interestingly enough, it didn’t happen when I first opened. After March, we were closed until the beginning of August because we were starting from scratch and we have no kitchen. There was no food, we have no outdoor anything. So I had to find, on a budget, all this stuff to serve people outdoors in a very small space. And they kept changing the rules. I would buy a nacho machine and then nachos weren’t considered food. And then I’d buy a pretzel machine and pretzels weren’t considered food. And then finally, I bought a hot dog machine. I was like, hotdogs have to be food. It’s all in there. I mean, come on, you can’t say hotdog’s not a food. So I got hot dogs and I got these little Uncrustable peanut butter and jellies.

But it was so strict when we first opened, with every single little rule having to be adhered to otherwise you’d get a violation and all this. So it was an added stress. And then I had wanted to stay open throughout, but I couldn’t get the heating so I had to close again December 14th. But after that closure, I had a different attitude than I did in March. I knew that I was going to open again—and I knew that people were there to help me. And I hadn’t realized that people really wanted to help me to do whatever I needed to do. And so I had a regular customer as a carpenter and she got her lesbian carpenter friends, and they came by and they built the Cubbyhut, which is my outdoor [area]. And then I found inexpensive furniture that matches. And then they started relaxing the rules. I was able to open again at the beginning of April. And it’s been fantastic for what it is. I still can’t have people inside but I feel like that’s coming and there’s a big light at the end of the tunnel.

SA: I would like to defend pretzels and nachos as food.

LM: I mean they’re food to me, they’re even breakfast to me on some nights.

LA: Anyone who’s drunkenly scarfed down a huge plate of nachos, knows that nachos are a food and a sustenance.

MC: An essential food. Samantha, you’ve been doing a lot of reporting on lesbian bars, including Lisa’s over the past few months. What is the response that you’ve been seeing across the country from both bar owners and regulars, trying to support these spaces and make sure they make it out on the other side?

SA: Yeah. So over at them.us, my colleague Nico Lang spearheaded, this amazing project called the Queer Spaces Project, where we’ve been cataloging the ways in which LGBTQ bars and cafes and restaurants have been trying to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic isn’t the first challenge, obviously, that these spaces are facing. I believe somewhere close to 40 percent of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs have closed between 2007 and 2019. Rent is skyrocketing. And in a lot of places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, it’s getting harder and harder to afford those rents. And we need more community support for places to be able to stay in business. But what we’ve been seeing is that queer folks are resilient and through the pandemic GoFundMes, crowdfunding efforts, merchandise sales take out sales, here in Seattle, the Wildrose I believe has fittingly been serving tacos for take out. Through those measures, a lot of places have been able to stay afloat and make it to this crucial moment where they can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

LM: It’s hard. In order to make it, you really had to reinvent and you had to do it quickly and you had to figure it out and so many frustrations and you just had to just march through and keep it going. I know a lot of people that just decided they weren’t going to open again until it was all over. And they ended up not being able to open again or having to sell. And I’m talking in general—not just lesbian, gay [bars] but especially lesbian, gay bars.

MC: With that pivot that you’re mentioning, have either of you seen queer spaces or lesbian bars do things during the pandemic that you wish had come earlier and had stayed, like things that were exciting that were attempted during this time that you hope stick around?

LM: The food thing, as soon as the governor said that we don’t have to serve food anymore with alcohol, I wrapped up that hot dog machine. It’s in the basement and I don’t want to see it again. The thing that I do like is actually the Cubbyhut, which is our outdoors, what I call our outdoor enclosure or roadway seating. And once we open, it can have people inside. I don’t know that I’m going to have as many tables outside, but I would like to keep some because it’s really nice, especially a nice summer night or spring night or fall. It’s really a nice feeling. It’s really a good vibe. And I didn’t think about that when I was putting it together the first time, but now the second time that I opened and I’m able to relax a little bit, I noticed how nice it actually is, very European.

LA: I feel like we can’t dial it back now. We’ve been treated to alfresco dining for too long now. So staying on the subject of pivoting for a little longer, obviously, as we’ve been saying, lots of bars and clubs have been forced to pivot in order to stay afloat, whether that’s through limited outdoor seating or virtual events, but there are some experiences that can’t really be recreated. What do you think the communities of lesbian bars and queer spaces have been deprived of during this time that just couldn’t be recreated in the same way?

LM: Well, I can only speak for Cubby. Cubby, because it’s so small and popular, knock wood, the whole idea of social distancing is anathema to it. So when people are in here, we have a jukebox and people are near each other. That’s the whole point. It’s so friendly. And you can talk to the person next to you.. There’s no way to recreate that. I mean, as nice as being outside is, you can’t create that closeness that you did in the bar, at least that’s the way it was with Cubby.

SA: I mean, I think about this, not just in the context of the pandemic, but in where we’re at generally with the vanishing of physical LGBTQ spaces. And I’m in my mid-30s now. I feel fortunate to be in this generation where I had access both to online communities that helped me understand my identity and come out—but then once I got to that place, there were physical places for me to go and be around the community and experience that closeness and that proximity that Lisa is talking about. That’s so important. And for me, I think a lot of young folks coming of age during this pandemic might be coming to that place where they’re understanding themselves and then they’re trying to go be around people like them, and they can’t because they’re closed or because the space just doesn’t exist anymore. And I worry about that going into the future. I mean, all of the amazing digital tools that we have for connecting with each other online are fantastic. But I think you can’t replace the value of being able to just go be next to people and safely breathe the same air.

