In the 1980s, lesbian bars around the United States numbered in the 200s. Today, only 21 remain. They don’t all cater exclusively to gay women, but such places have long been cherished by lesbians as safe spaces. One of them, the Greenwich Village landmark Cubbyhole, which opened its doors at the corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets in 1994, is featured in a short film, “The Lesbian Bar Project,” by Boston and Martha’s Vineyard natives Erica Rose and Elina Street.
As pandemic lockdowns claimed thousands of restaurants and bars around the country, Cubbyhole managed to hang on — with a little help from its many friends. I spoke with owner Lisa Menichino, who is featured in the short film, about beating the odds for the bar’s survival, and about what the dwindling number of lesbian bars means to a movement that seeks, but that does not yet fully enjoy, equality.
There’s a certain solemnity to finding out how few spaces we have left. Way back in the ’90s, when I first came out, there were so many places for women to go. There were lesbian bars and one-night-a-week parties, like we see today with Hot Rabbit, which hosts the “biggest queer dance parties in New York” at alternating clubs and bars, and The Woods, a straight bar that hosts a lesbian night on Wednesdays. Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson, and Ginger’s are New York’s three remaining lesbian-owned bars. When I first heard about “The Lesbian Bar Project” and how few of these bars are left, I was stunned.
But it’d be unfair to say the reasoning behind the closures is all bad. While we’ve certainly not reached full equality in many parts of the United States, we don’t need to hide behind closed doors as much as we used to. These bars were always fun, but they were also a necessity. We were targeted for who we are, who we love, how we present. Lesbian, queer, and gay bars were where we went to make friends, meet lovers, and build a family. Even as they provided us safety, they were still subject to police raids and being shut down. Cubbyhole is just down the block from Stonewall, where the 1969 Stonewall Uprising happened. A lesbian bar isn’t going to get raided today.
It’s also a matter of capital. There seems to be no shortage of gay bars. Men generally tend to have more money than women, so their opportunities to open and sustain a bar are greater. Lesbian bars provide a safe space to folks all across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, especially to nonbinary and trans individuals. Many of us pride ourselves on our inclusivity because it’s something our community has gone so long without. But our patrons are less likely to have money to spend on a night out because of pay and employment inequity. LGBTQ+ folks are also always a smaller portion of a city’s population, so when you’re relying on a small pool of people with less access to funds, it can be hard to cover overhead costs.
Being in a city with queer bars, you grow used to them. It’s why it caused me so much pain to have to shut down for COVID. We’re open 365 days a year. Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving. We were one of the only places open through 9/11. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a safe haven for our customers, especially during times of crisis. A pandemic would’ve been one of those times, for sure.
During our closure, I started going by Cubbyhole just to check on the space, maintain it a bit. I’d find notes from patrons and regulars saying how much they missed us, asking what they could do to help, or confessing to having clogged the bathroom sink that one time back in 2014. Our community rallied behind us just when we needed them the most.
Cubbyhole was built on community — every queer bar is, no matter which part of the community it caters to. We’re rarely celebrated, appreciated, or understood as profoundly as we are in queer spaces. We have a duty to our community, and our community has a duty to us. Without each other, we cease to exist. We simply have to hold on to that.
Through the end of the month, proceeds from screenings of “The Lesbian Bar Project” benefit the country’s remaining lesbian bars. To watch the film, learn more about each bar, and donate, visit https://www.lesbianbarproject.com.