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America's dwindling lesbian bar scene gets another shot at survival in Chicago

NBC News logo NBC News 7/27/2021 Julie Compton
a person sitting at a table in a restaurant © Provided by NBC News

When Renauda Riddle and Angela Barnes agreed last year to purchase Joie De Vine, a lesbian-owned wine bar in Chicago, they had a single goal: to keep the city’s last bar for queer women alive.

One of about 20 lesbian bars left in the entire United States (down from about 200 in the 1980s), Joie De Vine has now been transformed into a cocktail lounge with a new name.

Nobody’s Darling, as it is now called, “is built to be welcoming,” Barnes, 52, told NBC News. “That’s what we’ve been trying to create.”

Nobody’s Darling officially opened its doors at 1744 W. Balmoral Ave. in the Andersonville section of Chicago — known informally as “Girlstown” for its once-booming lesbian community — in late May. The first night was “packed,” according to the owners, and business hasn’t slowed since.

a blackboard sign with graffiti on the side of a building: Image: Nobody's Darling (Susanne Fairfax) © Susanne Fairfax Image: Nobody's Darling (Susanne Fairfax)

“We put our love into this bar, and people feel it,” Riddle, 41, said. “The energy as soon as you walk in the door, people say they feel that energy. It’s a beautiful space.”

The cocktail lounge joins a handful of other new or soon-to-be opened bars for queer women across the country, including Herz in Mobile, Alabama; As You Are Bar in Washington, D.C.; Dave’s Lesbian Bar, a pop-up space for queer women in Queens, New York; and Hershee Bar in Norfolk, Virginia, an iconic lesbian bar that will soon reopen after being shuttered for nearly three years. These openings and reopenings come amid a broader trend of lesbian bars closing their doors since the 1980s

At first, Riddle and Barnes, who are Black and queer, struggled with what to call their new bar. For inspiration, Barnes, a corporate attorney, turned to her home library of books written by famous authors of color, and came across one of her favorite poems, “Be Nobody’s Darling,” Alice Walker’s ode to setting one’s own path unapologetically, regardless of being seen as uncool or an outcast, she said. It felt like the perfect name for the space they wanted to create. “Oh, my goodness, I love this,” Barnes recalled thinking. She shared it with Riddle, who “was ecstatic.” 

“I was like ‘OK, yeah … we found the name,’” Riddle said. 

a person holding a wine glass: Image: Nobody's Darling (Susanne Fairfax) © Susanne Fairfax Image: Nobody's Darling (Susanne Fairfax)

At least three of their cocktails are also inspired by famous intellectuals who were Black women: The J. Kincaid Daiquiri, named after the novelist Jamaica Kincaid; A. Walker Summer Martini, named after the novelist Alice Walker; and the Jos Baker Manhattan, named after the famed civil rights activist Josephine Baker. They are considering a fourth cocktail to honor the gay Black writer James Baldwin.


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Naming the bar and cocktails after famous Black writers, some of whom were also queer, felt like a way of paying homage to those who wrote about how “strong we can be and what we can do,” Barnes explained.

“There’s something very bold about what we’re trying to do as two African American queer women, there’s something kind of going off of maybe a path that people think might be set for us,” she said, referring to the small number of gay bar owners in the U.S. who are women, and even fewer who are Black.

a man preparing food in a kitchen: Image: Nobody's Darling (Patrick L. Pyszka) © Patrick L. Pyszka Image: Nobody's Darling (Patrick L. Pyszka)

Since the 1980s, the number of gay bars in the U.S. plunged from about 1,500 to 1,000, and a disproportionate number of those that closed were owned by women and people of color, according to a 2019 study by Oberlin College and Conservatory professor Greggor Mattson. Between 2007 and 2019, LGBTQ bar listings dropped by an estimated 37 percent, and those catering to queer women and people of color saw declines of 52 percent and 60 percent, respectively, according to the report. While the exact cause is unclear, many bar owners say the closings were  fueled by the gentrification and skyrocketing rent increases seen in cities across the U.S. since the 1990s. 

In Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S. by population, Nobody’s Darling is now one of two Black-owned gay bars. The other is Jeffrey Pub, a staple of Chicago’s gay nightlife since the 1960s that caters predominantly to men. Nobody’s Darling is now the only bar that caters to queer women in the Windy City. Riddle and Barnes said that keeping the space woman-owned and operated is “really important.”

“When you are a queer woman and you want to go out, where do you go?” Barnes asked, noting that a number of lesbian bars have disappeared in Chicago over the decades, including Star Gaze, Paris Dance, T’s, Lost and Found, Girlbar, Augie & C.K.’s and Suzi B’s.

It’s a question many queer women have been asking as lesbian bars shutter in cities across the U.S., including popular nightclubs Sisters in Philadelphia, the Lexington Club in San Francisco, and Meow Mix in New York City. The latest casualty, the Toasted Walnut, Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar, permanently shuttered in January, unable to survive pandemic-imposed shutdowns. After news spread last year that the country’s remaining lesbian bars were threatened by the pandemic, a national campaign called The Lesbian Bar Project raised an initial $117,504 to save them. A mini documentary, launched in June during Pride month, is raising additional money for the bars. 

Even as lesbian bars dwindle, some owners are forgoing the woman- or lesbian-only label in a quest to be more inclusive. Among them is Henrietta Hudson owner Lisa Cannistraci, who rebranded her iconic New York City bar as a “queer human bar built by lesbians” and switched its logo from an image of a woman to a gender-neutral symbol, a decision that has been controversial with some in the lesbian community. Jo McDaniel and partner Rach Pike, the owners of D.C.’s As You Are Bar, expected to open later this year, told The Lesbian Bar Project they are on a similar mission to make their space one of “full inclusivity.” 

Noting that “times have changed,” Barnes said Nobody’s Darling has also decided against strictly branding itself as a lesbian bar.

“You don’t want to be so exclusionary,” she said, referring to the idea that some who identify as bisexual or nonbinary may feel alienated by the term. 

However, Riddle, an event planner who has organized parties for queer women in Chicago for over a decade, assured that Nobody’s Darling, like its predecessor, will remain a “women-centered,” LGBTQ-friendly space. And since it is owned by two lesbians, she said, it will still “get labeled” a lesbian bar — and she’s OK with that. Their main goal, however, is to be one of the top cocktail bars in Chicago, she said.

Riddle and Barnes said they hope their bar will serve as an example for others who want to open nightlife spaces catering to queer women.

“I feel really strongly that this should be an inspiration for more women-centered or lesbian bars to open back up,” Barnes said. “It’s just so important, and … very exciting.”

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