LM: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, lesbian bars, their historical significance and there’s always been a connectivity between lesbian bars and the celebration of our identities. And it would be a tragedy to lose that. No matter how the circumstances change around us, we still need that. You still need a place to go where there’s others like you and to be out and loud and proud and all that.

MC: Talking about support, people have been pretty active when it comes to supporting small businesses during the pandemic. And you mentioned the GoFundMe, Lisa, for Cubbyhole earlier, but as we start traveling again, I think it’s very easy for all of us to fall into the mindset that everything’s open and everything’s okay now. And that small businesses have made it to the other side, so they’ll make it beyond that. But the reality is that recovery and just maintaining what things were like before is a long road. How should we be supporting queer spaces and lesbian bars in a long-term way as life returns to some semblance of normal?

LM: You have to come. You have to come to them. That’s the most important thing. Samantha, you were saying that the young people coming out may not have [a space to go], because these places are disappearing. The other side of the coin with that is that I think a lot of lesbians looked at these spaces as old friends. They’ll be there when you need them. But they stop necessarily supporting them regularly the way they used to. And it could be for legitimate reasons—you get married, you have children, you get busy with work. I don’t think they make the connection that they’re the sustenance. You have to come. You have to support us. You have to be there. Because we’re not magically going to be around without you.

SA: Yeah. My motto when it comes to supporting small business, especially LGBTQ small businesses, especially lesbian businesses, is if you want to see it, you have to support it. You have to go, as Lisa’s saying. I think there has been a bit of taking for granted that these spaces are there. I think sometimes when things accrue a certain historical or monumental or iconographic significance, people just assume that they’re permanent, that they’re just going to be there and which is not the case. And so as these places reopen, you need to go and you need to go and show support, bring friends, order two drinks instead of one, order a hot dog if they’re still selling hot dogs. Just anything you can. Lisa’s shaking her head no. But you need to redouble that support because many of these places have back rent that they’re going to have to make up. Reopening is not going to be enough. You need to help reopen and amplify your support. They’re not just going to stick around magically.

LM: Yeah. I mean, since we have been closed it’s ironic in a way. The bar being in disuse, a lot of it actually contributed to its breakdown and things that need to be repaired more than when we were using it. And so, as you can imagine that costs a lot of money to start repairing them. The floor is, I don’t know what’s up with our floor, but I’ve noticed that it’s getting more and more uneven. And it’s funny when we were open, I never noticed that before. And then I have to have it fixed. There’s all sorts of expenses that I think the general population doesn’t—unless they’re running a business—realize what there is and being closed for a long time and neglecting those things, it’s going to take a while to get back.

LA: To that point when it comes to actually getting out your wallet and spending your money at these places, at these small businesses, I would say that, I assume, extends to when you’re visiting other cities too. And it’s about being proactive about finding other bars and spaces that you can support other than the one that you rely on in your own city. Right?

SA: When my wife and I traveled, similarly, we liked to look up an LGBTQ space we can go to. We work it into an itinerary, even if we normally wouldn’t otherwise, and often turns into a highlight of the vacation. I remember we were in Reykjavik in Iceland, actually, and we ended up watching a Drag Race watch-along in Iceland, one night of our vacation. And it’s just an easy, simple way that you can show support for the community and make memories that you might not have been expecting to make.

MC: Are there any specific queer spaces or lesbian bars across the country that you guys want to shout out—obviously, besides Cubbyhole—that you really enjoy and want other people, including our listeners, to check out when they are traveling around?

LM: In Washington, A League Of Her Own, that was a lot of fun. That place. So I’d send a shout out there.

SA: I’m going to echo the A League Of Her Own shout out. I really want to get there because my good friend, Laurel, when she was living in D.C., it was kind of a second home to her. It seems a really great friendly family, lesbian family experience, and also a place where you can just have a lot of fun. And I’m going to shout out The Back Door again in Bloomington, Indiana. That place has such a special place in my heart. And I want to see it continue being amazing and giving Indiana a little taste of Studio 54.

MC: I love that. Well, thank you guys so much for sharing your experiences and your suggestions. If people want to keep up with what you’re doing on the internet, Lisa, where can they find you and Cubbyhole?

LM: The best place to get us is on Instagram. So @cubbyholebar on Instagram has everything, everything you need to know.

MC: And Samantha, how about you?

SA: You can find me on Twitter @SLAwrites and you can read some of the stuff I write and edit at them.us and especially go look up the Queer Spaces Project where Nico Lang and a bunch of them.us contributors have been cataloging a lot of what we’ve been talking about today.

LM: Oh, can I also just mention the Lesbian Bar Project, which really brought a lot of attention to this as well. It’s two women Elina Street and Erica Rose who did this documentary. And if you go to their lesbianbarproject.com, you can donate and most of that money goes to support the remaining lesbian bars. And there’s one documentary, and now there’s another one coming out about it.

MC: Amazing. We’ll be sure to link Samantha’s work with them and also the Lesbian Bar Project and all of their amazing work in the show notes. You can find me @ohheytheremere.

LA: And me @lalehannah.

MC: Be sure to follow Women Who Travel on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter. Thank you both again for joining us and we’ll talk to everyone else next week.

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