AUSTIN (KXAN) — The start of Pride Month comes just as encouraging COVID-19 trends mean fewer safety restrictions. For those reasons, people are eager to go out again and celebrate, and businesses catering to the LGBTQ community are ready to welcome them back after a particularly rough year.
In Austin alone, the popular LGBTQ scene on Fourth Street downtown lost one gay bar and gained another during the pandemic.
Sellers Underground announced in December last year it would close its doors for good, stating “COVID-19 capacity restrictions have made it impossible for us to continue.” Two doors down, though, the Neon Grotto recently flipped on its brightly-colored lights and began welcoming in customers for drinks and dancing.
The number of queer establishments, however, has dwindled across the country, which one national effort revealed clearly.
The Lesbian Bar Project
During the height of the pandemic last year, Erica Rose and Elina Street created The Lesbian Bar Project after their extensive research uncovered that only 21 lesbian bars are still open in the U.S. To raise awareness for these remaining businesses, they put together a public service announcement and started an online fundraiser, which brought in $117,000 in 28 days.
“When the pandemic started, we’re both filmmakers, and the film industry shut down,” Street said. “A lot of things that we took for granted once they were removed from us during COVID, we realized we needed them even more than we thought we did, and so that’s how The Lesbian Bar Project came to life as well, because we wanted a call to action.”
What makes an establishment uniquely lesbian is that it caters to and prioritizes queer women, Street further explained. However, both she and Rose pointed out lesbian bars are inclusive of the rest of the LGBTQ community.
“Lesbian bars, we always say — and it’s in our mission statement — are not just for lesbian-identified women. They’re for all marginalized genders within the LGBTQIA community, so that includes all queer women, cis and trans, nonbinary people and trans men,” Rose said. “The lesbian bar is not just for hookups or dating — even though that’s a great use of it — it’s for intergenerational dialogue. It’s for political action. It’s for community. It’s for friendship. Without space, we lose power, and we lose representation, so it’s really important for our culture that the bars stay alive.”
Now the project has partnered with Jägermeister to release a short documentary this month to highlight some of these spaces and raise even more money to benefit the bars. The goal now is to bring in $200,000.
Lesbian bars in Texas
Julie Mabry, who owns Pearl Bar, said her business took a wallop during the pandemic, losing about $600,000 last year. At one point she launched an online fundraiser to keep her business afloat, which brought in almost $35,000. She also received a grant from two organizations and gained even more recognition due to exposure from The Lesbian Bar Project.
After such significant hardship, Mabry said she is shocked to now report that business is better than what it was even in 2019.
“My customers have been supporting me and Pearl through the entire pandemic, and I think now they’re just very proud to know they were part of this and that their lesbian bar is still open in Houston,” Mabry said. “There’s a lot of gratitude and celebration. I’m just extremely grateful for our customers.”
All of the lesbian-specific establishments in Austin closed years ago, including the 1920s Club, Club Skirt, Chances, Sister’s Edge and Sidekicks. However, there are a number of gay clubs and bars located around the city.
Rose and Street began their documentary pointing out roughly 200 lesbian bars existed in the 1980s, but that number has now dropped to less than two dozen.
The thousands raised during the first fundraiser last year helped some of the remaining bars in a number of ways, Street said.
“The bar owners were extremely happy,” Street said. “It helped pay for their staff. It helped pay for some of their rent, and it actually really helped with publicity for them. A lot of the bars told us that they had many more patrons that came up to them, because they had never been, and they had never heard of it.”
Mabry said she may actually end up giving back whatever money Pearl Bar is awarded by The Lesbian Bar Project from this latest fundraiser because of how well business is going at the moment.
“Even if we aren’t going to need the money, we can donate it back. The bars that they’re helping are staples in their city. They’re imperative,” Mabry said. “I’m just very appreciative for everyone who’s trying to salvage the last lesbian bars, and hopefully in the future we’ll have more of them.”
Now the project’s co-founders would like to shine an even bigger spotlight on the bar owners and employees who keep these spaces open and evolving — people whom Rose calls the community’s “cultural architects.”
“At the end of the documentary, we say, ‘Show up to your bars,'” Rose said. “Our bar owners can do as much as they humanly can to keep these spaces open, but the onus is on us to show up and spend our money at these spaces and these bars. We’re hoping that people have a resurgence, and they’re galvanized to go and support our bars.”