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Grassroots Groups Steer Resurgence of Charlotte’s Sapphic Scene

Resilience and evolution in femme-centered LGBTQ+ Spaces

Ultraviolet Sapphic Night at Petra’s (Photo by Mary Bird)

In Queen City Nerve’s February 2023 deep dive into the historical and economic reasons for the decline in lesbian-centered spaces in Charlotte, we found that owners and investors had become reluctant to dedicate business models to such a niche community.

With rising rent, gentrification and queer assimilation into cisgender, heterosexual spaces, sapphic organizations have become strategic in how they create and maintain their own dedicated outlets.

In our 2023 story, the Lesbian Bar Project, an organization documenting and celebrating the remaining lesbian bars across the nation, totaled less than 25 lesbian bars in the U.S. Almost a year later, that number has risen to 31.

The addition of six establishments countrywide may not seem like a renaissance to those outside the LGBTQ+ population, but to an entire group of people who have felt displaced within their own community, it provides some sense of hope.

Charlotte, however, has seen no growth in its lesbian-centered establishments. In fact, October 2023 saw the closing of one of Charlotte’s longest-running gay nightclubs, The Scorpio, to make room for Elevation Church, which has faced accusations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination for years.

Still, Charlotte-area sapphics are far from hopeless, as local organizations and grassroots organizers have spearheaded the preservation and resurgence of lesbian spaces by evolving past the need for permanent edifice and antiquated labels.

Defining the term “sapphic”

The term “sapphic” has become a popular, more inclusive replacement for “lesbian” in recent years. While “lesbian” has historically defined women who love women, “sapphic” is an umbrella term that encompasses the queer attraction to women and includes nonbinary, transgender and gender-fluid folks.

Lesbians throughout history fought against misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric for the right to proudly claim their identities, but they weren’t the only ones fighting for visibility.

Alexx Baerwald Simard, founder of UltraViolet Sapphic Night, an event held quarterly at Petra’s Bar, chose the word sapphic with an intent to honor what other folks and communities have experienced and to celebrate the intersectionality of identities.

“While lesbians have had to fight, other people have also had to fight for their identities to be seen as valid,” they said. “It’s hard when everyone in the community is fighting against … attempts to push back on any progress we’ve made.”

Petra’s owners Perry Fowler and Marta Suarez del Real, were aware of the lack of diverse, inclusive spaces within the LGBTQ+ community, specifically for lesbians and sapphics.

They also knew of their own bar’s unique beginnings as a gay-owned space that served as an LGBTQ safe space for years after its opening in 2007 before eventually evolving into more of a neighborhood bar that, though still an eccentric haven for artists and musicians, lost its LGBTQ focus.

Fowler and Suarez del Real approached Simard, a Petra’s regular, with the idea for a regularly scheduled sapphic event in August 2023. Together, they provided an answer to what they thought the community desired.

“[A] theory I have is that because we’re hosting an event that’s inclusive to identities beyond lesbian, that maybe more people feel comfortable walking in the door,” she said.

Mishi Lear, one of three organizers with the Meetup group Lesbian Friends of Charlotte and host of Sapphic Second Fridays at Bar Argon, chose the name for the latter in hopes that it could be a more inclusive event under the Lesbian Friends umbrella.

A photo of a DJ at a LGBTQ+ friendly event in Charlotte, NC.
Brianna Daniels, resident DJ of Sapphic Night at Petra’s. (Photo by Alexx Baerwald Simard)

It seems to have worked; Lesbian Friends creator Ayana Burkins said she sees a more diverse crowd at Sapphic Second Fridays than other Lesbian Friends meetups.

“I do think that calling it a lesbian night would draw a unique and potentially smaller crowd,” Simard said about Sapphic Night. “I think it carries with it kind of a certain expectation or connotation of some stereotypes of the past.”

Lesbian spaces weren’t always inclusive of all bodies, after all.

In the Lesbian Bar Project documentary, educator Gwen Shockey recalled the discriminatory history of lesbian spaces, particularly for lesbians of color in the 1970s who were invited into lesbian bars on a racial-based quota, allowing only three or four Black or Latina lesbians in at a time.

Lesbian bars have also been instigators of biphobia and transphobia, leaving sapphic identities outside of “lesbian” displaced.

In the documentary, sapphic bar owner Lisa Cannistraci says her New York City bar Henrietta Hudson has survived because it keeps its ear to the ground and listens to the community it caters to.

“We have to break the cycle of being exclusionary within our own communities,” Cannistraci said.

Lez Party, a Black-run Charlotte-based organization focused on women-centric events, has dedicated 2024 to diversifying its programming and advocating for equal representation and visibility of women and feminine-presenting people.

“Diversity in LGBTQ spaces is of utmost importance to Lez Party,” said Lez Party founder Amechia Johnson. “To truly create spaces that support and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, it is essential to prioritize diversity and inclusion.

“By embracing diverse identities, experiences, and perspectives, we can create safer, more supportive and stronger LGBTQ spaces that uplift and empower everyone within the community,” Johnson continued.

The Lesbian Friends of Charlotte team created the name on the fly, carrying over the label from the original CLT Lesbian Community Meetup group where the trio were introduced.

A photo of the group Lez Party, holding an event to make space for the LGBTQ+ community.
A Lez Party event in Charlotte (Courtesy of Lez Party)

Because of the name, Lear and Burkins have seen bisexual and trans women doubting their place within the group, even as the organizers stress their acceptance of identities outside of lesbian.

