Hartigan’s Pub holds a special place in the memory of Dr. La Shonda Mims, assistant professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South. In multiple times of stress and mourning, Hartigan’s, one of the few lesbian bars to have existed in Charlotte’s history, served as a space for solace.
After losing a custody battle for their son to his biological father, Mims and her spouse went to Hartigan’s Pub. When the Johnston YMCA denied them a family pass in front of their son because they didn’t “qualify as a family,” staff members at Hartigan’s — his “lesbian aunts,” as he called them — whipped him up a fancy ice cream sundae and pointed him toward the Wii in the pool room.
But spaces like Hartigan’s, which was forced to shut down in 2014, are becoming harder to find. Lesbian bars are closing around the nation, and the spaces queer women go to escape the prejudice of a heteronormative world and feel at home are disappearing, leaving the lesbian community wondering: Where do we go now?
A not-so-promising history
According to The Lesbian Bar Project, an organization documenting the decline of queer women’s bars in America, there are less than 25 lesbian bars left in the United States compared to the 200 documented in the 1980s.
Matt Comer was a longtime staffer with Charlotte Pride who, until his recent departure, served as the organization’s spokesperson. He previously worked as a journalist and editor with local LGBTQ publication QNotes. Having recently curated a history of Charlotte’s LGBTQ scene, Comer gave Queen City Nerve some national and cultural contexts for the decline.
According to Comer, all queer bars have been on the decline over the past couple of decades, but seeing as how there have always been more bars catering to queer men than queer women, it’s the latter group that feels that decline the most.
As Comer put it, “Queer spaces, in some ways, have become victim to the queer rights movement’s success.”
As queer people become more accepted and affirmed in society, they begin to act and behave as customers in the way that anybody else would, he explained. They may choose to go to a mainstream bar after work in a mixed crowd of queer and straight people instead of a gay bar.
According to Comer, there have only ever been three bars in Charlotte that have catered specifically to lesbian and queer women and lasted for more than two years, none of which are still open today. Mims, whose book focuses on the history of lesbian culture in Charlotte and Atlanta, referenced a few more fleeting lesbian bars that barely lasted a full year back in the 1980s, which she only found through scouring old newspaper ads and oral archives.
“The loss of gay and lesbian bars all over the U.S. is staggering and the loss of lesbian space is especially tough,” said Josh Burford, lead archivist at Invisible Histories, an organization dedicated to preserving queer Southern history. “These were places where women could guarantee that they could enjoy a night out without fear of harassment and bother.”
If lesbian bars and spaces are so important to the community, why do they keep shutting down?
While doing research for her book, Mims found that lesbian bars struggle to survive because of economics and what it means to be a woman who not only earns less but is more likely to manage care for families — statistics that are only more defined for non-white women.
“If you compare that to gay men, then you’re looking at very different economic circumstances,” she said. “So when I look at the bars that came and went in the ’70s and ’80s in Charlotte, I think a lot of it had to do with economic viability.”
This isn’t unique to Charlotte, Mims told Queen City Nerve, but the city’s “business first” mentality created a uniquely difficult experience for queer women organizations.
The introduction of Bank of America solidified Charlotte’s identity as a business town, with the city’s Chamber of Commerce selling itself as “a good place to make money,” Mims said. The business-first mentality fed into the queer population and forced them to embody a respectability that queer bars simply didn’t have.
“Even when lesbian bars were thriving in other urban spaces, they weren’t thriving in Charlotte,” Mims said. “Charlotte is pro-growth at all costs. They’re gonna put business first ahead of local spaces … and I think the queer community kind of embodies that and doesn’t have the economic clout, especially women, to fight that.”
Burford maintained that the lifespan of a gay bar depends on the crowd that it attracts and the niche that it fills within the community. The niche that lesbian bars fill is, well, lesbians.
“But it’s a lot harder to cater to the most diverse of a very specific population,” added Bethany McDonald, former owner of the shuttered Hartigan’s Pub.
Hattie’s Tap & Tavern owner Jackie DeLoach never set out to open a lesbian bar after her time tending bar at Hartigan’s. Instead, her goal was to open a neighborhood bar where everyone could feel like part of a community.
“If I were to dub it as a lesbian bar, I probably would have been shut down like all the other ones,” DeLoach said. “It’s just not as lucrative because it’s such a small group of people, honestly.”
DeLoach, like owners of other queer-friendly bars in Charlotte, found a balance to sustain her business while also compensating for the void left to the LGBTQ+ community. Holding themed nights aimed at certain parts of the community allows businesses to remain lucrative without relying on everyday business from such a small portion of the population.
“We shouldn’t have to feel like we have to go off and do our own thing completely separate from the rest of the world because the world needs to understand that we’re fucking here,” DeLoach said.
The loss of designated queer spaces, however, is felt more strongly by some in the queer community, Burford said.
