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"That bar was not just a bar to me. It was the first physical space I ever walked into and felt like I had truly come home."
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The first time I saw this book — in a friend’s Instagram stories, months before its release — I knew I wanted it to appear in Culture Study. Vivid reporting on essential sites of community? THAT IS SOME CULTURE STUDY SHIT! Part queer history, part American history, just beautifully and hilariously told, I tore through my copy, and whether or not lesbian bars have been a part of your life and community-building, whether you’re queer or straight or still figuring it out, I really think you will too.
Read on to learn about the reporting complicated process (it’s not simple, visiting every remaining lesbian bar in the country), the rules Krista made about how she’d report it, what it’s like to have an interviewee basically tell you the thesis to your book — and the bars that live most vividly in her mind.
The intro to Moby Dyke is a delight — the way it winds into this realization that you were starving for what you call “gay chaos.” Can you talk us through how you arrived at the need to write this book?
Thank you for calling my intro a delight! And ha, yes, I started doing the research for this book in the summer of 2021, and it was at a point where I was so thirsty for gay gossip that I was calling my friends while I was driving, going, “Do-you-know-any-tea-please-tell-me-everything-right-now.” It was awful — no one had any gossip because of the pandemic. We’d all been inside for almost two years! We were all experiencing a queer drama drought!
I think my need to write this book actually began in 2015. That was when the Lexington Club, a popular lesbian bar in San Francisco, closed. For years before that, I’d been watching lesbian bars close their doors, one by one. These were places I’d hung out in my queer youth, places I’d really liked – and they’d always close with these sad little announcements on social media from the bar owners, and then you’d read an outpouring of collective queer grief in the comments. Seeing all the closures was a huge bummer, but the phenomenon didn’t feel personal yet.
The Lex closing, though, felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I had not just liked the Lexington Club; I had loved it. I had been there many, many times. I met friends there; I made out with strangers there; my first serious girlfriend lived in San Francisco and we’d always go there when I came to visit. After we broke up, I’d still get sent to San Francisco frequently for work, and the Lex was where I ended up almost any night I was in the city. The Lexington Club was the first real lesbian bar I ever set foot in, and it is the bar I am picturing in my head, even now, when I say the words “lesbian bar.” That bar was not just a bar to me. It was the first physical space I ever walked into and felt like I had truly come home.
I spent the next few years after the Lex closed just bitching, loudly, about all the bars closing. Then, in 2017, I wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “I Want My Lesbian Bars Back,” where I was still bitching, but more professionally this time, arguing for the need for clear, defined queer spaces for myself and for the next generation of gaybies. I genuinely don’t know how I would have made it through my 20s and 30s without the community I found inside lesbian bars, and I just wanted to bring more media attention to the phenomenon of bars closing across the country.
Around the time the article was published, I got a literary agent. We kicked around ideas for books I could write. One of the ideas was that I should go to all the lesbian bars in the country and write about what I found. We eventually canned that idea (even thought I’d really liked it) in favor of pitching other book ideas.
Years passed. All of my other book pitches went nowhere. Meanwhile, articles — lots of articles — were starting to be published about the decline of lesbian bars. Projects like The Lesbian Bar Project, which is dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and supporting lesbian bars, popped up. And I was so mad at myself. Suddenly lesbian bar closings were a hot topic, and I felt like I had missed my opportunity to write about them. Like I’d had my chance, and since I didn’t push my book idea, it was over.
And then, in 2021, after yet another article about the decline of lesbian bars was published in the New York Times, an editor I’d previously talked with at Simon & Schuster contacted my agent. He had an idea: “What if Krista goes to all the lesbian bars left in the United States and writes a book about what she finds?”
The exact same idea I’d had, four years later. It wasn’t too late. I shrieked and said yes immediately. My lost gay book! The gayest possible project I’d ever gotten a second chance to work on! I pounded out the book pitch, submitted it, and it was accepted. And that was that: a year and a half before I turned 40, I committed to going out after 10 p.m.… constantly.
In your New York Times piece, you argue that a bar is never just a bar — it’s also a site of essential community, particularly for those who’ve been excluded from community elsewhere. First, I’d love to hear you write more about all the ways that lesbian bars in particular have provided community….and second, I want to hear more about the reception to that piece, and how it informed the way you approached the book.
Oh my god, lesbian bars have meant so much to me. And to the queer community as a whole! OK, so: lesbian bars have historically been one of the only public gathering spaces available for queer women. Even when they were a decidedly risky choice (in past decades, they were frequently raided by the police and it was, as you can imagine, very dangerous to be a patron of a lesbian bar during a police raid), these bars provided the queers who went to them with several things:
Confirmation that there were others like them
Potential lovers and friends
A tight-knit community/queer family/network
The only spot in town where they could be openly affectionate with other queer people (assuming the bar was safe on a given night)
Lesbian bars sponsor community sports teams and host community volunteer projects. Plenty of them hold special events almost every night! Even now, when many (not all, of course) queer people can go to all sorts of different public places relatively safely, lesbian bars often exert a special pull. I will always, for instance, choose to go to a lesbian bar or queer bar over a straight bar. Not only do I feel safer in them, but frankly, given the choice between going to a Beyonce-themed drag night at a dyke bar or going to a trivia night at the local Irish pub and watching the veins in guys’ foreheads pop when a baseball trivia question is called, I’m always going to go gay.
