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The Lost Lesbian Bars of New Orleans

Bygone centers for activism, secret love, and glittery drag shows are being revived through story.

The rainbow flag in New Orleans. (Photo: Tony Webster/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the 1970s and ‘80s, hundreds of women in New Orleans, Louisiana found bliss at their local dive bar, swaying to the jukebox amid clinking glasses. They held hands, they plotted protests; they kissed. Away from the prying eyes and very real dangers of the outside world, lesbian bars were cultural centers for many women in New Orleans for decades. This scene, however, shines faintly in the past: today, in a city with one of the most concentrated and vibrant gay bar scenes in the country, there are exactly zero lesbian bars left.  

Across the United States, lesbian bars are disappearing at an alarming rate, but there was a time when the lesbian bar scene was very much alive. Through the mid 1980s until many closed in the ‘90s and 2000s, there were over a dozen lesbian bars that peppered New Orleans’ streets, though learning what they were like takes some detective work. Last Call: The Dyke Bar History Project is an oral history and performance project focused on this history. The team behind it is currently unearthing and performing a musical based on diverse stories about former lesbian bars in New Orleans.

“These spaces held much more than social power and places to meet each other,” says indee mitchell, one of the contributors and organizers of Last Call (who does not use capitalization in their name). “They were also places where people could organize; there are a lot of intersections of activism and political work that occurred in these spaces too, and that’s something that’s been kind of lost or relocated.” Found through word of mouth or magazines and guidebooks, lesbian bars united like-minded women who would organize, fall in love, and make friends in the same space, where generations of women from all walks of life could meet.

Last Call Nola has created a musical about the lesbian bar scene that used to exist in New Orleans. (Photo: Melisa Cardona)

Activism was an important part of New Orleans bar life for some; women gathered over cheap beer to plan movements and protests, including one where thousands of people participated in a national effort to denounce the efforts of homophobic singer Anita Bryant. Sometimes women would gain access to social and political activism for the first time in bars. In an era where cops would arrest gay and lesbian people for obstruction of the sidewalk and “alleged lesbian activities” was an actual cause for arrest, a safe space was a necessity. A lesbian bar was the one place that guaranteed an automatic welcome: a small slice of utopia.

But the existence of lesbian bars in New Orleans didn’t mean lesbians were generally accepted, or even allowed to be in bars. The former most deadly attack of a gay space happened in New Orleans in 1973, and homosexuality had long been strictly illegal. Bars were frequently raided, with lesbian patrons falling under “lewd behavior” laws; it was illegal for them to dance, to hold hands, to be out as lesbians while drinking. One article from the Times Picayune includes the report of a raid in 1963, where six women and a man were arrested for “a variety of charges including loitering and homosexuality” at 2:25 in the morning, after officers had staked out the bar for two hours.

Last Call’s oral history interviews flesh out the details excluded from news reports, including how lesbians subverted police. “You would just be sitting in a place and the police would come in and the paddy wagons would come up after that … the next thing you know you would be put in the paddy wagon and taken down and being booked and everything,” said restaurateur Ellen Rabin. One bar flashed a light to warn patrons of police so they could rearrange their seats, hiding the lesbian scene. Rabin once labeled cash at her business with a stamp that said “gay money” which was later circulated around the city, causing a stir. Women who knew a police officer learned and kept note of upcoming raids to avoid targeted bars.

From The Times-Picayune Police Report section in 1968, a notice about the arrest of dancing couples, which included Charlene Schneider. (Photo: Times-Picayune)

“When people were outed, they would start tending bar,” explains Bonnie Gabel, who works with mitchell and the rest of the Last Call group as an organizer and contributor. When a large raid was reported in the newspaper, pictures and full names could be listed for all to see. One victim of a raid named Charlene Schneider had a high-security clearance working for the government, and lost everything she worked for when she was arrested in a raid in the 1970s. Her response was to open a bar called Charlene’s, which became a cultural staple until it closed in 1999.

These lesbian spaces were not perfect, however. “They were places of huge solidarity, but all of the oppressions of the external world were mirrored inside of the dyke bars,” says Gabel. This was more jarring in what was considered a safe space. Alcoholism and addiction surface in the oral histories, and “domestic violence was something that people talked about as well as racist aggressions and issues around gender,” says Gabel, though these spaces, whatever their faults, were still safer than the outside world.

From the 1970s, a postcard for Bourbon Street. (Photo: Christopher Paquette/CC BY 2.0)

Les Pierres, opened by loving couple Leslie Martinez and Juanita Pierre, was the first to fill the void in lesbian bar night life for women of color, and many more followed. According to the oral histories, music was a huge difference of Les Pierres versus white lesbian bars, some of which wouldn’t  play black music. Black lesbians could feel at home at Les Pierres without being tokenized, allowed to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

At Les Pierres, drag became a big part of their home-built community; drag queens would show up early Sunday morning after their Saturday night performances in the French Quarter. The first drag king group in New Orleans first appeared at and because of Les Pierres, and Martinez and Pierre went all out for their shows. If someone was using a beach scene, they brought in sand. They focused realistic sets for a park bench so someone could perform “Secret Lovers” by Kool & the Gang. “We wanted to do a lot of props so you really actually felt you were in that setting,” Martinez said to Last Call.

