It’s a dark, frigid weeknight in Brooklyn, but Lex (the app affectionately known as queer Craigslist) is buzzing: queer friends in search of fun in Bushwick, a lonely femme looking for company at Ginger’s in Park Slope, a missed connection at The Woods in Williamsburg. From Bay Ridge to Bed-Stuy, everyone wants to know: “What’s the move tonight?”
Before the early ‘90s, Brooklyn was home to a sparkling abundance of dyke and queer spaces. For the last few decades, though, Ginger’s Bar in Park Slope remained Brooklyn’s sole surviving dyke bar. The scarcity has been a result of assimilation, as non-queer spaces have grown more hospitable to the queer community, in addition to various economic and legislative factors. Now, the pendulum is swinging back. Like fanny packs and The Spice Girls, the bars are back — and this time, with new opportunities for inclusiveness.
The state of the scene
In addition to the loosening of Covid restrictions, the Lesbian Bar Project, an Emmy-winning film-based advocacy project working to generate support and visibility for lesbian bars, has played a starring role in the resurgence of lesbian and more-inclusive queer spaces. Two years ago, their national lesbian bar count was only 21. Today, it clocks in at 31 — a tiny number, maybe, but still an increase by half.
“Maybe people have thought, ‘My lifelong dream of opening a [lesbian] bar seems more tangible now because there’s proof that there’s a need and a desire for this’,” says Lesbian Bar Project co-director/co-creator, Erica Rose.
To be sure, she points out, this resurgence is mostly in “coastal cities” — a reminder that there are many places not too far from city centers where it’s still unsafe to live as openly queer, much less enjoy queer spaces. And even in New York City, safety is not guaranteed, particularly for trans women of color, who still face discrimination in hetero spaces (and even some lesbian bars).
Added to that, the current laxness of Covid precautions remains a source of dismay for some immunocompromised members of the scene.
“Before Covid there was a sense of community, some purported value of mutual aid and communal care. Now nearly everyone is unmasked and pretending we are not still living in a pandemic,” says Mariah Guevin, an immunocompromised community member. “Don’t we remember the beginning of the AIDS crisis?”
This can pose an opportunity for renewed commitment to safety and inclusivity in the spaces that are created exactly for these purposes — Ginger’s recently hosted a craft fair which required masking for the first two hours — but given the reality of life in a pandemic, Covid-cautious queers want to see these businesses thrive in a way that is accessible to all.
Opened by best friends Jenille Nikke Alleyne and Justine LaViolette in (where else?) Bushwick last April, The Bush is a flirty, intimate self-styled disco-balled “dyke bar for the queers.”
“What we knew was that there wasn’t a dyke bar for the queers that prioritized cocktails, comfort and dancing,” says Alleyne, a marketer by day.
The menu features seasonal options and special drink deals, like discounted martinis and cosmos every Tuesday. For the artsy crowd, there is a full slate of events, from queer figure drawing to the Black Poet Social poetry readings — and for those in search of late-night fun, The Bush offers karaoke nights, DJ dance parties and more. They have also partnered with outside organizations to offer advocacy programming, such as the Safer Slut workshop on consent with the Center for Anti-Violence Education and the New York Theatre Workshop.
“I would love the queer community to become more active in its inclusion of queer folx of color versus being passive — not just saying this is a POC-friendly event or place but also providing opportunities for Black and brown queer creatives,” Alleyne says.
As for the label “dyke bar,” LaViolette adds, “We have been guests in cis male gay spaces for a really long time, we were ready for them to be guests in our space instead.”
Mary’s Bar (courtesy Mary’s)
Also last April, the team behind Ginger’s opened Mary’s, just a few blocks away from Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg. Like its Park Slope-sibling, Mary’s is an Irish pub — owner Brendan Donohoe recommends their “affordable classic cocktails as well as hot Irish whiskey and Irish coffees” — but unlike Ginger’s, Mary’s is explicitly a queer bar.
“We have a queer, diverse team, and want to emphasize we’re open to all those who identify as queer and understand Mary’s Bar code of conduct,” says Donohoe.
“[Mary’s has] more dyke clientele, non-cis gay white men clientele than a lot of gay bars I’ve been to in Hell’s Kitchen and West Village,” says Abbey, who didn’t give a last name. It also draws a growing contingency of Williamsburg locals and Brooklyn Steel concert-goers. The Mary’s team is also working to welcome and delight the rainbow masses (and the Irish-inclined) through drag events, dance parties, a LGBTQ+ book club, and Irish dance classes.
It’s not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows in the scene, though. Challenges remain. Oddly Enough, owned by Laura Poladsky and Caitlin Frame, is a lesbian-powered “queer space for all” that opened in Bed-Stuy in April 2022 — and has become something of a cautionary tale of the challenges of running a business in New York: Oddly Enough will be closing its doors on January 27.
With a sophisticated small bites menu and a roster of queer- and dyke-leaning events and advocacy opportunities, Oddly Enough has been more than a bar — it was a community hub and a safe space.
“Queer women and nonbinary and trans people are held to a higher standard of inclusivity, which is a good thing; we should all strive to be more inclusive,” says The Lesbian Bar Project’s Rose. To that end Oddly Enough will be missed.
That said, the hopeful queer might take this trickle of new spaces as an indication of more to come — to hold us over, Rose teased a new bar that is looking to open in the borough soon. “They’ve done some pop-ups. That’s all I can say for now.”