In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the U.S. Today, there are around 21 remaining. After learning that the rapidly disappearing bars were suffering even more during the pandemic, Award-Winning Filmmaker Erica Rose felt compelled to help her community out. She co-created The Lesbian Bar Project, which resulted in a viral fundraiser and a documentary to “celebrate, support, and preserve” the remaining lesbian bars in the U.S.
Listen to learn more about why lesbian spaces are so important and her mission to save the last remaining bars.
Award-Winning Filmmaker Erica Rose
Speaker 1: (00:03)
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice, with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: (00:13)
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive. A podcast focused on inclusion, innovation, and social justice. In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the United States. Now, there are only 21 remaining. These bars, often the only safe space for lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ community, are disappearing at an alarming rate. The ones that have remained open are also struggling more than ever in the pandemic. Last year, Erica Rose, an award-winning director focused on queer and female-driven storytelling, became concerned about the future of these spaces for her community. She and fellow director, Elina Street immediately jumped into action and created The Lesbian Bar Project, which resulted in a viral fundraiser and documentary to celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the United States. Today, I’m speaking with Erica. Her films have screened at the New York Film Festival, The Tribeca Film Festival, and many more. Her film, Girl Talk has amassed over 15 million views on YouTube.
Jay Ruderman: (01:33)
Lesbian bars have been incredibly important in the filmmaker’s journey as a queer woman. When Erica moved to New York City for college in 2009, she said the famous West Village lesbian bar, Cubbyhole knew she was gay before she did. Erica, welcome to All Inclusive. Thank you for being our guest today.
Erica Rose: (01:55)
Thank you for having me. So happy to be here.
Jay Ruderman: (01:57)
So, I was able to watch The Lesbian Bar Project and I was really impressed by the quality of the filmmaking. I just want to start off by asking you on a personal level, how did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Erica Rose: (02:10)
I remember I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 10. I was raised by two therapists and they were very, very adamant on introducing me to art and culture and film. And my dad was like, “Okay, you need to be literate and Scorsese by the time you’re 12.” So I was introduced to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull probably at too young of an age, but that’s cheating either here or there. So I was kind of transfixed by filmmaking. And there weren’t that many women that I knew of that were directors. There were spattering of a couple of examples, but for the majority of my childhood, I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me behind a camera. So it wasn’t until I got to high school and kind of was doing self-education of like, oh, hey, there’s filmmakers like, Mira Nair or Sally Potter or Jane Campion who were making waves and they happen to be women.
Erica Rose: (03:15)
So from there, I was just making my own stuff completely self-taught. And then I got into NYU film school and worked my way up. And after I graduated, I had done a lot of working for other people. And basically when the pandemic hit, I knew that I needed to focus on my directing career. I had pretty much exhausted all of my energy servicing other people’s visions, and I figured it was time to service my own.
Jay Ruderman: (03:50)
Well, I really like your work. And I want to just jump into your latest work on The Lesbian Bar Project. And maybe we can start with the history of lesbian bars. From what I understood in the 1980s, there were around 200 lesbian bars. Now, there are something like 21. How did that happen?
Erica Rose: (04:14)
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason, but we’ve been able to identify a couple of mitigating factors. So, gentrification is affecting our coastal cities especially, and all businesses owned and operated by marginalized people are affected by gentrification. So lesbian bars are definitely in the midst of not being able to afford rising rents and exorbitant taxes and just all around a kind of city that doesn’t necessarily have the space for them. And so gentrification it’s like a huge issue. In general, lesbian bars never occupied the same kind of space in real estate that gay bars did. There was a brief period in the nineties, in New York, where Park Slope was called, affectionately, Dyke Slope. And it had a kind of like a lesbian epicenter, but that was really, really fleeting. So besides that, lesbians never really took up neighborhoods in the same way that gay men did. So because of that, our space was already limited. So we were working off of, existing in spaces, that were discrete or hard to find, or not necessarily completely obvious. So that definitely affects how visible and accessible these spaces are.
