The Lexington Club. Bullfishes. Lambda Rising Bookstore. The Duchess Club. Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Chances Bar. SheWired.com. Sisters Nightclub. Phase 1. And now, AfterEllen.
In the same year that President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn as the first LGBT national monument in American history, lesbian website AfterEllen ceased publication of all substantive material and ended its 14-year run as a staple of the queer-female online community. (For the sake of historical continuity, I use the words lesbian and queer women. I want to be clear, though, that I include transwomen, bisexual women, and all other female-identifying people in these terms.)
The decision to stop publishing news and discussion pieces, which was denied on the website itself days after the announcement came on axed editor-in-chief Trish Bendix’s Tumblr blog, rattled many of us who had used the site from its earliest beginnings. “I met my first college girlfriend through AfterEllen,” says Rebecca Gray, a graduate of Barnard College and longtime reader. “It was literally a post about, ‘Is it so stereotypical to go to a women’s college if you’re gay?’ and then we met on the steps to the dining hall.” An entertaining, engaging, and most important, connective space, created for queer women by queer women, is a rare thing—rather like an Oxford shirt that accommodates breasts. In an age where offline spaces for lesbians are becoming rarer, AfterEllen’s content and message boards provided a virtual hub for young women to meet each other, to interact with others like them, and to seek out companionship in all its forms. In other words, it served the purpose of lesbian bars, bookstores, and the other hidden enclaves of community that have recently begun to disappear.
In the last five years alone, lesbian establishments have been closing their doors and powering down their servers at a relentless pace: The bars and websites listed above have all closed in the last 10 years, and they aren’t the only casualties. Independent lesbian blogs such as Pam’s House Blend and The Sartorial Butch are dropping out of sight as authors struggle to produce returns on their efforts, and in 2008, Alison Bechdel’s iconic cartoon Dykes to Watch Out For went on indefinite hiatus after a 25-year run. (While a loss for its readers, the cessation of Dykes to Watch Out For was due in part to the success of her graphic memoir Fun Home and her desire to focus on other longform projects.)
On the surface, the disappearance of lesbian spaces doesn’t make sense. When the market is fiercely competitive and many businesses seek to carve out a niche, it seems counterintuitive that entities with a ready-made clientele should go under so easily; yet San Francisco, a city with the highest LGBTQ population in the country, lost its last lesbian bar, the Lexington Club, in 2015. AfterEllen, far from being a radical space, targeted a demographic very similar to the woman whose name it bore and in whose image it shaped itself: Ellen Degeneres, the most palatable, profitable, and visible lesbian of them all. And to cap it all off, the Economist recently cited global studies that show gay women earn more, on average, than straight women. The lesbians of the 21st century are here and unthreateningly queer, as well as comparatively flush; it follows that businesses with lesbian ownership and clientele should not be suffering.
But they do suffer, and from a hobbling combination of cultural and economic disadvantages inherent to the very community they were created to serve. Despite their wage-earning jump on heterosexual women, lesbians are still some of the least economically powerful people in America today, for a couple of reasons. First, we’re women: we already make less than 80 percent of what men make on average (women of color especially make far less), and we face workplace discrimination when it comes to promotions or raises, which limits our spending power. Second, consider that the advertising industry—the massive behemoth of consumerism that surrounds us at every turn, from subway posters to magazine ads to movie trailers to cartoons on cereal boxes—is targeted toward men … or attracting them. Masculinity is either dangled as a carrot or wielded like a whip, and advertisers ask themselves, “What images of men will sell my product to men? To women?” Dressing in clothes that a man will notice, listening to music about men and what to do with them, finding the best bank account so that you can save up for a vacation with a man (usually one wearing khakis and with whitening strips on his teeth): The messages play well to straight women, gay men, and straight men with hefty egos. In a system where the most lucrative strategies present women as clotheshorses, subsidiary counterparts, or in the frank words of an analyst from the University of North Texas, as “ ‘rewards’ for men who choose the right product,” what happens to a woman who’s only interested in other women?
The straight answer is that no one cares. Lesbians and queer women of all shades have been around just as long as anyone else, but when it comes to LGBTQ culture and community in the United States, our presence has been sidelined more often than not. “[There is] this idea that gay men’s gay experience is the universal gay experience,” says Jo Chiang, a queer actor and writer.
