A place of their own: Philly’s sapphics long for a lesbian bar

The interior of Toasted Walnut, Philadelphia’s most recent lesbian bar, which closed in 2021. (Photo: @toastedwalnutpa on Instagram)

“I was in a dyke bar not knowing that I was a dyke then,” laughed Sam Margerum, a 26-year-old lesbian, who used to hang out at Toasted Walnut — Philly’s most recent lesbian bar which closed in 2021 — with her friends before she truly understood her sexuality.

Margerum has also been to Henrietta Hudson in New York City, where she said the community was racially and gender diverse. The bar played familiar music and cultivated an atmosphere so queer-affirming that even the small details made her feel like she belonged.

“Within the last year, I’ve embraced more of the grassroots lesbian spaces — like Sip City Mixers, which are organized for queer women to go meet up at bars that are not necessarily dedicated lesbian spaces but have sapphic nights,” she said about Philly’s lesbian scene, which has lacked a dedicated lesbian space for multiple years.

Margerum said being out in those spaces has helped her process family traumas and confront social norms that were holding her back from recognizing her LGBTQ+ identity. Having a safe space to spend time with the first woman she ever dated helped her realize that being with a woman makes her feel most happy, fulfilled and comfortable.

But she’s also learned a lot about who she is and what she wants for herself by listening to what she called the “mythos and lore” of lesbian bars that were once treasures of the Philly sapphic community — including Sisters, who she heard about from a former partner. Margerum enjoyed hearing her tell stories about lesbian nightlife and encounters of authentic community at Sisters. She’d imagine possibilities for herself — living vicariously through nostalgia. 

A history beyond the Gayborhood
“I came out during a time when there must have been more lesbian bars and options for lesbians than there ever was in Philadelphia,” said Stacey Vey, a lesbian who now co-owns Stir Lounge — a Rittenhouse bar that prides itself on being a space for all LGBTQ+ people.

“When you come to Stir it’s kind of like a gay Cheers,” she said. “Everybody knows your name. And I think that’s important.”

Vey lived in Atlantic City as a young adult in the late ’80s when there were 11 active gay bars that felt inclusive and affirming to her as a woman, and she remembers traveling around the region to find community in various hubs. 

Vey laughed thinking about the wall-to-wall shag carpeting at Mamzelle’s, a private lesbian bar near today’s Bike Shop that she and her friends would sneak into and dance all night.

Although people tend to view today’s smaller Gayborhood as the historical hub for queer nightlife in Philadelphia, she noted that lesbian bars and other LGBTQ+ nightlife spaces have existed in various neighborhoods. She remembers a lesbian bar in the space that houses today’s Black Sheep in Rittenhouse.

Bob Skiba, the curator at the William Way Center’s John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives, says Rittenhouse would have once been considered part of the formerly sprawling Gayborhood back before the title existed.

“Rittenhouse Square was kind of a meeting place — a mixed place where beatniks hung out in the ’50s, then hippies in the 60s, and gay people as well,” Skiba said. “Young people would go to Rittenhouse Square and kind of keep their eyes open for people that seemed looped in and then follow them, or struck up a conversation with them to find local bars.”

In the early years, lesbian bars — and other queer spaces — were mob-owned, he said, because those groups had enough power and money to pay off police who threatened or carried out raids, which continued through the early ’80s.

That was the decade when lesbian bars proliferated in Philadelphia — with some older sapphics remembering at least eight different lesbian-centered venues. Skiba said from 1950 through the early 2010s, there was rarely a year when Philadelphia went without at least one designated lesbian bar. Some of them are listed on the Philadelphia LGBT Mapping Project, which offers a visual representation of the spaces LGBTQ+ people have occupied.

What’s missing today
“I haven’t necessarily felt unwelcome but I can say it hasn’t really felt like home,” said Myndi Wexler about queer spaces that have become gentrified in recent years. She turned 21 just after Sisters — a lesbian staple from the mid-90s through 2013 — closed.