Erica Rose: (05:45)
Assimilation plays a huge factor into it. I think that when gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015, I think the most privileged members of our community were kind of swept away with a bit of complacency. I have the immense privilege that I can walk down the street in my neighborhood and go to a bar that’s not necessarily LGBTQ and feel safe. And that is because of the incredible work of the generations before me. But what’s lost there is that, there’s a feeling that if we accept that, if we accept that we don’t need specifically queer space, we’re essentially saying that space in general can be heteronormative or should be heteronormative and I’m against that, because that doesn’t reflect our population. Our population isn’t just straight, it isn’t just binary. And our bars are not just bars, they’re cultural epicenters and spaces for intergenerational dialogue and for queer friendship and obviously dating sometimes. And if we don’t have a space that reflects specific groups, then we lose power, we lose validity, we lose just a way of life.
Erica Rose: (07:01)
So, kind of other factors, obviously the wage gap is real. There’s not a lot of evidence that, especially white gay men have wage discrimination. It’s mostly the other members of the LGBTQ community, and obviously women make less than men, women of color make less than white women and queer women of color make even less. So, that definitely affects the amount of leisure dollars that people have to go out to the bars. A lot of queer women also are parents, so a lot of their disposable income will go to their children rather than going out to a bar.
Erica Rose: (07:42)
And then finally, I think that overall we’ve been moving to an online culture. Online dating is definitely prevalent in most of our lives, but beyond that, just like the way we shop, the way we consume food, the way we kind of consume culture, the way we kind of like navigate serious conversations and kind of meet new people is online in a lot of ways. And there’s pros and cons to that, but I think also what we lose is brick and mortar spaces in general, not just our lesbian bars, but all brick and mortar spaces are really suffering because of that.
Jay Ruderman: (08:22)
So, clear from what you said from the film that the brick and mortar space plays a really important role for the lesbian community, how do you define a lesbian bar and is it different from a gay bar or a queer bar?
Erica Rose: (08:38)
It’s a good question. Lesbian bars are spaces for all marginalized genders within the LGBTQIA community. So that’s all queer women, regardless if they’re cis or trans, non-binary people and trans men. What makes lesbian bars different and distinct from gay bars is the prioritization of those genders that I just listed. Gay bars and queer bars in general are not necessarily prioritizing queer women and their experiences. And what ends up happening is that, when I enter gay bars, for example, it’s like, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a 100% safe space for me. I think that there’s a lot of different dynamics happening between gay men and queer women, I’m not saying that it’s always a divisive relationship, but I think that there’s a lot of like kind of misogyny and internalized homophobia against queer women, which is really unfortunate, which I’ve experienced.
Erica Rose: (09:49)
But one thing that we do say in our film that’s really important is that all of our bars they identify as lesbian bars and. Like, they’ll identify as lesbian bar and queer space, because it’s really, really important that our lesbian bars open their doors for the most vulnerable members of the community. And the most vulnerable members of the community right now are trans brothers and sisters and non-binary folks. As we can see with the local legislation that’s passing throughout the Midwest and South, is that they are not a protected class and it’s unfortunate and it’s something that I think as I said earlier, our more privileged members of the community don’t necessarily have the same kind of energy and motivation to fight for trans rights because it’s like, “Okay, we got our gay marriage. We could probably stop. We can live rather safely now.” And I think that’s really disappointing because our community has always been built around activism and has been built around political organization, and we need to support each other. And if we don’t support our trans community, it does affect all of us.
Jay Ruderman: (11:11)
So, tell us about the first time you went into a lesbian bar and what that meant to you.
Erica Rose: (11:16)
So, I always like to say that Cubbyhole, the lesbian bar in Manhattan knew I was gay before I even did. I walked in in 2009 and I had been like questioning, I kind of like admitted it to myself years prior, but I had been repressing it. And the minute I walked into Cubbyhole, I was so overtaken by this palpable and tangible energy of queer women. Even 2009, which isn’t that long ago, I felt like there was such a kind of missing contingency of representation for our community. I would watch like Lisa Cholodenko movie or like the award and kind of like get that, but in terms of my day-to-day life, I hadn’t no one. And when I walked into Cubbyhole, it was almost, it was arresting, it was invigorating, it was electrifying that I not only just saw like obviously amazing, beautiful women around me, but it was more about these people who were unapologetically themselves.
