Erica Rose is a Brooklyn based filmmaker with a focus on queer and female driven stories. She is the co-creator and co-director of The Lesbian Bar Project.
In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the United States. Now, there are only 21 remaining. These bars, often the only safe spaces for lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ community, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Erica Rose, along with fellow Director Elina Street, immediately jumped into action and created The Lesbian Bar Project. What resulted was a viral fundraiser, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised, and a documentary to celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the United States. This October, The Lesbian Bar Project docuseries for Roku will also be released.
Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Erica discusses why LGBTQ spaces are so important and her mission to save the last remaining bars.
Jay Ruderman: Hi. I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to “All About Change”, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
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Jay Ruderman: In each episode, we bring you in-depth and intimate conversations about activism, courage, and change.
Erica Rose: It made me feel a purpose. and It made me feel whole again.
Jay Ruderman: And today on our show: Erica Rose, an award-winning filmmaker and co-creator of The Lesbian Bar Project.
Erica Rose: In terms of my day-to-day life, I had no one. And when I walked into Cubbyhole, it was almost, it was arresting. I not only just saw like amazing, beautiful women around me, but it was more about these people who were unapologetically themselves.
Jay Ruderman: In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars across the United States. Now, there are only 21 remaining. These bars, often the only safe space for lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ community, are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Erica Rose: That really scared me. And it was a wake up call because I consider myself pretty ingrained in the community and I didn’t even know the numbers were so bad.
Jay Ruderman: Erica Rose along with fellow director, Elina Street, immediately jumped into action and created The Lesbian Bar Project, which resulted in a viral fundraiser, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised, and a documentary to celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the United States.
Erica Rose: Our bars are not just bars, they’re cultural epicenters and spaces for intergenerational dialogue and for queer friendship. and if we don’t have a space that reflects specific groups, then we lose power, we lose validity, we lose a way of life.
So Erica, welcome, Thank you for being our guest today.
Thank you for having me. So happy to be here.
So, I was able to watch The Lesbian Bar Project and I was really impressed by the quality of the filmmaking. I just want to start off by asking you on a personal level, how did you decide to become a filmmaker?
I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 10. I was raised by two therapists and they were very, very adamant on introducing me to art and culture and film. And my dad was like, “Okay, you need to be literate in Scorsese by the time you’re 12.” So I was introduced to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull probably at too young of an age, but that’s neither here nor there. So I was kind of transfixed by filmmaking. And there weren’t that many women that I knew of that were directors. There were a couple of examples, but for the majority of my childhood, I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me behind a camera. So it wasn’t until I got to high school and kind of was doing self-education of like, oh, hey, there’s filmmakers like, Mira Nair or Sally Potter or Jane Campion, who were making waves and they happened to be women. So from there, I was just making my own stuff completely self-taught. And then I got into NYU film school and worked my way up. And after I graduated, I had done a lot of working for other people. And basically when the pandemic hit, I knew that I needed to focus on my directing career. I had pretty much exhausted all of my energy servicing other people’s visions, and I figured it was time to service my own.
Well, I really like your work. And I want to just jump into your latest work on The Lesbian Bar Project. And maybe we can start with the history of lesbian bars. From what I understood in the 1980s, there were around 200 lesbian bars. Now, there are something like 21. How did that happen?
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason, but we’ve been able to identify a couple of mitigating factors. So, gentrification is affecting our coastal cities especially, and all businesses owned and operated by marginalized people are affected by gentrification. So lesbian bars are definitely in the midst of not being able to afford rising rents and exorbitant taxes and just all around a kind of city that doesn’t necessarily have the space for them. And so gentrification it’s like a huge issue. Lesbian bars never occupied the same kind of space in real estate that gay bars did. There was a brief period in the nineties, in New York, where Park Slope was called, affectionately, Dyke Slope. And it had a kind of like a lesbian epicenter, but that was really, really fleeting.
Assimilation plays a huge factor into it. I think that when gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015, I think the most privileged members of our community were kind of swept away with a bit of complacency. I have the immense privilege that I can walk down the street in my neighborhood and go to a bar that’s not necessarily LGBTQ and feel safe. And that is because of the incredible work of the generations before me. But what’s lost there is that, there’s a feeling that if we accept that, if we accept that we don’t need specifically queer space, we’re essentially saying that space in general can be heteronormative or should be heteronormative and I’m against that, because our bars are not just bars, they’re cultural epicenters and spaces for intergenerational dialogue and for queer friendship and obviously dating sometimes. And if we don’t have a space that reflects specific groups, then we lose power, we lose validity, we lose just a way of life.
