When Thais Rocha first announced her plan to open Dani’s Queer Bar, Boston’s ears perked up. Though the forthcoming sapphic watering hole does not yet exist, an Instagram account created to promote it has more than 11,000 followers and regularly receives “hundreds of DMs” inquiring about when it will open. The mayor’s office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion awarded Rocha one of 24 “SPACE” grants to help offset overhead costs in May. And this week, posts from the popular account @OnlyInBos unofficially leaking the location of the bar — in the old Pour House space at 907 Boylston St., right next to Trader Joe’s — went locally viral.
Dani’s will be the first lesbian bar to open in the city in decades, but Boston is hardly the only place where such spaces have disappeared. News of the upcoming arrival comes amid a nationwide slump in lesbian bars, of which there were more than 200 in the 1980s and now total fewer than 30. A documentary from the Lesbian Bar Project highlighted the issue in 2020 and inspired a wave of discourse about why so few official spaces exist specifically for queer women and non-binary folks. Gentrification, gendered economic discrimination, and the wage gap have all been named as culprits.
Regardless of why, the fact remains: An entire segment of society has long felt it has nowhere safe to party. Though she was born in Brazil, Rocha, 34, grew up in the Somerville/Medford area and now lives in Roxbury. She remembers the feeling of being a 21-year-old and not having a regular spot that made her feel “celebrated” or like she “belonged.” Dani’s, named after her two-year-old American Eskimo pup, represents Rocha’s second attempt at changing that narrative, having also founded LGBTQ Nightlife Events, which has hosted lesbian-friendly parties at various venues around the city since 2021.
“The constant moving between venues has been really hard,” Rocha said about her events business. Dani’s, she hopes, will give her and her clientele the consistency they’ve been missing.
Previous generations of Bostonians have known a wider range of LGBTQ-friendly gathering spaces. A 2015 blog post from Boston Queer History paints a picture of thriving — if dangerous — queer nightlife in 1960s Boston, punctuated by frequent police raids. Queer women attended private house parties in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Cambridge and went to bars like Vicki’s and Cavana’s, both long closed. In Boston and beyond, however, bars for gay men haven’t been depleted in the same way. But those spaces aren’t adequate replacements for establishments that cater to women, Rocha argued.
Alia Forrest, director of business strategy in the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, told the Globe that the mayor’s Cabinet was eager to help open a lesbian bar because “there’s a need for safe spaces like this in the city.” She remembers being a student at Emerson College in the early 2000s and even then not knowing of a single dedicated space for queer women.
“[Dani’s] will be a big deal for this new generation of students,” she predicted.
Though it was slated to open this summer, the date has been pushed back due to long wait times for a liquor license, among other snags. Rocha still doesn’t have an exact (or even approximate) date, though she’s hopeful it could be this fall. In the meantime, she and her team have raised nearly $20,000 online to help cover expenses in addition to the SPACE grant, which was designed to allocate funds to new businesses impacted by COVID. And though the prime location on Boylston Street comes with a hefty price tag, Dill Dillingham — LGBTQ Nightlife Events host and collaborator on Dani’s — said the address represents a symbolic victory of its own.
The Pour House on 907 Boylston Street is becoming Dani's Queer Bar, "a sapphic queer bar in Boston that was created to provide a safe and inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate our identities and find a sense of belonging". pic.twitter.com/kln1NS2alG— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) September 18, 2023
“I do not think there has been an LGBTQ+ space on a prominent street like Boylston, at least not in a long time,” she said in a phone call. “That in itself is historic. And we’re going to see so much gay, non-binary, and trans pride. Color is just going to fill Boylston Street like it never has before.”
Though some of the comments on the Only In Boston post this week were vehemently homophobic, Rocha and Dillingham said the response they’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive — a mix of gratitude and excitement bordering on giddiness.
“There’s a lot of people in the community that want to help,” Rocha said. Even those who don’t donate monetarily have offered their time and expertise, including Lindsey Barrett, 23, a professional scenic carpenter based in Cambridge who volunteered to build out the bar’s new wooden seating. “I know it takes a lot to open something like this, and in terms of nightlife it’s one of the only things that caters to my demographic,” she said in a phone call. “Being able to be a part of it in any way feels like I’m contributing to my community.”
With so many people’s hopes riding on the opening, Rocha would be forgiven for feeling the pressure. But she knows she’s not doing it alone. There’s a success story in Worcester she can reference for inspiration or advice. Danielle Spring and her wife, Julie Toupin, opened Femme Bar in March this year and have since offered the crew at Dani’s their support, wisdom, and friendship.
“I’m rooting for them . . . I want them to do so well,” Spring said.
A Worcester native who once owned a sports bar “that the city hated,” Spring swore up and down 12 years ago that she would never return to the bar industry. “It was a lot of fights and just a lot of male energy,” she recalled. But when her wife had the idea to open a bar similar to New York City’s Cubby Hole, she couldn’t say no. In the months since, the reception to Femme has been better than Spring expected.
“I think we have the most polite customers in the world,” she observed. “At the sports bar, someone would step on someone’s sneakers and there’d be a fight. At Femme, it’s my favorite thing to walk in the crowd and hear, like, ‘I’m so sorry. You’re so beautiful.’”
Femme and Dani’s will have different vibes, however: While Femme is more of a traditional dive bar, Dillingham describes Dani’s as a “club-bar hybrid.”
“It’s nice to have options,” Spring said. “That’s the cool part of this — we went from no options to two in the same year.”