Erica Rose: (12:24)
And there was queer community, there was queer friendship, which often does not get represented or talked about enough because for me, lesbian bars are far more than just a place to hook up. That’s actually rarely what they’re used for. It’s really for a place to, for me to be unapologetically myself and to be gay with my friends. And that is such a lovely and often overlooked experience. So when I walked into Cubbyhole, I knew deep down that the minute I was ready to come out, I would have a safe space to go to. And once I came out, once I started kind of living publicly as a gay woman, I found that going to lesbian bars in the city, whether it was Henrietta Hudson, Cubbyhole, Gingers, I’ve had that space to be unapologetically and unabashedly myself. And I don’t necessarily have that privilege everywhere I go.
Jay Ruderman: (13:28)
So, if hypothetically Cubbyhole or other lesbian bars in Manhattan or New York did not exist, what do you think your journey of self-acceptance would have looked like, or self-acceptance of others in their journeys would have looked like?
Erica Rose: (13:48)
It definitely wouldn’t have been as fun. I mean, I got to, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I actually often asked myself this question of like, if I didn’t go to NYU, if I didn’t live in New York, like what my coming out process would be like. I can imagine that it would have been a lonely experience. And I am really grateful that I had those spaces that I could just talk to all walks of life from, I mean, Cubbyhole’s in a very international space. When I was there, I would meet people from various countries in Europe. Like I met someone from Tunisia, I met someone from Yemen, and to talk to someone from Yemen who was a queer woman was, I was thinking to myself like, this is truly a melting pot. And that’s why these spaces are so important because I would have not necessarily gotten the opportunity to speak with her.
Erica Rose: (14:50)
So, yeah. I mean, I think that if I didn’t have these bars, I wouldn’t have given myself the opportunity to figure out who I was. And I think that a lot of times people, it’s a misconception that like, you come out once and then you’re done. I have to come out almost every day of my life, especially as someone who can appear straight-passing. I think I’ve done a pretty good job at branding myself as a queer woman, so there’s a little less of that, but I think that these spaces allowed me to kind of not only come out in a way that I was met with community, but to also figure out the nuances of who I am within the LGBTQIA community and those spaces were instrumental in that.
Jay Ruderman: (15:39)
So, tell me about when you first learned about the decline in lesbian bars in the United States, and when you learned about that, what compelled you to start The Lesbian Bar Project?
Erica Rose: (15:54)
So, as we all remember, the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020, and I had nothing but time for the first time in a while to kind of reflect on the importance of gathering, the importance of safe space. And I was on the phone a lot with my friend, Elina, and we were just kind of processing the shutdown of our industry as filmmakers, and just kind of the shutdown of our day-to-day lives. And this coincided with a couple of articles coming out about the dearth of lesbian bars in the country, how that there was only 16 or 15 left. And that really scared me. And it was a wake up call because I consider myself pretty ingrained in the community and I didn’t even know the numbers were so bad. So Elina and I spoke about it and we were like, “Okay, let’s do something about this.”
Erica Rose: (16:49)
So, she and I kind of like got our heads together and we’re like, “Let’s tell the stories of these bars as filmmakers.” So, we teamed up with a couple of producers too, and we birthed The Lesbian Bar Project. In 2020, we set out to do a PSA and we knew that we wanted it to be also branded because one, brands can pay for it, and as queer artists, we need funding. And two, it would get the kind of exposure that we knew that this project deserved. So we pitched it to a couple of brands. Obviously alcohol brands were an obvious and like symbiotic option. So we pitched to a couple brands and Jägermeister made us a wonderful offer and they were just such incredible partners to us and really believed in the project and support the queer community, not just during Pride, but every day of the year.
Erica Rose: (17:47)
So, we also teamed up with Lea DeLaria who… It was really important to us to have a voice for the community, and Lea is one of the few like out, queer women celebrities who actually still patronize the bars, like she’s a regular at Cubbyhole and she… Like, that’s like her spot. And so it was really an easy choice to go to her and say, “Hey, can you represent the project?” And she was like, “Of course.” She like, literally we sent her the offer and like 30 seconds later, we were on the phone with her. So I have never experienced that before. So we launched our PSA in October 2020. We weren’t really able to film a lot in-person because the pandemic was still raging, so we relied heavily on archival. And we released a 90-second PSA and went on to raise over $100,000 for the bars.