Another thing about lesbian bars: everyone is welcome in them. Really. For years, lesbian bars have been the catch-all spaces of the queer community, welcoming everyone falling under the queer umbrella. They also welcome allies. Basically, if you’re not going to be an asshole, you’re welcome at most lesbian bars. That is different than at most bars aimed at cis gay men. Lesbian bars have been, and are, doing the bulk of the work in the LGBTQIA+ community surrounding inclusivity in bars, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so crushing when they close. The bars aren’t just supporting lesbians; when one closes, entire subsets of the queer community lose access to possibly the only public space where they’re emphatically welcomed.
After I wrote that NYT article, I got so many letters from older queer people, telling me how much lesbian bars had meant to them when they were coming up. I also got letters from younger queers who said they wanted dyke bars, too! The saddest ones were from people who lived hundreds of miles from a lesbian bar, or from folks who had never been to one. At the time, I lived in Minneapolis. I had no idea that in just three years, I would move to a small town in Minnesota, 331 miles from the nearest lesbian bar.
Moving to the small town where I live now really changed how I felt about lesbian bars. Before, I’d just wanted them to stay open for everyone, in general. After the move, I felt the loss of queer spaces in my life keenly; I’d never been so isolated from the queer community before. Then the pandemic happened, and once the worst outbreaks had calmed down a bit, I found I needed be physically near other queers. That was the real driving force behind this book. Having lost my queer community, I realized what it had meant to me. I needed to make sure it was still there, and that other people could access it, too.
You made rules for yourself that would guide every visit, including the fact that you had to approach at least two strangers and have conversations with you. Why did this feel essential, how did it push you (and the people you approached), and who’s one of the best strangers you met?
Listen, before I started this book, I was shy! Not around my friends, but if you’d have, say, put me in a roomful of strangers and told me to “make conversation,” I would have run to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall for ten minutes while doing deep breathing exercises. Each bar I visited for the book got at least two visits, and, like you mentioned, I had to approach at least two strangers every time I visited. You can’t imagine the amount of cold, clammy stress-sweat I was dealing with, outfit-wise, each night. Disgusting.
I made that rule about approaching people because I’m shy, and also because I’ve been going to lesbian bars for nearly twenty years, and I knew that approaching random folks in the bars would be considered strange. Almost taboo; maybe even creepy. In general, ~my people~ don’t tend to approach one another. It’s not done. Queers usually go to lesbian bars with friends; if we do go to the bar solo, most of us don’t typically go with the intent of striking up conversations with multiple strangers.
It’s not like in gay bars, where men are openly cruising. Lesbian bar etiquette is much subtler, and many people are just out for fun and not necessarily looking for a hookup. (Some are! But not everyone.) Because dyke bars are such catchall spaces for the queer community — specifically because so many different types of people frequent dyke bars — there’s a lot more staring, a lot more checking people out while pretending not to, a lot more sizing one another up. In addition, lesbian bar patrons are, for their own safety, usually wary of strangers.
I knew that if I didn’t force myself to talk to strangers at the bars, nothing would ever happen, and then the book would be boring.
This rule pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, and so often, that it changed who I am as a person. With the research for this book complete, I no longer feel shy around strangers. At all. For me, this was talking-to-strangers exposure therapy, and it completely worked. People in the bars were often startled when I approached them, but most people recovered from their surprise and talked to me. Some, though, edged away, obviously wary of me, and that was embarrassing and unfun. But I lived!!
One of the best instances of me plopping down on a barstool and breaking the ice with someone happened at Herz, a lesbian bar in Mobile, AL. I chose two people at random, and it turned out they were both the owners, Rachel and Sheila Smallman, the two people I most wanted to talk to. We all had a drink together, and they were kind enough to let me interview them on the spot, right before they left for the night.
You made a really important decision early on to bring your partner, Davin, a trans man, along on your visits to half of the bars, as a sort of controlled experiment. You sold him on the prospect by arguing that his presence would introduce some of the crucial questions around lesbian bars in this moment — like who’s welcome in lesbian bars, and how queer spaces have evolved. I loved having him as part of the narrative as a sort of additional, texturing observer. What was it like, essentially including your partner in the research process? Why did it matter, and how did it texture your own relationship, working together on this big, ambitious, money-sucking and life-affirming project?
Including Davin was one of the best decisions I made for the book! It was also one of the easiest decisions. First of all, this was the biggest project I’d ever taken on, and I wanted him to be involved. Second of all, on a surface level, Davin is everything that I am not – organized, methodical, extremely good at planning and also enjoys planning, which: can’t relate. Scheduling and planning things is my actual least favorite thing. Davin, on the other hand, loves to plan trips, to make Excel docs with multiple tabs, to pull up to the hotel he found a deal for on Hotwire after arriving in the city via a flight he set a price alert for two months ago. My god. When we go on trips for fun, I just follow him around like a baby duck. Davin planned every travel detail of every trip I took for this book; all I had to do was show up at the bars with a notepad. It was the most generous and helpful thing anyone has ever done for me.