Jay: So, clear from what you said from the film that the brick and mortar space plays a really important role for the lesbian community, how do you define a lesbian bar and is it different from a gay bar or a queer bar?
It’s a really good question. How we define lesbian bars is that lesbian bars are spaces for all marginalized genders within the LGBTQIA community. So that’s all queer women, regardless if they’re cis or trans, non-binary people and trans men. Gay bars and queer bars in general are not necessarily prioritizing queer women and their experiences. And when I enter gay bars, for example, it’s like, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a 100% safe space for me. I think that there’s a lot of different dynamics happening between gay men and queer women, I’m not saying that it’s always a divisive relationship, but I think that there’s a lot of like kind of misogyny and internalized homophobia against queer women, which is really unfortunate, which I’ve experienced. But one thing that we do say in our film that’s really important is that all of our bars they identify as lesbian bars and. they’ll identify as lesbian bar and queer space, because it’s really, really important that our lesbian bars open their doors for the most vulnerable members of the community. And the most vulnerable members of the community right now are trans brothers and sisters and non-binary folks.
As we can see with the local legislation that’s passing throughout the Midwest and South, is that they are not a protected class and it’s unfortunate and it’s something that I think as I said earlier, our more privileged members of the community don’t necessarily have the same kind of energy and motivation to fight for trans rights And I think that’s really disappointing because our community has always been built around activism and has been built around political organization, and we need to support each other. And if we don’t support our trans community, it does affect all of us.
So, tell us about the first time you went into a lesbian bar and what that meant to you.
So, I always like to say that Cubbyhole, the lesbian bar in Manhattan knew I was gay before I even did. I walked in in 2009 and I had been like questioning, I kind of like admitted it to myself years prior, but I had been repressing it. And the minute I walked into Cubbyhole, I was so overtaken by this palpable and tangible energy of queer women. Even 2009, which isn’t that long ago, I felt like there was such a missing contingency of representation for our community. In terms of my day-to-day life, I had no one. And when I walked into Cubbyhole, it was almost, it was arresting, it was invigorating, it was electrifying that I not only just saw like obviously amazing, beautiful women around me, but it was more about these people who were unapologetically themselves.
Erica Rose: (12:24)
And there was queer community, there was queer friendship, So when I walked into Cubbyhole, I knew deep down that the minute I was ready to come out, I would have a safe space to go to. And once I came out, once I started kind of living publicly as a gay woman, I found that going to lesbian bars in the city, whether it was Henrietta Hudson, Cubbyhole, Gingers, I’ve had that space to be unapologetically and unabashedly myself.
[clip from documentary of lisa menichino talking about cubby hole]
So, if hypothetically Cubbyhole or other lesbian bars in Manhattan or New York did not exist, what do you think your journey of self-acceptance would have looked like?
I can imagine that it would have been a lonely experience. If I didn’t have these bars, I wouldn’t have given myself the opportunity to figure out who I was. I think that these spaces allowed me to kind of not only come out in a way that I was met with community, but to also figure out the nuances of who I am within the LGBTQIA community
So, tell me about when you first learned about the decline in lesbian bars in the United States, and when you learned about that, what compelled you to start The Lesbian Bar Project?
So, as we all remember, the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020, and I was on the phone a lot with my friend, Elina, and we were just kind of processing the shutdown of our industry as filmmakers, and just kind of the shutdown of our day-to-day lives. And this coincided with a couple of articles coming out about the dearth of lesbian bars in the country, how that there was only 16 or 15 left. And that really scared me. And it was a wake up call because I consider myself pretty ingrained in the community and I didn’t even know the numbers were so bad. So Elina and I spoke about it and we were like, “Okay, let’s do something about this.” So, she and I kind of like got our heads together and we’re like, “Let’s tell the stories of these bars as filmmakers.” So, we teamed up with a couple of producers too, and we birthed The Lesbian Bar Project. In 2020, we set out to do a PSA and we knew that we wanted it to be also branded because one, brands can pay for it, and as queer artists, we need funding. And two, it would get the kind of exposure that we knew that this project deserved. So we pitched it to a couple of brands. Obviously alcohol brands were an obvious and like symbiotic option. So we also teamed up with Lea DeLaria who… I mean, Lea is such an icon and she has an immense following. It was really important to us to have a voice for the community, and Lea is one of the few like out, queer women celebrities who actually still patronize the bars, like she’s a regular at Cubbyhole and she… Like, that’s like her spot.