Erica Rose: (18:41)
One thing that we always wanted to do was, obviously we’re filmmakers, storytelling-driven first, but also we wanted to add a philanthropic element. So that’s where the money comes in with the pool fund. And we raised $117,000 that was split evenly amongst the bars. We knew that we weren’t done telling the stories of these bars, and also throughout the campaign, a couple of bars, we got a couple of emails from the community members saying like, “Oh, you might’ve missed this bar and this bar.” So we did more research. And we had done months of research prior to the release of the PSA, and there’s not many studies on or statistics on the amount of lesbian bars in the country. So we were relying on a couple of studies, a couple of articles, and a couple of just like anecdotal evidence, but they’re difficult to find.
Erica Rose: (19:36)
So, we discovered a couple more. So this year, when we decided to do The Lesbian Bar Project again, we announced a list of 21 bars. And we always say, it’s an estimated number. There’s still like new bars opening, there’s bars closing, like, it’s hard to necessarily pinpoint one number, but 21 is the closest we’ve gotten. And earlier this year in June, we released a 20-minute documentary. And this time, we introduced the world to this staggering statistic that there are a few lesbian bars left in the country. And now we wanted to tell the human stories behind these bars. So our film is through the lens of the bar owners, community activist, patrons, and archivists. And they tell the stories of not just the bars themselves, but how it affects our lesbian culture. And I think that if there’s few bars left in the country, it begs the question, do we still need them and what is the future for queer women?
Jay Ruderman: (20:37)
So, corporate investments sometimes gets a bad name, but it sounds like Jägermeister was really a good partner and came in with the best of intentions and really allowed you to get this moving forward, the project moving forward. I also wanted to just, when Lea DeLaria from the fame of Orange Is the New Black came in, do you really think that that gave your project a boost and a lot more recognition?
Erica Rose: (21:07)
Definitely. I mean, Lea is such an icon and she has an immense following, not just from Orange, but just from her body of work for the past decades. So it gave us even more credibility, which was really important to us because we wanted to cement ourselves in this [inaudible 00:21:30], and I think we were really successful in that because there are many, many people who I’ve met, who are like, “Oh, I’ve heard of your project. I’ve heard about the dwindling number of lesbian bars.” And I think a year ago that wasn’t the case. So I think we succeeded in that and Lea is a wonderful champion of these bars, and she has a big following. To your point about Jägermeister. Yeah, obviously rainbow capitalism is at play with the kind of relationship between corporations and the queer community, and I think some people are very transparent in how they kind of exploit the community for their own financial gain.
Erica Rose: (22:11)
I think Jägermeister differentiated themselves because they gave us money and supported us in October, in September and October of last year. They could have easily said like, “Oh, we’ll wait for Pride Month.” But they had also launched something called hashtag save the night, which was an initiative to help nightlife institutions and venues that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. So they did a lot of great work helping spaces stay afloat during the pandemic. And that was really attractive to us because we were like, okay, they’re actually doing the work to support the community, and I think that a lot queer people work in nightlife, a lot of nightlife people are queer, and I think that it just felt like a really good relationship. So they’re incredibly supportive, they helped fund our 20-minute film, and they’re big advocates and are some of the reason why we have so much press as well.
Jay Ruderman: (23:17)
So, you mentioned in the film about recent generations not being aware of the struggle and sacrifice that went into places like Cubbyhole, and can you tell me a little bit about the activists who actually laid the groundwork so that these spaces could exist?
Erica Rose: (23:36)
Yeah. So there’s people like Stormé DeLarverie who was arguably the first person who threw a punch at Stonewall and Lisa Cannistraci, owner of Henrietta Hudson talks about her with such reverence. They were friends, Stormé worked at the kind of original Cubbyhole, which is confusing. The original Cubbyhole is where Henrietta Hudson is now, and then they moved deeper into the West Village. So Stormé worked there and was one of the bouncers there, and was an incredible force and someone who kind of like broke gender norms during a time that that was like, there wasn’t even language for that. And then we talked to so many people who were on the front lines of the movements, whether it was in the seventies or the nineties, which we kind of saw that resurgence of like the Lesbian Chic Movement.