Indeed, if one wants to have a “gay experience,” the range of options send a pointed message. Look, for instance, at the travel-advisory site GayCities, which lists 40 gay bars for men in New York City—and only three for women. Chiang, who is 23 and lives in New York, is one of many young queer women expressing frustration with the lack of spaces specifically cater to women seeking women. “I don’t go to queer bars, because straight people show up and use [them] as a tourist attraction, an exhibit,” she says, echoing complaints of straight women taking over gay bars. And the online scene isn’t suited for her demographic either: According to Chiang, Grindr, a men-only dating app, has achieved success because it is seen “strictly as a hook-up app,” while queer women looking to date have to contend with the “lesbian U-Haul thing.”
The lesbian U-Haul thing: The phrase is synecdoche for the larger archetype of lesbians as people who take life very seriously—who do not commit for a day, but for a decade. This attitude is one that permeates the lesbian community as a whole and ironically appears to be another reason that ventures catering to gay men survive while lesbian entrepreneurs struggle to keep their businesses afloat. While consumerism—partying, going out, fashion, and furniture—has become integrated into gay male culture as a means of socializing and asserting status, lesbians and queer women have never embraced spending for spending’s sake with the same degree of vigor. This is a broad generalization, needless to say, and there are exceptions on both sides of the aisle; however, the disparity in spending power between queer men and women as distinct population is very real, if only because of economics—the pesky wage gap coming into play again. Actor Lea DeLaria, who portrays Big Boo on the hit show Orange Is the New Black and has been a butch comedian and activist for more than three decades, succinctly sums up the comparison: “Gay men will spend their rent check to buy a pretty shirt, and when they’re broke as shit, they’ll go out and party, but lesbians will squeeze the first nickel they get.”
It’s easy to dismiss this as “lesbians hate fun” or “lesbians are stingy,” which, hey, is sometimes true of lesbians just it’s sometimes true of anyone who isn’t a Kardashian. But it illustrates the deeper truth of why lesbians have developed a culture that emphasizes thriftiness, which is that lesbians have been taught to save their money and their energy by more than a century of self-reliance. Between being queer and being women, lesbians have almost no social bulwarks to rely on, and we’ve learned from experience that buying products not marketed to us won’t increase the value of our political or cultural capital. In the words of Alison Bechdel, “We aren't interested in frivolous expenditures.”
The situation is often worse for women of color, many of whom come from communities where homosexuality is not easily accepted and support from families is rare. Buffy Dunker drew a distinction between the social diminishment of women in straight roles and the social ostracizing of women in queer ones in her contribution to Lesbian Psychologies: Explorations and Challenges: “The wife has held an honored although secondary position in a society with many heterosexual privileges,” she writes, while “the lesbian has had to seek her own friends, lovers, and communities.” The lesbian reputation for preferring to stay in on weekends is the legacy of many women who have supported themselves and each other through the most hostile conditions imaginable. Unfortunately, that reputation also explains why lesbian businesses have such a hard time with their bottom lines.
Even in the face of desperate economic and social pressures, spaces for queer women continue to exist. Some have long-term leases or domain names, and when they disappear it is much easier to notice their sudden absence: the Lexington Club, for example, or D.C.’s much-mourned Phase 1, or AfterEllen, which was not only one of the first entertainment websites to cover what precious little lesbian entertainment news existed but also spawned a gay counterpart, AfterElton (now the Backlot). But as lesbians with long experience in, well, being lesbians can attest, queer spaces for women have a tendency to wink in and out of sight quickly but reliably, like plaid-clad fireflies.
“It didn't really exist except for when it did,” says Bechdel of the lesbian community she first knew. Bechdel was a member of a women’s collective at Oberlin College (as seen in the book and musical versions of Fun Home) and remembers many “floating spaces” where she and other queer women would congregate for a brief and electric time before they disbanded—until the next event. “The community was very virtual,” she says. “It was welcoming, if you could find it!” As a cartoonist, Bechdel also kept in touch with other lesbians through publications, which cost little and spread the community wide: “I'm so old that I still get Lesbian Connection—a magazine that started in the ’70s—and I remember it was stapled together with a thousand staples so the postman couldn't accidentally open it and see the word lesbian.”