He also, like you said, came on half the bar trips. Like me, Davin came of age in lesbian spaces, and, like me, he’ll choose a queer bar over a straight bar every time. His observations in the bars were valuable and deeply nuanced; he is also great at a muttered sick burn, which is the energy I need in my life.
This book project took all of our combined spare time and money for nearly two years, and Davin did not complain about it, ever. He didn’t make me feel like my dream of writing a book was a burden on him, even though it absolutely was. All he wanted was to help me make it happen. I actually struggled with feeling shame about how supportive he was. A couple years before the book happened, he decided to run for state senator in Minnesota, and when he told me, I made a terrible face and said, “WHY?” and later whined a lot about how busy he was all the time. I also didn’t help him much – wanting, for the most part, to be left out of the campaign details. With my book, Davin quietly and casually modeled what support for your partner could look like. His involvement in the book showed me a new facet of how to love someone.
I have a lot of favorite bars in the book, but Herz — which you mention above, the only inclusive lesbian bar in the country owned by two Black lesbians — was one of my favorites. Same for the volleyball court at Babe’s of Caryton in Richmond, and the secret backyard garden at Wild Side West. I know it’s unfair to ask for favorites, so let’s frame it this way: which bars still live most vividly in your mind?
I love how you frame this question! OK: while I truly had a great time at all the bars, I have a couple that stand out to me as places I still think about a lot. I had one of the most fun nights in the book at The Back Door, in Bloomington, Indiana — that’s where I saw the best drag show I have ever seen, hands-down.
I loved Herz in Mobile, Alabama — the random assortment of people in that bar offered me the warmest welcome I’ve ever received in a queer space, and they didn’t even know I was coming! They were just that kind. Sue Ellen’s in Dallas, Texas had some of the best people-watching I experienced in the bars — that place is like a lesbian Studio 54, I’d never seen anything like it. And Alibi’s, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, felt like a laid-back little beach hut oasis, one with free homemade queso and dogs wandering in and out and colorful wooden signs and fishbowl drinks and friendly regulars — that’s the bar I’d fold up and put in my pocket, if I could, to pop open on a rainy Minnesota day in November.
Near the end of the book, you’re talking to a group of people at the Yellow Brick Road Pub in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and when you suggest that maybe the bar has become a bit less of a lesbian bar and a bit more of an everyone bar, one of them, Jorhdon, replies: “It is a lesbian bar. To not call this a lesbian bar does a disservice to the reason the bar was created. This bar was built decades ago to be a safe space for lesbians. This is not a gay bar. This is a lesbian bar, and to ignore that is an erasure.”
It’s the sort of moment, as a reporter, that’s pretty thrilling — when someone tells you something that feels so central, so perceptive, so much like a thesis statement, only they said it, not you! What did it feel like, hearing those words — and how did you think about framing them within the chapter and the book as a whole?
When Jorhdon said that, I got chills. Here’s what I said in the book when that happened:
“My mouth opened and shut, an astounded trout. “Say that again,” I ordered, scrabbling for my notebook. “Say exactly what you just said again.”
Jorhdon repeated what they’d said, and my heart swelled. They had just put into words the feeling I’d had all this time, that we were sometimes missing something at these bars when we called them bars for everyone. I understood that everyone was welcome; I wanted everyone to be welcome. But to gloss over the fact that most of them were historically lesbian bars did feel like an erasure.”
The three Oklahoma bars (yes! there are three lesbian bars in Oklahoma, it’s a miracle) were the last bars on my trip. It was May of 2022; the first draft of the book was due to my editor by July 1, 2022. Because I work best in a blind panic — the kind where you’re waking up in the middle of the night, wide-eyed and sweating — I had only written a few full chapters of the book at the time Jorhdon said this to me, even though the whole book was due in about a month and a half.
I think, in retrospect, it was good I hadn’t written most of the book yet. Jorhdon’s comment changed how I was thinking about the bars. I had been so focused, during my travels, on looking forward — seeing how the bars were evolving in real time — that I hadn’t put much weight on what the bars had meant to our community in the past. Yes, the bars were changing, but also: what were we losing, in our push towards making sure everyone felt comfortable coming into spaces that were once meant to provide an exclusive space, to provoke an exclusive feeling? What were we gaining? How could we, as queers, move forward together, without in-fighting tearing us apart? How could I write about queer joy in a way that felt accessible to everyone without acknowledging that queer joy has always been so bright, so fierce, because it’s joy that comes from survival against all odds?
I couldn’t. Lesbian bars are fascinating spaces. Each one contains so many stories, so many hearts, so many nights spent just looking for the physical company of others like us. No amount of visits from me could have captured what each of the bars really means. It was such an honor to get to see them all in such a condensed period of time. It was also the most fun I ever had. ●
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