Erica Rose: (24:40)
One thing to note is that lesbian bars had a divisive history. I think that there’s a lot of cases where these bars were discriminatory against women of color. We talked about that in the film, for example, the bar, Bonnie and Clyde on one hand, the owner, Elaine Romagnoli was revolutionary in the sense that she was able to own and operate a bar in the 1970s as a single woman. Women weren’t even allowed, as a lot of us know, weren’t even allowed to get a line of credit without the approval of their husbands or fathers, let alone a liquor license. So there was something incredibly admirable about what she did. But on the other hand, her bar had a race-based quota, and they would allow like two or three black women into their doors. And during brunch service on a Sunday, black women were served different food than their white counterparts.
Erica Rose: (25:41)
So in response to that, folks like Audre Lorde were part of the organizing founding members of the Salsa Soul Sisters, which is the first black and Latina lesbian organization in the country. So we felt it was really important to talk about them in our film, because that is part of lesbian bar culture. And they weren’t able to necessarily occupy space in the same way that white women were in terms of traditional bar settings, but the spaces where they were able to occupy served the same purpose that the lesbian bars brick and mortar spaces did. So we spoke to a lot of members of the Salsa Soul Sisters, and then we also, like some folks that we didn’t get to include in the film, like for example, Leslie Cohen who was one of the founding members of Sahara, a kind of pivotal bar in the 1970s in New York.
Erica Rose: (26:38)
And she talked a lot about how the bars were often mob-run and she wasn’t able to get a liquor license and she wasn’t even able to sign a lease. And she was an unmarried woman, an unmarried gay woman, and she had to, I mean, she’s speaks about how ridiculous this is, but like, the closest male relative she had was her brother who was unfortunately at the time institutionalized. So he was able to sign on her behalf, but if you look at it in a vacuum, it’s completely ridiculous that she wasn’t able to sign on her own behalf for a liquor license for a lease when she was able to function and her brother was sick. So, we talked to her and she was, Sahara had to close four years into its lifespan and she was part of the movement to kind of start the queer party scene. So yeah, I mean, those were kind of a couple, there’s so many more people I’m leaving out, but there’s just so many different aspects of the community that we don’t even have time to talk about, which is unfortunate.
Jay Ruderman: (27:54)
Well, I know that that one of the bars that is featured in The Lesbian Bar Project is a bar called Herz in Mobile, Alabama run by two African-American women, which is fairly unique, because you make the point in the film that there are almost no bars except for that one and maybe another one that is run by black or brown women. Can you talk a little bit about that? And I mean, to own a bar in Mobile, Alabama, where there’s so much homophobia, that must be a difficult business to run, but maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
Erica Rose: (28:35)
So, when we met Rachel, Sheila Smallman, the owners of Herz, it was like love at first sight. They have such a effervescent energy and they are just wonderful, wonderful human beings. And we’re obsessed with them and they’re obsessed with us and it’s like a mutual love that’s really exciting, but when we first started talking to them it was really interesting to us, we knew we needed to go down to Mobile because of what you’re saying, because they are the only lesbian bar on our list that is owned and operated by black women. And one thing that they talk about is that they started the bar as a reaction to feeling discriminated, not just by heterosexual people, but by gay men in the south as well.
Erica Rose: (29:24)
And I think that in the south and in spaces that are not coastal cities in the United States, these bars are really melting pots for the entire community, because there is such a lack of safety in many of the spaces. Like, I talk about how in Brooklyn, New York, I could walk down the street into a bar and hold my girlfriend’s hand and feel okay, but that’s not necessarily true of a space in the south or the Midwest.
