After a long and brutal pandemic winter, all Han Blankenship wanted to do was get a drink with a few friends at their favorite bar.
Outside Cubbyhole, a tiny bar in the West Village, the street was as packed as it could be these days, with dozens of friends, couples and exes mingling in the early spring evening. A bubbly bartender ran up and down the block to collect orders, promising she’d be back with drinks en masse, so everyone could drink together for the first time in five months.
“When you’re here, you’re family,” Mx. Blankenship, a nonbinary lesbian, said from a perch with three friends outside of Cubbyhole, which had been closed since December. “But it’s better than Olive Garden because there’s great drinks and queers everywhere.”
When Cubbyhole reopened for the first time this year on April 8, Mx. Blankenship was among the hundreds of people who stopped by to celebrate. And though the bar had to close by 11 p.m. — Phase 4 of the city’s reopening plan allows for restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity with a curfew — the 90-minute limit on each customer’s stay didn’t put a damper on the festivities.
“Thank you for coming and supporting us on opening night,” Deb Greenberg, the longtime Cubbyhole bartender, shouted to the packed street corner outside the bar. “You have no idea how much it meant when this phone did not stop ringing today.”
The crowd cheered, many hollering, “I love you!” to Ms. Greenberg, who shouted, “I love you!” right back. The scene hinted at normalcy and hope, but the buoyant night hid a precarious truth. Cubbyhole is one of only three remaining lesbian bars in all of New York City, and Brooklyn’s only lesbian bar, Ginger’s, is still closed indefinitely.
Though New York may have more lesbian bars than any other city in the United States, the venues are part of a dwindling industry. According to a nonprofit known as the Lesbian Bar Project, only 19 of these spaces are left nationwide.
It is a drastic shift from the heady boom of lesbian nightlife that started in the 1950s and ’60s.
Though early incarnations of lesbian drinking spots were mostly underground, the Damron guide, which lists L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly establishments, included 206 lesbian bars (and 699 gay bars) in the United States as recently as 1987. And though most queer spaces saw a decline during the AIDS epidemic, the erasure of lesbian bars is especially staggering for those who frequent them.
“If I’m not coming to Cubbyhole, I don’t know if I’m going anywhere,” said Misch Sims, who was sitting next to Mx. Blankenship at the reopening. “I’d rather go to a space where I feel comfortable because there’s not just cis, straight men all around.”
Lisa Menichino, Cubbyhole’s owner, calls it “a safe haven where we can go and celebrate our identities.”Credit…Jeanette Spicer for The New York Times
New York City, which boasted about 2,100 bars before the pandemic, offers options catering to nearly any niche, from gay “Coyote Ugly” bars to speakeasies tucked behind barbershops or ice cream parlors. This makes the city’s lack of lesbian spaces especially perplexing.
“We did have people from our community reaching out and telling us about other local bars that we missed,” said Lily Ali-Oshatz, a former producer with the Lesbian Bar Project. Initially, the group feared there were only 15 across the United States, but it recently added a “new discoveries” section to the effort, bringing the count to 19. “But that’s part of the sorun, right?” she said. “We did six months of research and couldn’t find some of these bars.”
Early in the pandemic, the Lesbian Bar Project began as a way to bring attention to fund-raisers for the New York spots, Ginger’s, Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson. But as it expanded its focus across the country, the project embarked on a monthlong campaign, raising $117,504 for the remaining bars.
Between their individual GoFundMe accounts and the donations they received from the Lesbian Bar Project, all of the New York-based bar owners said they had been able to hisse their rent throughout the uncertain year, but investing in the future of the lesbian bar scene still feels vital to many patrons.
“We’ve always loved Cubbyhole and appreciated it as one of the most inclusive and comfortable and familial-seeming queer spaces in the city,” said Lia Ottaviano, a freelance editor who attended its reopening with her wife, Lory, and their friend Jill.
The trio, who have a podcast and magazine called “Lesbians Are Miracles,” interviewed Lisa Menichino, the owner of Cubbyhole, for the cover of their first issue in January.
“Debbie and Lisa, particularly, have worked so hard and diligently, consciously and actively and consistently to create the feeling of community and familiarity,” Ms. Ottaviano said of the Cubbyhole bartender and owner.
