Q&A: Filmmaker Erica Rose of the Lesbian Bar Project - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Filmmaker Erica Rose of the Lesbian Bar Project

When New York–based filmmaker Erica Rose learned about the endangered nature of America’s lesbian bars—fewer than 20 are still in existence— she and co-founder Elina Street assembled a creative team and launched the Lesbian Bar Project, with funding from Jägermeister’s #savethenight campaign. Featuring archival footage and photos, and an homage to lost spaces like Sahara and Bonnie and Clyde, a 90-second PSA narrated by actress and comedian Lea DeLaria kicked off the project, and a fundraising campaign brought in more than $100,000 last November. We spoke with Rose about the next steps for the project, including an episodic documentary series, and the importance of representational spaces and the community they create.

What was the impetus behind the Lesbian Bar Project? I’ve been in [New York City] for the past 11 years, and I’m a proudly out person and had often gathered at lesbian bars—not only for dating purposes, but for a sense of community building and friendship bonding. Back in April [2020], our [film] industry shut down, and I had nothing but time to reflect on the importance of these spaces. Meanwhile, there were all these articles coming out about the disappearance of lesbian bars even before the pandemic, and how it could be expedited because of the pandemic. I called Elina [Street], my co-director and good friend, and I had the idea, “What if we did something to help them?” We wanted to do something to raise awareness about this staggering statistic. Because even for me, who is really engrained in the queer community, I didn’t know that there were only 15 bars left in the country. So, it was important to raise awareness and also raise some money so the bars could have a bit of a cushion going into the hardest months of their lives. We teamed up with two wonderful producers and birthed this project. I wanted someone familiar [to narrate], yet a voice that could be any of us. Because the goal for the PSA was to transport people into these spaces when they couldn’t be there. So, it was important that there was someone notable in our community, a queer icon that anchored it, and Lea DeLaria was the perfect fit for that.

What, to you, defines a lesbian bar? How is the space different from a gay bar or a queer bar? How we always looked at lesbian bars is that it’s a space that prioritizes marginalized genders within the LBGTQIA community, so that’s all queer women—cis and trans—nonbinary people and trans men. I think, as a lesbian-identified person, stepping into a space that’s catered to me is very different from stepping into a space that’s just an umbrella gay bar. Because frankly, what happens is that misogyny is still rampant, and gay men take up a space differently than people who don’t identify as cis gay men. A lot of the lesbian bars on our list don’t necessarily exclusively call themselves a lesbian bar—I don’t think any of them do. But we all know that they are lesbian bars because it’s centric to people who are not cis gay men. And, of course, at those bars everyone is welcome, they’re not going to discriminate against anyone, but the space is not made for them.

Why do you think lesbian bars specifically are such an endangered species?
There are a lot of factors, and we did months of research to figure out what’s going on. I think the biggest thing is that there’s so much discrimination against women-owned businesses. It’s much harder to get a loan—it’s harder to get investment just by the nature of your gender. Also, if your main clientele are women, there’s already income inequality all around—two women together make less than a man and woman, or two men. So, the economic breakdown is a huge factor. I think another reason is gentrification. A lot of queer neighborhoods are being eaten up by new developments, and these places just can’t keep up. I think it’s also a really complicated relationship with what’s happening with technology and how a lot of our dating and activity has moved online. But, in general, if there’s a space that caters to a marginalized community, and it’s already a small business with these other factors against them, they’re more likely to fail than not. There are ones that are really successful—for example, Henrietta Hudson in New York has been around for more than 30 years, and Lisa Cannistraci, the owner, sort of reimagines the space every seven years. She keeps up with the needs of the current generation. We look at queer culture today and there’s less emphasis on the word “lesbian.” There’s more emphasis on gender fluidity, gender identity, gender politics. If you take all that in mind, there needs to be a prioritizing of those themes and issues within the space.

The initial fundraising effort raised almost $118,000; where does the project currently stand? We started with 15 bars participating in the donation pool, but then two of the bars—Sue Ellen’s of Dallas and Pearl Bar of Houston—early on opted out of the money to give back more to the other bars. And along the way, we knew that more bars would come out of the woodwork, which is great because we want to find more of them. So we discovered a couple more, and it amounts to 15 bars that we’re splitting the funds between. From there, Elina and I are fast at work expanding this to an episodic documentary series. Right now, we’re centered on the bars as the starting point, but it’s also a reflection on the changing lesbian culture and landscape. It’s a question of: All these bars are disappearing, do we still need them? With that, we’re exploring the mitigating factors affecting these bars, and looking at the human stories behind them. For example, for the bars in the Midwest, we would talk about access to space, and a heteronormative America that people expect and assume in the Midwest, but then you find this really rich queer life that is not equally heard or seen there. We’re ambitious and hopeful that we can start shooting by the end of 2021, but as it goes in the industry it’s about when the money comes together. But we do have lots of interested people, and we’re continuing our relationship with Jägermeister.

Why is it important that these spaces continue to exist? There are so many reasons. I like to say that Cubbyhole knew I was gay before I even did. I remember going to that space over a decade ago and really being closeted and not understanding my own sexuality, and then walking into this space. … There was minimal lesbian representation on TV in 2009. I’d never really seen queer women up close and personal, and I know that sounds bizarre, but they were just not represented in my day-to-day life. And to not only see romantic things and sexual things like flirting, but seeing the community that’s built and the comradery, something inside me was invigorated—these are my people, I finally realized. I couldn’t deny myself anymore. On that level, it’s so important. Queer space is a way to exercise your queerness. … When these spaces are stripped away from us, the internal messaging behind it is that we’re not important enough, and there’s no need to prioritize our wants and needs. And the pandemic is accelerating that for all marginalized communities—look at businesses owned by women and businesses owned by people of color; they’re [many of] the ones that are shuttering. We’re wiping out diversity in ownership and diversity in clientele. That’s a really big problem that’s going to take years to rehabilitate.

With this increased visibility and these conversations now happening, do you think the future is looking brighter for these kinds of spaces? It was really exciting to see the support behind the project. I always knew there was an audience waiting for us, but I didn’t know how big that audience was, and how many people these bars have touched. One of the things I set out to learn in the beginning was how many queer women there are in the United States. And I looked at some demographic studies, and there’s roughly 8.5 million of us living in the U.S. The number of bars don’t reflect how many of us there are. … I’m really excited about the future because we’re going to see innovators. At the end of the day, I’m a filmmaker. I’m not a bar owner or restaurateur— and I have so much respect for those people because they’re innovators and hustlers. We’re going to see a lot more spaces open up that blow our minds and kind of transform what we think a bar should be. … We just continue the fight, and it’s going to be hard, but it’s important. I want to do it so that a younger version of me who walks into Cubbyhole as a fake straight girl has her eyes opened.

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