Erica Rose: (29:54)
I think one thing that was important though, is that Mobile, Alabama is a really dynamic and nuanced city. I, kind of my expectations were definitely different than what I experienced, granted I was surrounded by queer people because we were following a lesbian bar in Mobile. But I think that there’s definitely a really loud and active vocal contingency of people who are accepting, who are, not just for people, but are allies who are trying to make change and difference there. So I think that it’s not monolithic and that’s really important, but yeah. I mean, Rachel and Sheila are defying a lot of odds by opening that space. I mean, Herz is an electric space. Everyone there is greeted with a hug, Sheila walks people to their cars to ensure safety, the staff is incredibly welcoming. It really is like a home away from home. And that was what we wanted to capture when we were filming. It’s a space where the community can gather and be themselves where they might not necessarily be able to in their day-to-day lives.
Jay Ruderman: (31:10)
So, Erica, can you talk a little bit about your own personal activism in the LGBTQ community and maybe how do you believe that younger generations can or will become more involved?
Erica Rose: (31:24)
Yeah. So, I think that there’s definitely a generational gap. There’s kind of an older guard that talks about, which we point out in our film, that younger generations don’t know what we went through. And that’s something that it’s important for us to listen and to educate ourselves as younger people about really what older, queer people went through in order to have the rights that we do today. On the flip side of that, I think that, and once again, this is more anecdotal than anything, but I think that there’s a, kind of sometimes a resentment from older generations about the nuances in language, the nuances in gender expression identity that has emerged in the past 10 years.
Erica Rose: (32:16)
And I think that older generations can learn something from us too, and learn something that they’re… We don’t have to be so militant in our definition of, for example, lesbianism. Like, I make the point throughout my life that I, yes, I identify as lesbian, I identify as gay, I identify as queer, but I think that many people can use that label of lesbian and it doesn’t mean that it’s just a cis woman who’s only attracted to others as women. I think that there’s more room for different kinds of people to use that label. And that’s beautiful. I think that, one thing we tracked in our film is this disparity between kind of like an older guard of like what it means to be a gay person and have queer space, versus what our current generation means.
Erica Rose: (33:10)
Henrietta Hudson changed their logo after 30 years. And it was more of like a fem presenting person and then it changed to something that is gender inclusive, and there was backlash. I mean, Henrietta Hudson got backlash on Instagram, we got backlash for including them in our campaign, Henrietta Hudson started identifying as a queer human bar built by lesbians. And for us, that’s still not our definition of a lesbian bar. And I think that there were certain people who felt really, really disappointed and felt betrayed because they felt that the women-only spaces were disappearing, and one of the few institutions that still kind of identified as a women-centered space was now using gender-inclusive labels and logos.
Erica Rose: (34:02)
And Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta Hudson had the best response I’ve ever heard to that complaint. She said, “You thought 10, 20, 30 years ago that you were in a women-only space, a gay women-only space, but you were wrong. There were trans men there, there were non-binary people there, there were bisexual and pansexual people there. Those people have always been part of the lesbian community. And now we have the language to include them. And we have the language to make them feel seen and not make them feel isolated.” And as I said earlier, I think that we can do better than our gay male counterparts. We can do better than kind of the more privileged members of the community, where we can open our doors to many different kinds of people. And I think that it’s a responsibility and a wonderful gift that lesbian bars can give to the community.
Jay Ruderman: (34:58)
So, let’s talk a little bit about allyship. And do you feel it’s important to have non-queer allies in the effort to save these bars in general?
Erica Rose: (35:08)
That’s a really good question. And I think that one thing that we just need to talk about in general is that most of these bars survive because of allyship. As I stated before, the wage cap is absolutely devastating and most of these borrowers rely on allies and straight people to come to their bars and spend money. I think that they can’t, especially lesbian bars can’t survive on just queer populations patronizing their spaces. I do however think that there’s a way to support lesbian bars and to support gay bars and queer spaces without overtaking the space. So for example, a lot of the gay bars have banned straight bachelor parties. I find that completely inappropriate, it’s like you’re, kind of like flaunt your heteronormativity in a space that has fought to kind of like counteract that, and I think that it’s really important that when you are a straight ally, when you come into a space that’s not made for you, you’re a guest and you have to be deferential to the people that are prioritized in that space.