Despite social separation, the bars helped each other; Les Pierres, which was at the corner of Pauger Street and Rampart until the late ‘80s, could rely on the predominantly white bar Charlene’s if their soda water ran out. Charlene’s could do the same, and they drank at one another’s bars. Even among the sub-scenes of the lesbian community, these bars were connected to each other and their patrons. Schneider lent cash to customers who couldn’t afford a door charge. Women who got too drunk at Les Pierres could rely on Martinez and Pierre to bring them home; children were welcome on Saturday morning when they were closed.

The last lesbian bar in New Orleans, Rubyfruit Jungle, closed in 2012; some could argue that it was not solely a lesbian bar at all, a far cry from the environment of New Orleans’ lesbian scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As such a rich and important cultural standby, the question is why they’re going away.

The last lesbian bar in New Orleans, Rubyfruit Jungle, closed in 2012. (Photo: Gary J. Wood/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The issue is complicated, though one challenge past and present is making enough money to survive. Many women had children, so drinking at a bar nightly was not an option. “It was rough because women don’t come out like the guys do, they don’t tip like the guys do, they don’t drink like the guys do,” Juanita Pierre told Last Call. Even Charlene’s bar, which is frequently mentioned in the oral histories as a beloved home away from home for white lesbians, was described dated from day one, and never generated enough funds to renovate.

Some Last Call participants had theories, including that “women just don’t like to drink, or lesbians just want to make a home, and I think a lot of those are pretty reductive,” says Gabel. mitchell adds that internet dating is rumored to have replaced the need for lesbian bars. “The implication is that lesbians only go to a bar to meet a partner, which isn’t always the case,” mitchell says.

As the plurality of sexual identities became more visible in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the pool of potential customers for identity-specific spaces may have shrank. Last Call spoke to some women who conceded that they might have identified as bi; another is trans. Today, more women are identifying diversely and claiming their spaces in an increasingly openly diverse world, where inclusivity is important for business.

Whatever the reason, night culture for lesbians and all queer women has changed. In Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar, Kelly Hankin writes that “the sexual availability of lesbian bar patrons for men, male and female heterosexual tourism of lesbian bar space” made lesbian bars less palatable for lesbian women. In an ethnographic study about gay bar night life, Kimberly Eichenburger argues that “female heterosexual diffusion has helped push lesbian women to the periphery of the subculture, leaving them with little space of their own.”

Today, Mags 940 stands at the site of the former bar Charlene’s. (Photo: © 2016 Google)

Today, queer, bi and lesbian nights in New Orleans happen in gay bars, with activism, dating and general socializing inhabiting mostly different spheres. Online meetup groups help LBTQ women network and organize informal get-togethers; some bars social groups hold live events, which have ranged from drag shows to a monthly barbeque and picnic for queer people of color. Gabel and mitchell reason that maybe a bar, necessitating alcohol, isn’t always the answer to safe spaces for LBTQ women to meet, necessarily. Since the 2003 Supreme Court ruling against anti-sodomy laws, it has been officially “legal” to be lesbian, bi, queer, or gay. Theoretically women can dance, with one another, in any place they want. While some women who once frequented New Orleans lesbian bars in the 1970s and ‘80s do occasionally meet, it’s still vague what the future holds for aging LBTQ women who are pushed back into the closet, or how to meet others beyond the internet.

“[Lesbian bars] became this nexus of community support, and we have a lot of stories about them being that way—it’s hard to find that kind of nexus of community support in the digital world,” Gabel says. Mitchell agrees, adding that “it’s about finding space to just exist as your full self as well…just a place to go when you think ‘I just need to go somewhere, that I don’t have to necessarily abide by all the constricting rules of the world penned up against us.’”

Now, Last Call is performing a musical based on these stories in New Orleans through September 15th, with plans to later tour nationally and collect more stories as they go. While Gabel says these memories are sometimes hard to talk about, the Last Call group is mending a gap that has existed since these bars closed; we no longer often get a chance to learn about queer identity from elders. “By being in this community that is big and diverse and multigenerational—it connects the past to the present,” Gabel says.

In the oral histories, that connection between history and identity is reinforced, over and over. “They were singing something beyond just a good beat,” one participant says, reminiscing of what that community meant to her on a busy, music filled night. “It was like: I’m in a lesbian bar, damnit. I’m a gay woman, I’m a lesbian woman, and I’m gonna sing out loud and I’m gonna survive, honey. I’m going to flourish, and I’m gonna have a good time—I’m gonna be out and loud and proud. I’m here, you can’t bug me.”