“Personally, the idea that LGBTQ people are ‘welcome’ in [straight] bars is a fine idea, but I and many like me still want spaces of our own where we can, ironically, be less queer than in our regular lives where we are forced to moderate our LGBTQ identities in a majority [straight] world,” he said.
Keeping dedicated spaces alive isn’t always attainable, especially in Charlotte, Mims pointed out.
Historically, the only neighborhoods you would find a gay bar were low-income neighborhoods, Comer said. Charlotte’s “gayborhood” was found in what is now Dilworth and South End, home to a couple of gay bars, two gay bathhouses, the Charlotte Women’s Center (a central meeting spot for early lesbian activism) and one of the city’s first gay bookstore, Rising Moon Bookshop, owned by a lesbian.
In the ’60s and ’70s, South End was considered an undesirable place, which made obtaining a loan that much easier and left so-called “sketchy places” like bars alone, Burford added.
Today, homes in Dilworth and South End have a median price range of $1.16-$1.35 million, according to Realtor.com, and The Bar at 316 is the only original gay bar left standing in the former queer haven.
Mims’ research supports the concerning level of comfortability that Charlotte has in gentrifying and knocking down spaces of value for minority communities.
Hartigan’s, for example, could no longer sustain the burden of its landlord increasing the rent of the 6,000-square-foot, crumbling building. McDonald commented on the fickle nature of Charlotte and how everything is the new big thing, making it difficult for niche spaces like lesbian bars to keep going.
Shann Fulton, board chair of Charlotte Black Pride, said gentrification is a main cause of many Black-led spaces’ demise.
“I think that’s a correlation as to why we don’t have any cultural spaces or LGBTQ+ spaces for Black people because it’s unattainable,” he said.
Historically, most spaces were segregated by race, and despite the welcoming nature that queer nightlife symbolizes, it is no exception. Fulton often experiences different treatment in non-Black spaces compared to a space for people of color.
“You want to go someplace where you feel comfortable, where your culture is represented, where you see people that are like you,” he said.
Charlotte Black Pride’s motto is “We are who we are every day,” which is why Fulton said the organization tries to curate events throughout the year to let people know they’re not just around during Pride season.
Where do we go now?
Much like the church has mattered deeply to the Black community, bars have mattered deeply to queer and lesbian communities, Mims said.
While collecting stories for her book and building an archive of her own, Mims realized UNC Charlotte’s digitized archives of QNotes stories were the only place to find the history of Charlotte’s LGBTQ scene.
“[That’s] great, but it’s misunderstanding where our lives are recorded,” she said. “Our lives are recorded in the bar rag that you pick up on the way out of the bar.”
The loss of lesbian bars has echoed throughout the community for years. It’s been nine years since Hartigan’s closed and McDonald still receives pleas from past patrons to hold more reunions because they have nowhere else to go.
“It was like a human had died,” Mims said about the reaction to Hartigan’s closing.
She is no stranger to the importance the space held, after meeting her spouse of 22 years while getting a Guinness and running into the first person she interviewed for her book in the bathroom stalls.
McDonald mourns the loss of a comfortable space for older lesbians to go and for the younger generation to find community while learning about themselves.
“It breaks my heart,” she said.
“It was the first time I felt like I was someone seen,” Starla R. Abernathy, a former patron of Hartigan’s, wrote in a commemorable Facebook post for the bar’s reunion party. “I wasn’t dancing in a dark corner of a straight nightclub with women. It was magical.
“[Hartigan’s] wasn’t a bar. It was a home,” Abernathy continued. “A safe haven. A refuge … We have grown as a community in our rights and expanded our wings within those rights. Yes, we still have far to go, but we have seen new light shed where there was once only shadows.”
Sustainable queer women’s organizations have begun to fill a void in a space with no established queer women’s nightlife. Ariel Dominguez launched Girls Room, curating parties hosted by queer women rather than relying on a fixed venue to hold its crowd.
Girls Room markets its parties on its social media page, providing a date, time and featured showcase (all women and non-binary musicians) for followers to either buy tickets or attend for free.
“I had never had any space like this when I was growing up, so to be able to provide that for other people is really cool,” Dominguez said. “It kind of puts the power back in our hands … so that we have a say in this party.”
Dominguez’s goal is to create a place where women feel more comfortable knowing that the whole party is, from beginning to end, organized by women and allies.
The need for queer spaces will never die out in the community. Queer people use these places to build queer politics, community and safety. Queer women in particular, who have been ignored throughout women’s history, find identity within lesbian bars, and it’s not something they’re willing to lose.
Mims believes that the longevity of queer space and place is recorded more heavily in print than within the walls of lesbian bar spaces.
“I would argue that’s quieter activism; that’s quieter visibility,” she said. “To walk in the lesbian bar is in and of itself, at some level, activist because it’s increasingly visible.”
This story is a plea to the Charlotte community: See us.
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