It was a French gay male neurasthenic, nearly a century ago, who perhaps best expressed the particular paradox of lesbian recognition: “The daughters of Gomorrah are at once rare enough and numerous enough for one not to pass unnoticed by another in any given crowd,” wrote Marcel Proust in La Captive (1923), the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time. On a recent hot Sunday afternoon in the West Village, roughly fifty daughters of Gomorrah — and some allies — gathered to go on a time quest of our own. We were in search of the lost lesbian bar.
We had assembled for the inaugural “Dyke Bar Walking Tour,” a psychogeographical, herstorical odyssey sponsored by Dyke Bar Takeover, which, per its Facebook page, “is a group of artists and activists dedicated to creating and supporting Queer space for self-identified women, transgender and gender non-conforming people of all races.” (Proceeds from the event, which charged $25, or $15 for pre-registrants, are going to the Trans Justice Funding Project and the New York City Dyke March.) We were there to drink and mingle at two sapphic boîtes: The tour, divided into two groups, kicked off at 2:30 at the Cubbyhole, at the corner of West 4th and West 12th streets, and concluded, after a short detour east, at Henrietta Hudson, about half a mile south. These bars, along with Ginger’s in Park Slope and the Bum Bum Bar in Woodside, Queens, are the only four nightspots in the city catering specifically to queer women year-round. Although that number is puny — according to Alana Integlia, one of the founding members of Dyke Bar Takeover and the project’s researcher, in 2015 there were 53 LGBTQ (read: mostly gay-guy) bars, down from 86 in 1985 — several major cities, like Philadelphia and, astonishingly, San Francisco, now have no lez clubs at all.
Over the two-hour stroll, we visited the former addresses of some of the mighty Manhattan lavender fortresses that had fallen — the Duchess, Bonnie & Clyde’s, Crazy Nanny’s — many the victims, at least in part, of gentrification. (Too far to walk to, Meow Mix, the East Village dyke redoubt that closed in 2004, was noted during the tour, as was Catty Shack, the two-story lez emporium in Park Slope owned by Meow Mix’s Brooke Webster that opened in 2006 and closed a few years later.) Winding our way through these downtown blocks, we were reminded of the absurdities of New York real estate, of the obscenities of Manhattan boutiques. One example: The current occupant of 21 Seventh Avenue South, the former home of Crazy Nanny’s (1991–2003 or 2004) — which I used to frequent in the mid-to-late Nineties and where, prompted by the thought-experiment directive of Nic Rathert, our tour guide, I remembered delivering my best pickup line — is Dogma, a high-end canine day care and spa.
“We keep these spaces alive by going to them,” Rathert, a registered nurse who works with homeless LGBTQ youth, rousingly concluded as we stood outside Henrietta Hudson, shortly after a guest speaker had told us about the great butch African-American shero Stormé DeLarverie, the self-appointed “guardian” of West Village lesbians who worked as a bouncer at Henrietta’s (among many other dyke bars over the decades) until 2005, well into her eighties. (She died in 2014.) Rathert’s final, exhortatory words may have been self-evident but they bear repeating: In addition to the brutal realities of sky-high rents, could dyke bars also be disappearing because dykes are no longer patronizing them? Is it now preferable to stay in and gorge on Orange Is the New Black or set up a HER profile?
Inside Henrietta’s, with my water cocktail in hand, I sat on an ottoman as Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” played, and surveyed the racially and generationally diverse crowd: the two recent Smith grads who excitedly told me about a recent seminar on “the disappearing ‘L’ ”; the Gen X sociology professor who had taken Amtrak down from Boston just for the tour; the middle-aged interracial couple in matching Poconos T-shirts who were slow-dancing in the corner; the woman with a toddler strapped to her chest who would soon place her charge on top of the pool table. We were rare enough and numerous enough. We were enough to keep this space alive.