Yet even as the community attests to the importance of these spaces, there are many theories for why lesbian bars are on the decline.
“Bars for gay men, you can find like three on a block and they’ll all be full,” Ms. Menichino said. “I used to think, ‘Well, OK, maybe it’s the disparity of income, and men have more money to go out.’ But that’s changing, I don’t see a correlation with more and more women that go out.”
Lillian Faderman, a scholar of lesbian history, said the issue was relatively simple: For bars to exist, people must go to them.
“As a realist, I see what young people are saying and doing nowadays,” Ms. Faderman said. “I’m happy that the Lesbian Bar Project exists, but I don’t think it appeals to a critical mass of young women or nonbinary people to frequent a bar.”
Ms. Faderman added that this decline could also be seen as a positive shift; these bars thrived in the 1950s — years before the Damron guide was even created — but the scene then was fueled by necessity.
“I actually came out into the bar scene in the 1950s as a teenager with a phony ID, and it was really absolutely crucial to me that those places exist,” Ms. Faderman said. “Where else would we have gone?”
Yet unlike in the ’50s and ’60s, queer people now have countless ways to meet one another — even if they don’t offer “the thrill of breaking the law,” as Ms. Faderman said.
“There are so many ways you could meet other women,” she said, “and, of course, there’s the internet.”
These days, many of the city’s lesbian hot spots aren’t even bars; a recent research project cited the Park Slope Food Co-op as New York’s lesbian mecca. The city is also home to party collectives like Hot Rabbit, Rosa Perreo, Bubble T and Papi Juice, which offer roving queer parties.
This decline in explicitly “lesbian” spaces may also be a matter of semantics. According to a 2017 GLAAD Survey, more young people are leaning toward more fluid and inclusive labels. Ms. Faderman said that the deconstruction of “femme” and “butch” binaries — lesbians who are respectively seen as more feminine and more masculine — is also probably contributing to the decline of lesbian bars.
“A lot of people who called themselves ‘butches’ in the ’50s and the ’60s and even later would see themselves as gender nonbinary now, or trans,” Ms. Faderman said.
“I identified as lesbian before I sort of came to terms with the fact that I was nonbinary,” Mx. Blankenship said at the reopening of Cubbyhole. “So the lesbian community, for me, is still just like a place of so much love and acceptance, and it’s still my community and my family.”
But in 2021, broadly queer spaces — rather than explicitly defined gay or lesbian ones — could potentially draw a larger pool of customers. Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta Hudson in the West Village, has considered this in recent years.
“It makes sense to me,” Ms. Cannistraci said. “If I was going to open up a bar today, I don’t think I would label it a lesbian bar.”
“And,” she added, “we took the full lesbian bar label off of Henrietta’s in 2014.”
These changes haven’t been bad for business. As Henrietta Hudson has ushered in more trans and gender-nonconforming customers in recent years, it has flourished; Ms. Cannistraci said 2019 was her busiest year since she opened the bar in 1991.
“People have asked me, ‘Well, how do the lesbians feel about these young, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary queer kids coming into Henrietta’s?’” she said. “It’s been really fun to watch the older lesbians at the bar and the young queer kids who sidle up to grab a drink. They start talking, and before you know it, they’re figuratively in each other’s laps.”
The owners of Cubbyhole and Ginger’s also said their bars welcomed customers of any gender and sexuality, but Ms. Menichino at Cubbyhole still chooses to call it a lesbian bar.
“There’s a connectivity between our visibility and our spaces,” Ms. Menichino said. “And it’s a safe haven where we can go and celebrate our identities, and that’s so important.”
“We need these places to be visible, and there’s not enough of them,” she continued. “We can’t fade into the background.”
Sheila Frayne, the owner of Ginger’s, is hopeful for the future, but she said she’s waiting until people can socialize safely to reopen her bar in Park Slope.
“The bars are like Broadway,” Ms. Frayne said. “How do you separate people? How do you keep social distancing in a bar? It just doesn’t work.”
Even the euphoria of reopening couldn’t offset some of the oddities that the pandemic has imposed. It’s difficult to mingle when customers are confined to their own tables, and the curfew sends everyone sloshing home well before dawn.
“And now you have to close by a certain time,” Ms. Frayne added, “but the nightlife in New York starts at 10 o’clock.”