There may not be many of them. But these Southern lesbian bars are still finding ways to thrive

Trying to find Arcana is like going on a treasure hunt.

North Carolina’s only known lesbian bar is tucked away somewhere on West Main Street in Durham, in one of those configurations that confuses navigation apps and results in several minutes of wide-eyed wandering.

It’s there, though, around the back of a building, behind some of the city’s buzziest restaurants. A circular sign signals the entrance across from the railroad tracks that run through Durham. Then, it’s down a flight of pitch-black stairs — perfumed by the Indian fusion restaurant above — and you’re inside a candlelit space decorated with mismatching antique furniture and local art.

Sade and Tracy Chapman croon from the speakers overhead, and owner Erin Karcher is behind the bar, chatting with two women seated on the stools in front of her. They address her by name.

“The Lion King” musical is playing at the nearby Durham Performing Arts Center, and Karcher has created a lineup of craft cocktails for the occasion: the Nala, the Sarafina and Pride Rock. A silver jar sits on the bottle shelf behind her, with a handwritten paper sign reading “Tips for Tits;” inches away hangs a palm-sized transgender flag.

Arcana is part of what has been dubbed a dying breed in the country: a lesbian-specific bar, of which there are only 33, according to The Lesbian Bar Project. While not an official tally, the Lesbian Bar Project aims to amplify and keep track of these spaces, which can register with the project. 

On a slow Wednesday evening, with just a handful of customers stopping in for a drink, Arcana is operating at a low, comfortable hum. In the back, a burlesque class is in session, and a tarot card reader wearing a rainbow face mask sits in the corner near the bar, offering her services.

Before she started doing tarot readings at Arcana, Joy Carter, who lives in neighboring Raleigh, would often make the trek out to Durham just to stop in.

“When I was here, it made me wish I could be here more, because I knew I was safe,” Carter, who identifies as queer, said. “I am both safe and comfortable on a lot of fronts, in a lot of ways that I’m not necessarily safe and comfortable in the world outside the door.”

Carter isn’t the only one who feels that way. Arcana, which opened in 2015, also hosts regular craft nights, figure drawing, and even queer bachata lessons. Their monthly “Dyke Night” dance parties attract upwards of 100 people. For one of the bar’s very first Dyke Nights last year, there was a line out the door.

“It was a sense of, not only is this wanted, but it’s been wanted for a while,” Karcher said.

Despite mounting political efforts to restrict gay rights in states like North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee, many cities in the South have a robust LGBTQ scene. These bars are more than just spots to grab a drink. They’re community fixtures and emblems of LGBTQ history.

Lesbian bars are places of belonging and resistance

Nightlife has always been a tenet of LGBTQ culture. For most of US history, being gay was a criminal offense, one that could lead not only to social ostracization but jail time. Being seen out in public, socializing with visibly queer people, was shrouded in shame. The only place to be out and safe was in bars and parties, where the cover of night, close quarters and plausible deniability — a bar, after all, is a place for petty sin — provided shelter.

In the 19th century, women socialized (and slept) with other women at private parties and gatherings. LGBTQ bars began to appear in cities like Chicago and San Francisco in the 1920s and 1930s, but most lesbians never went to them, according to lesbian history expert Lillian Faderman in her book “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.”

Instead, they would attend private parties, like the weekly gatherings organized for lesbians and gay men by New York’s Nucleus Club. As they left, each man would pair with a woman, so neighbors would be none the wiser.

Today, these bars offer an alternative to the straight mating rituals of common watering holes, where groups of women and men circle the room like predator and prey.

Even in these rarified places, there’s still variety: Some are cocktail-forward spaces that close at a respectable hour, others are dance clubs that don’t let up until 3 in the morning. No matter the vibe, all exist, in some capacity, as a space for LGBTQ people to be themselves.

Arcana, in Durham, North Carolina, is the state's only known lesbian bar. - Courtesy Erin Karcher
Arcana, in Durham, North Carolina, is the state's only known lesbian bar. - Courtesy Erin Karcher

Most American lesbian bars exist in large cities. In the South, The Lipstick Lounge, Tennessee’s only bar registered with the Lesbian Bar Project, is in Nashville’s hip East End neighborhood. My Sister’s Room, the only known lesbian bar in Georgia, sits right in the middle of Atlanta alongside sky-scraping office buildings and modern apartments. Houston’s Pearl Bar is nestled among a frenzied bar scene on Washington Ave.

Although Arcana is the only known lesbian bar in Durham, there are a handful of other gay and LGBTQ bars in the city, hosting everything from queer dance parties to fundraisers for sexual violence survivors. These events can be packed. Nights out here attract dozens of locals and students from neighboring colleges. Depending on the evening, you’re as likely to see Carhartt work pants as you are leather corsets.

Though Karcher has lived in North Carolina for most of her life, she spent time in New York and has visited LGBTQ bars in other cities, like Seattle. In more liberal cities, there’s a sense that the state’s politics support you, she said, that even outside the bar is safe. Even in Durham, a city that has become “so queer” in an otherwise red-leaning state, Karcher said going to a LGBTQ bar carries an air of defiance.

“We’re never as confident about our state politics here,” she said, referencing controversies over Confederate monuments, efforts against diversity in higher education, and past struggles against discriminatory laws like HB2, commonly known as “the bathroom bill.”

There’s always something to fight against, either nationally or locally, she continued. But to look around and know you’re fighting alongside community, alongside family, is empowering.

“We’re working together,” she said.

