“They provide a safe space, a place for camaraderie, a place for community and, of course, a place to get laid,” said actor Lea DeLaria.
It took Denise Cohen over two years to open Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar, the Toasted Walnut, and just 10 months for the Covid-19 pandemic to shut it down forever.
“There is that hopelessness, that sense of loss that, you know, I had no control over this. It wasn’t even me being a bad business person,” Cohen said.
Cohen opened the Toasted Walnut in 2016, three years after Sisters Nightclub, then the city’s only lesbian venue, closed down. Business was strong at the Toasted Walnut, Cohen said, until the pandemic struck last March, forcing her to temporarily shut its doors in compliance with government orders.
But $11,000 in rent was still due each month, and Cohen struggled to keep up. When she was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in December, she realized it was the end of her bar.
“There just takes a level of energy that I need to focus on that versus trying to fight this,” said Cohen, who permanently shuttered the Toasted Walnut in January.
The pandemic has exacerbated an already troubling trend for lesbian bars. Just two months into the coronavirus pandemic, in early May of last year, NBC News reported there were only 16 lesbian bars left across the U.S., compared to about 1,000 bars that cater to gay men and mixed-gender LGBTQ crowds. Now, that number has dropped by at least one, with many others barely surviving.
‘Business is still horrible’
In many cities, bars are the only spaces where LGBTQ people can come together, but for queer women, these spaces are now almost nonexistent, leaving an already isolated community even more alone. A number of the roughly 15 surviving lesbian bars have already reopened at limited capacity — like Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee, Wildrose in Seattle, Gossip Grill in San Diego, My Sister’s Room in Atlanta and Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee — though it is unclear whether some that closed amid the pandemic will ever reopen.