Lea DeLaria: You know as gay people, we have what we like to call a “chosen family.” You know what I’m talking about. And I always think of the CubbyHole as my chosen family. I mean you’re totally… and every time I hangout with my family I get rip-roaring drunk!
Erica Rose: it was really an easy choice to go to her and say, “Hey, can you represent the project?” And she was like, “Of course.” . So we launched our PSA in October 2020 and went on to raise $117,000 that was split evenly amongst the bars. We knew that we weren’t done telling the stories of these bars, we got a couple of emails from the community members saying like, “Oh, you might’ve missed this bar and this bar.” So we did more research. And discovered a couple more. So this year, when we decided to do The Lesbian Bar Project again, we announced a list of 21 bars. And we always say, it’s an estimated number. There’s still like new bars opening, there’s bars closing, like, there’s not many statistics on the amount of lesbian bars in the country, it’s hard to necessarily pinpoint one number, but 21 is the closest we’ve gotten. And earlier this year in June, we released a 20-minute documentary. And this time, we introduced the world to this staggering statistic that there are a few lesbian bars left in the country. And now we wanted to tell the human stories behind these bars. So our film is through the lens of the bar owners, community activists, patrons, and archivists. And they tell the stories of not just the bars themselves, but how it affects our lesbian culture. And I think that if there’s few bars left in the country, it begs the question, do we still need them and what is the future for queer women?
So, you mentioned in the film about recent generations not being aware of the struggle and sacrifice that went into places like Cubbyhole, and can you tell me a little bit about the activists who actually laid the groundwork so that these spaces could exist?
Yeah. So there’s people like Stormé DeLarverie
[archival interview with Storme]
who was arguably the first person who threw a punch at Stonewall and Lisa Cannistraci, owner of Henrietta Hudson talks about her with such reverence. They were friends.
One thing to note is that lesbian bars had a divisive history. I think that there’s a lot of cases where these bars were discriminatory against women of color. We talked about that in the film, for example, the bar, Bonnie and Clyde on one hand, the owner, Elaine Romagnoli was revolutionary in the sense that she was able to own and operate a bar in the 1970s as a single woman. Women weren’t even allowed to get a line of credit without the approval of their husbands or fathers, let alone a liquor license. So there was something incredibly admirable about what she did. But on the other hand, her bar had a race-based quota, and they would allow like two or three black women into their doors. And during brunch service on a Sunday, black women were served different food than their white counterparts.
So in response to that, folks like Audre Lorde were part of the organizing founding members of the Salsa Soul Sisters, which is the first black and Latina lesbian organization in the country. So we felt it was really important to talk about them in our film, because that is part of lesbian bar culture. And they weren’t able to necessarily occupy space in the same way that white women were in terms of traditional bar settings, but the spaces where they were able to occupy served the same purpose that the lesbian bars brick and mortar spaces did.
Well, I know that that one of the bars that is featured in The Lesbian Bar Project is a bar called Herz in Mobile, Alabama run by two African-American women, which is fairly unique, because you make the point in the film that there are almost no bars except for that one and maybe another one that is run by black or brown women. Can you talk a little bit about that? And I mean, to own a bar in Mobile, Alabama, where there’s so much homophobia, that must be a difficult business to run.
So, when we met Rachel, Sheila Smallman, the owners of Hers it was like love at first sight.