Lear pointed out that, although “sapphic” is becoming a more popular term within the LGBTQ+ community, people still express confusion around the word and rely on “lesbian” to seek out inclusive women-loving-women events online.

Regardless, lesbian bars are changing, as Jo McDaniel, owner of As You Are Bar in Washington DC, said in the documentary: “We’re not removing the term lesbian, the concept of lesbianism, we are merely adding to it.”

From queer online spaces to real-life communities

With the decline of brick-and-mortar sites that cater to the lesbian and sapphic scenes, social media has become integral to organizing social events within the community.

Social media platforms create a haven for queer people’s discovery and community when their reality is less than accepting. Heidi Hemphill Samples, manager of the Lesbian Friends Facebook and Instagram accounts, says she discovered her sexuality thanks to a lesbian thirst trap on TikTok. Lears found her partner on the dating app Bumble.

According to Burkins, social media pages allow introverted members a valuable space to create connections and slowly introduce themselves to the community without having to be around large groups of people.

“I feel bad for people who aren’t into social media because I don’t know what they would do,” Samples said. “You kind of have to put yourself out there.”

Samples belongs to numerous communities that center or include lesbians on Facebook and follows lesbian-related hashtags on Instagram. Once you find your community online, it’s a natural occurrence to make long-lasting and deep friendships, she said.

“Platonic or romantic relationships, I think both are important and you can find that with Lesbian Friends of Charlotte if you’re open-minded,” Samples said.

Taking the next step to expand Lesbian Friends of Charlotte’s reach to Instagram and Facebook allowed the team to spread information on their events and connect people across Charlotte.

As late-in-life lesbians, Samples and Lear had a personal mission to unite those with different experiences to form genuine friendships.

“I have a lot of straight friends,” Samples said. “I need people who understood what it feels like to be in the community and as a late-in-life lesbian, that’s very, very different. I think the beautiful thing about our group, to me, is that we have varying ages, races, presentations and … regardless of what they look like, they’re just my friends.”

Lesbian Friends’ support goes beyond the confines of social media, regularly posting a “What do you need?” message within its group, with members helping other members whether it be with a ride to the doctor, a pet sitter or an accountability partner.

“That’s important for our community because people can be very isolated,” Samples said. “A lot of us don’t have family and may be isolated from our friends or even our children.”

Within the past year alone, Lesbian Friends of Charlotte has held 117 events spanning from laser tag to drag brunch to sporting events. The organization plans to offer more happenings not centered around alcohol to its over 800 members in the coming year.

A photo of two girls dancing together at an LGBTQ+ friendly event.
Ultraviolet Sapphic Night at Petra’s. (Photo by Mary Bird)

Lear, however, still wholeheartedly believes her community needs something more than social media circles and sporadic sapphic nights.

“I think we have no place to go so we don’t know how large our community actually is,” she said. “I am a huge advocate for … a women-centric community center first, and second, the queer community.”

When sapphics don’t rely on social media, they have to rely on the community they’ve built from their close, personal networks made at existing queer-friendly spaces.

Johnson said Lez Party ensures women have safe spaces where they feel represented and are able to network, make new friends, and build supportive connections with others who share similar experiences and identities.

Simard’s UltraViolet Sapphic Night at Petra’s grew from a group of 50 people at the first event, a majority of whom came from her own social circle, to 150 at the third, most of whom were strangers.

Although Simard posts about the events on their personal social media accounts, buzz grows mostly from word-of-mouth promotion within different social networks.

“More of a grassroots approach seems to be working,” they said. “I think that’s how Petra’s functions, in general. It’s a very word-of-mouth type of venue.”

What the future holds

Sapphic organizations have also expanded the types of events they host.

Lesbian Friends of Charlotte gave Samples and her team the flexibility to plan daytime events centered around different interests other than partying or drinking, which was something she said wasn’t happening anywhere else.

“Not everybody wants to be at a bar, not everyone wants to be at a nightclub,” Lear said. “People have other desires than that.”

Lez Party is working on organizing more events centered around wellness and mental health.

“I’m super excited to have the opportunity to diversify our upcoming events,” Johnson said. “And I think that that’s something that’s going to also help bring more of the community out to be able to fill those spaces.”

Sapphic Book Club, Queer Storytellers and Charlotte Gaymers Sapphic Socials also offer queer, women-centric events tied to non-alcohol-related interests.

Simard’s monthly Big Gay Picnic was created in response to North Carolina’s anti-queer Parent’s Bill of Rights to allow the folks who feel targeted by new legislation experience joy and connection together in public spaces.

“There might be closeted or quieter LGBTQ folks, especially young ones, who are living at home and might not see LGBTQ people publicly in positive ways,” they said.

“[I’m] hoping that by us being out and having fun in public in a park together somewhere on a random Sunday that maybe there’s a teenager who hasn’t come out and doesn’t have a supportive family who might see us and feel that there is a community out there and there’s hope for their future.”

Now that lesbian bars and spaces are slowly retreating from the brink of extinction and are allowed to exist in public, they must now find a way to grow and change with the community they serve.

“Culture and language are always evolving,” Simard said. “As does our collective sharing and understanding of identity and the ways in which power and privilege have included some and excluded others. We might not be getting it perfect right now, but I think it’s important to do our best and be open to evolving as we learn and grow, individually and collectively.”

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