Erica Rose: (36:18)
So, for example, it’s not… Like, I think that a way to support it, it’s like, spend your money there, buy drinks, hang out with your queer friends, maybe don’t throw a bachelorette party at a gay space if you’re a straight person, maybe don’t kind of like invite a bunch of straight people into that space and kind of like occupy and take up room that would have… So that means that people can’t access it. And one thing is like, be really mindful of not harassing queer women. There’s unfortunately a lot of cases where straight men will come into lesbian spaces and like harass and sexualize us. And at the end of the day, that’s like a bigger systemic issue that a lot of straight men feel that queer women’s sexuality is for them and made for them as a presentation to them, and that’s completely untrue, and we exist as people outside of their gaze.
Erica Rose: (37:19)
So I think that it’s… I’m not advocating for exclusionary practices in any regard. I think that there’s no check at the door of like, who are you? You can’t be here. I’m actually pretty against spaces, like how the [inaudible 00:37:38] operated, that was women only. Like I’m pretty against that. Like, I don’t think that there should be mandates at the door about like which genders are allowed into a space. I do think, however, that if you know you’re, as a straight ally, if you know you’re walking into a queer women’s space that you need to realize that, and that you’re not their priority there.
Jay Ruderman: (38:02)
So, during the making of the film, what surprised you the most that you learned about lesbian bars and maybe you could give us a favorite story from the bars that you visited?
Erica Rose: (38:16)
One of the things that surprised me actually was a bar from the past, Meow Mix, that we covered in the film briefly. And it was around in the nineties, in the lower east side. And obviously I knew that queer bars and queer establishment had a really complicated and often turbulent relationship with the police, but one thing that was interesting talking to Brooke Webster, who was the owner of Meow Mix, is that Giuliani’s administration was actually kind of their biggest foe in terms of their own kind of survival. Basically, there was mandates and there was laws and legislation that was passed to be predatorial to marginalized business owners and that serviced marginalized people. So like, there’d be like code violations that were completely insane, that would essentially enact a shut down. So one thing that she had to navigate there was like kind of this kind of whisper network of people who were in nightlife spaces, that’d be like, “Oh, someone from the mayor’s office is here.” Or like, “Do X, Y, Z.”
Erica Rose: (39:28)
So what they would essentially do is the mayor’s office would give so many fines to certain bars that they had to shut their doors. And they thought that that was something that like, Giuliani talked a lot about his like cleanup efforts and his cleanup efforts were in a lot of ways, just like completely try to erase marginalized people, whether they are people of color or queer people or women centric-spaces. So that was like really interesting to learn. Obviously I knew his administration was completely unfavorable and completely violent towards a lot of marginalized people, but to kind of learn the specifics of how they kind of shut down these spaces was interesting. And then I think learning about, as we talked about earlier, just like truly how egregiously racist some of these bars could be. I obviously knew that there was racism in our spaces, but to learn specifically that there were race-based quotas at the door, to me was really disturbing and something that we need to start talking about as a community.
Erica Rose: (40:38)
And I think that there’s still numerous reparations to be done in order to make queer women of color feel safe in lesbian bars and feel welcome in lesbian bars. Our goal for the future of The Lesbian Bar Project is to tell more of the stories of these bars and kind of go outside of the parameters we set in the 20-minute film. And a lot of the bars we’ve talked to just like throughout the process, the owners have like amazing stories like Audrey Corley on her Boycott Bar in Phoenix talks about how she bought her first bar for $3 and has this insane story of how she was able to do that. And I think that these… Like, we’re really excited to kind of continue the project to tell more of these stories behind the bars.
Jay Ruderman: (41:24)
So, let’s talk a little bit about how people, I know that The Lesbian Bar Project is available to view for free. Maybe you could talk about how people can access that. And also, I know you did a fundraiser and it was successful. Are you continuing to raise funds to help these bars?