[clip from documentary about Hers]
They have such an effervescent energy and they are just wonderful, wonderful human beings. And we’re obsessed with them and they’re obsessed with us and it’s like a mutual love that’s really exciting, but when we first started talking to them we knew we needed to go down to Mobile because of what you’re saying, because they are the only lesbian bar on our list that is owned and operated by black women. And one thing that they talk about is that they started the bar as a reaction to feeling discriminated, not just by heterosexual people, but by gay men in the south as well. And I think that in the south and in spaces that are not coastal cities in the United States, these bars are really melting pots for the entire community, because there is such a lack of safety in many of the spaces. Yeah I mean Rachel and Sheila are defying a lot of odds by opening that space. I mean, Hers is an electric space. Everyone there is greeted with a hug, Sheila walks people to their cars to ensure safety, the staff is incredibly welcoming. It really is like a home away from home. And that was what we wanted to capture when we were filming. It’s a space where the community can gather and be themselves where they might not necessarily be able to in their day-to-day lives.
[clip from documentary about Hers]
So, Erica, can you talk a little bit about your own personal activism in the LGBTQ community and maybe how do you believe that younger generations can or will become more involved in activism in the LGBTQ community ?
I think that there’s definitely a generational gap. There’s kind of an older guard that talks about, which we point out in our film, that younger generations don’t know what we went through. And that’s something that it’s important for us to listen and to educate ourselves as younger people about really what older, queer people went through in order to have the rights that we do today. On the flip side of that, I think that older generations can learn something from us too, and learn something that they’re… We don’t have to be so militant in our definition of, for example, lesbianism.one thing we tracked in our film is this disparity between an older guard of what it means to be a gay person and have queer space, versus what our current generation means.
Henrietta Hudson changed their logo after 30 years. And it was more of like a fem presenting person and then it changed to something that is gender inclusive, and there was backlash. I mean, Henrietta Hudson got backlash on Instagram, we got backlash for including them in our campaign, Henrietta Hudson started identifying as a queer human bar built by lesbians. And for us, that still met our definition of a lesbian bar. And I think that there were certain people who felt really, really disappointed and felt betrayed because they felt that the women-only spaces were disappearing, and one of the few institutions that still kind of identified as a women-centered space was now using gender-inclusive labels and logos.
And Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of Henrietta Hudson had the best response I’ve ever heard to that complaint. She said, “You thought 10, 20, 30 years ago that you were in a women-only space, a gay women-only space, but you were wrong. There were trans men there, there were non-binary people there, there were bisexual and pansexual people there. Those people have always been part of the lesbian community. And now we have the language to include them. And we have the language to make them feel seen and not make them feel isolated. And as I I think that we can open our doors to many different kinds of people. And I think that it’s a responsibility and a wonderful gift that lesbian bars can give to the community.
So, let’s talk a little bit about allyship. And do you feel it’s important to have non-queer allies in the effort to save these bars in general?
Erica Rose: (35:08)
That’s a really good question. And one thing that we just need to talk about in general is that most of these bars survive because of allyship. As I stated before, the wage cap is absolutely devastating and most of these Bars rely on allies and straight people to come to their bars and spend money, especially lesbian bars can’t survive on just queer populations patronizing their spaces. I do however think that there’s a way to support lesbian bars and to support gay bars and queer spaces without overtaking the space. So for example, a lot of the gay bars have banned straight bachelor parties. it’s like you’re, kind of like flaunt your heteronormativity in a space that has fought to kind of like counteract that, and I think that it’s really important that when you are a straight ally, when you come into a space that’s not made for you, you’re a guest and you have to be deferential to the people that are prioritized in that space.
I’m not advocating for exclusionary practices in any regard. I think that there’s no check at the door of like, who are you? You can’t be here. I don’t think that there should be mandates at the door about like which genders are allowed into a space. I do think, however, that if you know you’re, as a straight ally, if you know you’re walking into a queer women’s space that you need to realize that, and that you’re not their priority there.
So, during the making of the film, what surprised you the most that you learned about lesbian bars and maybe you could give us a favorite story from the bars that you visited?
One of the things that surprised me actually was a bar from the past, Meow Mix, that we covered in the film briefly. And it was around in the nineties, in the lower east side. And obviously I knew that queer bars and queer establishment had a really complicated and often turbulent relationship with the police, but one thing that was interesting talking to Brooke Webster, who was the owner of Meow Mix, is that Giuliani’s administration was actually kind of their biggest foe in terms of their own kind of survival. Basically, there was mandates and there was laws and legislation that was passed to be predatorial to marginalized business owners and that serviced marginalized people. So like, there’d be like code violations that were completely insane, that would essentially enact a shut down. So one thing that she had to navigate there was like kind of this kind of whisper network of people who were in nightlife spaces, that’d be like, “Oh, someone from the mayor’s office is here.” Or like, “Do X, Y, Z.”
