The spaces have all shuttered, but an oral history project is creating a new community through retelling stories from the 1980s bar scene.
Groups of women gathered around small round tables, drinking. Some were shooting a game of pool; others hung out by the jukebox. In was January 2016, but inside New Orleans’ Theater at St. Claude, the lesbian bar scene of the 1980s came back to life.
For three days in January, the performance of Alleged Lesbian Activities ran at the theater. The show was a combination of oral histories and staged reenactments of the bygone bar scene; the run in January was a work-in-progress production in preparation for the a three-week run in September. After the shows, the directors solicited input from the women in the audience, some of whom were born after the last bars closed, and some of whom had lived through everything described in the show.
Alleged Lesbian Activities is just one facet of Last Call: New Orleans Dyke Bar History Project, which launched around three years ago and comprises live performances, an oral-history podcast devoted to stories of life in the lesbian bars of ‘70s and ‘80s New Orleans, and community events that bring together generations of queer women in conversation around a culture that has, as co-director Indee Mitchell says, “changed a lot, and not changed at all.”
The spaces to which Last Call pays tribute have all but disappeared. Across the country, lesbian bars are shutting their doors. Some blame rising rents in cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; others cite the advent of online dating as the death knell for the dyke bar. But what that latter line of thinking does, says Last Call organizer Bonnie Gabel, “is reduce the bars to a pickup space, when really, they were so much more than that.”
In past decades, a woman could walk into a lesbian bar and live out loud, as she might have been unable to on the streets or in her everyday life, Mitchell says. Social movements coalesced within the walls of the bars; waves of feminism broke over drink orders. New Orleans once played host to around a dozen lesbian bars; now, there are none left.
“We need space to exist, space to socialize, space to organize, space to truly be our whole selves,” Mitchell says. In the stories the older generations tell on the Last Call podcast, the lesbian bars of decades past were those places. In an episode devoted to Charlene’s, which was open on Elysian Fields from 1977 to 1999, Ellen Rabin, a former regular, said that the owner “supplied people the most happiness they had because they had somewhere to go.” Police raids and violence on the sidewalk surrounded the bars, but inside, they were safe havens. Another regular said that walking into Charlene’s was the equivalent of saying “I’m here, you can’t bug me.”
“We hear the older generation saying to us: ‘We feel so bad for y’all, you don’t have a place to go,’” Mitchell says. In the absence of lesbian bars, certain places will host themed nights, like dyke night, or ladies’ night, Mitchell says. But it’s insufficient. “Are we really supposed to shove all of our existence into one Tuesday evening a month?” Mitchell says.
Last Call is trying to fill the hole left by the shuttered bars “through the space we create making art together, through the space we create through our communication with the previous generation of queer folk, through the space we create in the community through performance and events,” Gabel says. But it’s difficult, Gabel adds, when there’s no tangible physical place to point to and say: this is ours.
Collaborating with the older generation on the oral histories and the performances, Mitchell says, has fostered a sense of solidarity that transcends the absence of a physical community space. “It’s important for us to learn about the things that they went through,” Mitchell says, “and there are also a lot of things that we endure here that they don’t know or understand.” Last Call has opened up a space of its own for an exchange of that knowledge.
And it’s also raised questions about what interpretation of physical space would most benefit the Last Call community. The LGBT Center recently moved to a larger collaborative space in New Orleans; Mitchell and Gabel have been hosting rehearsals for Alleged Lesbian Activities there. But they’re also figuring out what other place is needed for the queer community as it exists now. “Is it a bar?” Gabel says. “Is it a bar that’s more radical than the bars that once were? Is it a space with sewing machines and computers that folks can just hang around and use?” Whatever that space might look like, Gabel says that the important thing is that it retains the energy of multigenerational and multiracial communication created through Last Call. “That’s why we’re doing this work,” Mitchell says. “People need this.”
Alleged Lesbian Activities will run September 2-18 at the Theater at St. Claude in New Orleans.