The use of magazines and comic strips to connect the far-flung lesbian community has evolved into the contemporary use of the internet. Gabrielle Sghia-Hughes, a 23-year-old who lives in Seattle, created a group for lesbians on her college campus, in response to anonymous Facebook posts wondering if there were any other queer women on campus. Sghia-Hughes, who identifies as bisexual, emphasized the “casual” nature of the group, organizing “lunch things” and group events that enabled queer women to connect with others like them, and then “take it from there.” Sghia-Hughes and her girlfriend currently belong to another group for queer women in Seattle, the Gay Girl Gang, which formed through the online platform Reddit and now convenes at a local bar. This group, like the one Sghia-Hughes formed in college, exists for the purpose of bringing queer women together in the same space after they get in touch remotely: In other words, it accomplishes the same thing that bars and bookstores do but in reverse order.
These small, private spaces, created by and for queer women, provide a key alternative to commercial businesses, another reason the lesbian community has always remained resolutely independent and self-structured. Though LGBTQ subculture may have sprung from a shared tangle of underground roots, in general gay men have developed more of a taste for nightlife (think disco and drag), which inevitably leads to them taking on roles as powerful but integrated consumers in a straight economy that enjoys the stimulation of gay spending. What we sacrifice in capital, profit, and late nights out, we make up for in cultural freedom: Nobody wants to buy us or invest in us, so we are left to rely only on each other, a link unjoined to the circular chain of market dependency.
“Lesbians are inherently uncommodifiable,” Bechdel says. “It's a gift.” Existing outside of a system of reciprocity, even one as rough and tumble as American capitalism, requires hardiness and adaptability, something being queer and being a woman teaches a person early on—hence the “floating spaces” customarily employed by lesbian gatherings, such as the Gay Girl Group, or Older Dykes.com, “a vigorous loose-limbed organisation of lesbians over forty,” which is based in Australia and plans various events of different sizes throughout the course of the year. Many spaces are not advertised online or on posters at all, simply because they are created privately by the attendees for their friends and friends of friends as a way of quietly drawing like-minded folks together. That is the essence of a self-sustaining culture.
Of course, a culture of independence from commercial capitalism can be a kick in the ass to the business owners who attempt to create more permanent spaces for lesbians: bars, coffee shops, bookstores, websites, and so on. That they should financially struggle because of the, let’s say, utilitarian attitude of the community they’re trying to serve is a problem that has no ready solution. DeLaria recalls her favorite bar, the Cubbyhole, which still exists (albeit in a different location than its original one) in New York’s Greenwich Village: “It’s my favorite dyke bar in the world, because the Cubbyhole has the widest variety of women. … I’ve seen it ebb and flow, I’ve seen it be hot and not be hot, but there’s always people there.”
Just like everyone else, queer women deserve reliable spots for when they do want to go out, watering holes where nobody is the odd one out for being “the gay chick” and where the money they spend is not a splurge, but a kind of investment in the good of the group. In these spaces, women of every shape, age, race, class, background, and more will bump up against each other, because they’re all there for one reason: It’s the only place where they truly fit in. “Being a lesbian is like a bootcamp in looking at your racism, your ableism, your classism,” Bechdel remarks; “[Lesbians] are nice!” When you can find them.
Ultimately, the fight to create and preserve lesbian spaces leads to a paradox, a brick wall of cross purposes. Lesbians want to have our bars and bookstores, but we save our money and only go out when we can afford to. We want to be regulars in the venue that welcomes us exactly as we are, but we are also fighters who made our way forward by breaking down the doors that were closed in our faces. The truth is, while lesbian businesses may face hostile conditions from the rest of society, it is the tough, practical, sometimes divided nature of the lesbian community itself that makes it hard to earn a buck.
And yet, that same nature is why lesbians continue to carve out new spaces for themselves, just as quickly as the old ones disappear. It is why we pull lunch groups together, start new bars with different themes and free Wi-Fi, run blogs that we’re not sure anybody reads. It’s hard enough to be a woman and queer in this world, hard enough to feel alone and battered and exhausted just by getting up. To know that there are others like you, and to share an experience—to go through it together—is a gift, and it is one that queer women have been giving to each other for years. The trick is getting enough of us in one place. If all else fails, we can grab a beer and watch Orange Is the New Black together. Girl, I have Netflix.