Giuliani talked a lot about his like cleanup efforts and his cleanup efforts were in a lot of ways, just like completely try to erase marginalized people, whether they are people of color or queer people or women centric-spaces. So that was like really interesting to learn.. I think learning about, as we talked about earlier, just like truly how egregiously racist some of these bars could be. I obviously knew that there was racism in our spaces, but to learn specifically that there were race-based quotas at the door, to me was really disturbing and something that we need to start talking about as a community.
And I think that there’s still numerous reparations to be done in order to make queer women of color feel safe in lesbian bars and feel welcome in lesbian bars. Our goal for the future of The Lesbian Bar Project is to tell more of the stories of these bars and kind of go outside of the parameters we set in the 20-minute film. we’re really excited to kind of continue the project to tell more of these stories behind the bars.
I know that The Lesbian Bar Project is available to view for free. Maybe you could talk about how people can access that. And also, I know you did a fundraiser and it was successful. Are you continuing to raise funds to help these bars?
So, people can watch the film for free going to lesbianbarproject.com. It’s also on the Jägermeister YouTube page, global YouTube page, and it’s 20 minutes and feel free to watch and enjoy. People can also follow along the project on our Instagram, which is @lesbianbarproject. And in terms of more fundraising, I think the goal right now is to get people to go to the bars. That’s always been a goal of mine and Elina’s is to say like, “Hey, please go to the bars.” You can give money to us, but the most important thing is support our bars. Show up for your bars. So that’s our priority right now.
So, I know one of the goals is to help these bars that exist to continue to survive. Do you feel that your project will lead to more bars opening across the country?
Yes. We’re actually already seeing that. We followed Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike, who are opening As You Are Bar, it was really important to us to follow a new space that’s opening, because often how we talk about lesbian bars is through loss, disappearance, and trauma. And it was really important to us to show like, “Hey, here’s a new lesbian and queer space that’s opening that is filled with optimism and filled with excitement.” And we’re getting so many messages from people around the country, opening new lesbian bars. There’s a spot in Astoria that’s trying to open right now called Dave’s. There’s a spot in LA called Hot Donna’s, that’s trying to open. And so we’re really excited and I think that there’s going to be a lot more in our future and I can’t wait to go to those spaces and to witness them.
maybe you could talk about what you learned about yourself through this whole journey of making the film. Like what the whole project did for you personally.
Erica Rose: (45:07)
I love this question. No one has actually ever asked me this question. I think that it did so much. I mean, it made me feel whole again. It made me feel a purpose and I’m just so excited that I can As a filmmaker, my goal was always to tell stories that are overlooked or forgotten or unseen. And I think that Elina and I set out to tell the stories of these bars, and it’s just really, really exciting that we’re getting so much positive feedback and that people are learning something, but also feel celebrated. And I think that it’s so, as I said earlier, a lot of times we talk about gay experience as that of trauma. And I think it’s really important to show the beauty and the passion and the optimism and the excitement that’s within us. And I think that was really important to do that, especially as this pandemic keeps raging on.
We have stories like Blush & Blu in Denver, they told us and they like went on a couple of interviews and said this, that they wouldn’t have been able to survive without us. And I’m like, “Oh my God, we didn’t set out to like save any bars.” We knew that we didn’t necessarily have the tools to do that, but the fact that we were able to keep these doors open for at least a couple of more months, to me just feels like an honor of a lifetime. So I’m really excited to keep on pushing through for the community, and I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us.
Well, thank you so much. I just want to leave with telling our audience different things that they can do to support what you’re doing. We said go and watch, and I’ve watched it and I would recommend anyone to watch it because I think it’s a very well-done piece of film with a strong message, The Lesbian Bar Project. Anything else that people can do if they want to get involved and contribute and help lesbian bars to continue in the United States?
Go to our website. There’s a map of the United States. And we show where every lesbian bar is located. Show up for your bars. Our pool fund is closed. And thank you for everyone who donated this year. For now, what folks can do, watch our film, support us on social media, and show up for your bars.
Erica, it’s been such a pleasure speaking to you. I think your activism has been extremely impactful and will continue to be impactful and really appreciate having you as my guest today.
Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.
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