When queer culture meets Southern hospitality

Over the course of nine months, writer Krista Burton visited 20 lesbian bars around the country, going to each one multiple times and immersing herself in their scenes. She chronicled her findings in her book “Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America.” As she traversed through the South, she noted a fascinating ambient shift.

At every bar she went to in the region, she was immediately noticed and greeted — a different experience from lesbian bars in other parts of the country, and one she hadn’t expected. Strangers would readily talk to her. The vibe was relaxed. It felt like they were all a part of a secret club — an oasis in a part of the country that isn’t always overtly welcoming to LGBTQ people.

“To step inside those doors was to experience a new kind of welcome that I had not experienced before,” Burton said. “Like members of the community, seeing me and being happy that I was (there).”

Call it queer Southern hospitality. At Herz, in Mobile, Alabama, every single person turned around to greet Burton upon her entrance, a “freaky” experience unlike anything she’d ever encountered. By the time she left, she had met every person in the bar — about 50 people.

At Yellow Brick Road, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, bartenders eagerly introduced her to regulars to chat with. Five hours down south, at Sue Ellen’s in Dallas — a packed bar brimming with hundreds of people — a bartender she met upon first entering yelled goodbye when Burton left, hours later, and still remembered her name.

By the end of Burton’s trip, she found that the narrative of “dying lesbian bars” was maybe not totally accurate.

Lesbian bar culture’s evolution reflects changing demographics

More people, especially those in younger generations, are identifying as LGBTQ, according to Gallup, with 3% of Gen Z adults considering themselves lesbian. On the other hand, many young people are increasingly identifying not simply as “gay” or “lesbian,” but “queer” or “pansexual” — shifting labels that evade binary classifications. Sexuality and gender identity can be fluid.

Though nearly a quarter of Gen Z adults consider themselves part of the broader LGBTQ umbrella, not everyone may see themselves solely as “lesbian,” and thus may prefer gathering in a more generalized LGBTQ space.

“Sometimes it’s a physical shift from a lesbian bar to a bar that sometimes holds … queer or lesbian nights,” Burton said. “The need for bars is there. The customer base is there. It’s just that the bars shift in how they look.”

That’s what has happened at Harlym Blue’Z, a bar in Richmond, Virginia owned by wife-duo Shamecca and Le’Teshia LeSane. Though they don’t consider Harlym a lesbian bar per se — their clientele is wide-ranging — there are rainbow stickers scattered throughout the space, and they’ve partnered with local Black LGBTQ organizations to host weekly events in the past.

When customers realize the two are married, some of them have questions — sometimes about managing a business with a spouse, sometimes about being young Black business owners, and sometimes, of course, about their sexualities.

For some customers, the LeSanes are the first lesbian couple they’ve ever interacted with. One group, who’ve become regulars after previously not knowing any LGBTQ couples, even invited the two on a week-long family cruise.

“Being able to educate people, not saying ‘Hey this is what you have to do, but this is who we are,’” Le’Teshia said. “And if you’re enjoying it, you’re enjoying this dance, if you’re enjoying this place, then this is who we are and this is what it’s about.”

Lesbian bars fight to keep tradition alive

As LGBTQ bars became more popular, these watering holes were still subject to police raids and other violent upheavals in the late 20th century. Notably, the watershed 1969 Stonewall riots, which inspired our modern Pride parades, began as a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a known gay bar.

These days, for most people, the sense that a bar would be the only safe space has lessened, which could be one reason behind the seemingly fading culture of lesbian-specific bars. Still, there are more general challenges facing these spaces.

Le'Teshia and Shamecca LeSane own Harlym Blue’Z in Richmond, Virginia. Though the two are married, they don't classify their bar as a lesbian bar. - Courtesy Le'Teshia LeSane and Shamecca LeSane
Le'Teshia and Shamecca LeSane own Harlym Blue’Z in Richmond, Virginia. Though the two are married, they don't classify their bar as a lesbian bar. - Courtesy Le'Teshia LeSane and Shamecca LeSane

Like any bar or restaurant, they can be hard to keep open. Herz, in Mobile, closed last year after four years in business, the owners announced in a Facebook post. Dozens mourned the bar’s closing in the comments section, grieving the karaoke nights and the “safe haven” the bar provided.

“It’s a really big loss for the Mobile community and the Gulf Coast. I mean, people from Florida and Mississippi were coming to Herz,” customer Kimberly McKeand told CBS42. “We were all devastated by its closing, I mean, many of us cried over it because it was just a safe place for us, a very comfortable place.”

In Virginia, too, Le’Teshia said many of the longstanding LGBTQ bars have closed both in Richmond and in the neighboring cities. The popular Club Colours, a LGBTQ pop-up bar on Saturday nights, shut down after nearly a decade. Though other LGBTQ bars in the area still exist, Le’Teshia said Club Colours was one of the only LGBTQ spaces in the area that served a truly diverse clientele.

“I really don’t feel that the scene is what it used to be,” she said. “Now you’ll see just more groups of people going to regular clubs, regular bars.”

In bigger cities where places may be more LGBTQ-friendly, there’s an idea that lesbian-specific bars may be a relic, particularly when general bars and clubs could provide the same experience.

But Christa Suppan, who has owned Nashville’s The Lipstick Lounge for more than two decades, believes the culture will live on.

“I will always believe that at the heart of any bar resides a common language, whatever that may be,” Suppan said. “When you see your people, you know. I think it’s much easier to build community within a space of like-minded individuals.”

For any lesbian bar, creating that common space is the goal. And especially in the South, it means the community they build isn’t just valued, it’s essential, even if you have to search to find it.

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