Erica Rose: (41:46)
So, people can watch the film for free going to lesbianbarproject.com. It’s also on the Jägermeister YouTube page, global YouTube page, and it’s 20 minutes and feel free to watch and enjoy. People can also follow along the project on our Instagram, which is @lesbianbarproject. We did another fundraising campaign this past Pride. We’re also announcing, tomorrow, a new partnership with the dating app, Hinge. So they are raising awareness and giving funds to The Lesbian Bar Project, which is really exciting that will go to the pool fund for the bars, making a contribution. So basically after our partnership with them and around Labor Day, we’re going to announce our total number raised, but we were able to raise over $100,000 again, for the bars, which is really exciting. So our grand total for the money we raised during the pandemic will be over $200,000, which is incredible. And we’re really excited about that.
Erica Rose: (43:00)
We’ll be announcing specific numbers around Labor Day. And in terms of more fundraising, I think the goal right now is to get people to go to the bars. That’s always been a goal of mine and Elina’s is to say like, “Hey, please go to the bars.” You can give money to us, but the most important thing is support our bars. Show up for your bars. We literally say that at the end of the film, and we’re actively working on turning this into an episodic docuseries. So that’s our priority right now.
Jay Ruderman: (43:33)
So, I know one of the goals is to help these bars that exist to continue to survive. Do you feel that your project will lead to more bars opening across the country?
Erica Rose: (43:46)
Yes. We’re actually already seeing that. We followed Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike, who are opening As You Are Bar, it was really important to us to follow a new space that’s opening, because often how we talk about lesbian bars is through loss, disappearance, and trauma. And it was really important to us to show like, “Hey, here’s a new lesbian and queer space that’s opening that is filled with optimism and filled with excitement.” And we’re getting so many messages from people around the country, opening new lesbian bars. There’s a spot in Astoria that’s trying to open right now called Dave’s. There’s a spot in LA called Hot Donna’s, that’s trying to open. And so we’re really excited and I think that there’s going to be a lot more in our future and I can’t wait to go to those spaces and to witness them.
Jay Ruderman: (44:37)
And maybe you could talk about what you learned about yourself through this whole journey of making the film. I know there were very many emotional moments. I saw an interview you did on PBS News Hour in which people were writing back comments that were making you extremely emotional. So, maybe you can talk about like, what the whole project did for you personally.
Erica Rose: (45:07)
I love this question. No one has actually ever asked me this question. I think that it did so much. I mean, it made me feel whole again. It made me feel a purpose and I’m just so excited that I can showcase this… As a filmmaker, my goal was always to tell stories that are overlooked or forgotten or unseen. And I think that Elina and I set out to tell the stories of these bars, and it’s just really, really exciting that we’re getting so much positive feedback and that people are learning something, but also feel celebrated. And I think that it’s so, as I said earlier, a lot of times we talk about gay experience as that of trauma. And I think it’s, to me, it was really important to show the beauty and the passion and the optimism and the excitement that’s within us. And I think that was really important to do that, especially as this pandemic keeps raging on.
Erica Rose: (46:13)
Yeah. I mean, I think that we have stories like Blush & Blu in Denver, they told us and they like went on a couple of interviews and said this, that they wouldn’t have been able to survive without us. And I’m like, “Oh my God, we didn’t set out to like save any bars.” We knew that we didn’t necessarily have the tools to do that, but the fact that we were able to keep these doors open for at least a couple of more months, to me just feels like an honor of a lifetime. So I’m really excited to keep on pushing through for the community, and I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us.
Jay Ruderman: (46:53)
Well, thank you so much. I just want to leave with telling our audience different things that they can do to support what you’re doing. We said go and watch, and I’ve watched it and I would recommend anyone to watch it because I think it’s a very well-done piece of film with a strong message, The Lesbian Bar Project. Anything else that people can do if they want to get involved and contribute and help lesbian bars to continue in the United States?
Erica Rose: (47:27)
Go to our website. There’s a map of the United States. And we show where every lesbian bar is located. Show up for your bars. Our pool fund is closed. And thank you for everyone who donated this year, but for now, what folks can do, watch our film, support us on social media, and show up for your bars.
Jay Ruderman: (47:48)
Erica, it’s been such a pleasure speaking to you. I think your activism has been extremely impactful and will continue to be impactful and really appreciate having you as my guest today.
Erica Rose: (48:00)
Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.
Speaker 1: (48:07)
All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.