“I was still kind of figuring myself out at the time, and it would have been a fun place to kind of see if I fit within that community,” they said.

They later spent time at Toasted Walnut — where they expected to find women cruising but found community instead. They appreciated having a physical space they could rely on.

“I feel like we’re something that you have to seek out now,” Wexler said about today’s sapphic scene which contrasts the experiences of gay men, who she said have multiple neighborhood bars to find community.

Others agreed that many bars in the Gayborhood cater to college-aged, white, cis men and thin people who abide gender norms — which might include some LGBTQ+ people but doesn’t center safety for more diverse community members.

Rebecca Fisher, founder of Behind the Bell Tours — which hosts walking tours centered on “untold” stories of Philadelphia, including histories of queer people and women — noted that LGBTQ+ women are interested in supporting events that benefit their own community rather than those treat sapphics as a means to bolster midweek sales or as a complete afterthought.

She highlighted monthly parties and events that hold space for or are hosted by LGBTQ+ women of color as a contrast to this experience.

“I feel like they deserve their credit for being really successful as public projects,” she said. “Seeing other flourishing events — by Philly Gay Girls, Sip City — people are proving that queer women want to be out and about. People are not locked up in their home. People are spending money. People are getting to know each other.”

But even repeating events the community can follow don’t take the place of the physical location some people want to emerge.

“I feel like Philly in general right now is lacking not even just for lesbians but in spaces that are safe for queer people — because a lot of just general bars for the LGBTQ community are very much full of bachelorette party culture and fraternity brothers,” Margerum said about brick-and-mortar Gayborhood bars. 

She and others have been hit on, jeered at, and harassed by straight men in spaces that advertise themselves as gay-centered. She said straight people make light of queer culture in those places — treating it more like a “Pride-themed party” than a safe space for marginalized people. 

A place to call home
Sapphic-centered events tend to make many LGBTQ+ women feel physically and emotionally safer because there’s less judgment for subverting social expectations. There’s also a kinship in their shared lived experiences — a silent understanding and acknowledgment of each other that Aamarah, a 23-year-old who is newly out as a queer person, is craving but can’t seem to find.

“Being somewhere physically means a lot to me,” she said — something she realized after visiting Henrietta Hudson. Aamarah, like many young sapphics, uses apps — like Lex and Geneva — to find opportunities for connection, but she feels like having a familiar in-person space would dissipate the awkwardness and social anxiety that sometimes interferes with her ability to develop the relationships she wants.

“The queer community in DC felt like an integral part of my identity,” said Mickey Watson, an agender lesbian who hails from that area and frequented A League of Her Own — a lesbian sports bar — before she moved to Philadelphia in 2023.

“A lot of queer women have trouble finding connections in the city because they don’t know what the consequences are,” Watson said about showing up in new spaces that aren’t lesbian-centered and could be unsafe. “There’s no place that feels like the lesbians can just find community anytime here.”

She’s attending pop-up events for Val’s Lesbian Bar, whose owners are hosting community-driven fundraisers in hopes of opening at a permanent location in 2024 or early 2025. Their events remind her of As You Are, another LGBTQ+ venue in DC that has more flexible uses — “for people who drink, don’t drink, party, don’t party,” she said, and even welcomes minors during cafe hours.

Watson feels that a tangible fixture in the community signals to others that lesbians are a primary and important part of the culture in a given space — and that they aren’t going anywhere. Without that, it’s not only difficult to meet people — it’s difficult for young sapphics or new Philadelphians to feel validated, welcomed and secure in these new aspects of their identities.

“I’m still searching for community in Philly, which is why I do think it’s important to have a physical space to connect in,” said Grace, who is new to the area and new to her own understanding of her queer identity. “Online just feels so disconnected.”

She longs for the “third space” she found in her college green room — which became a comforting place she knew she could turn to if she wanted to be around other people.

“You could go to this room and be there anytime before midnight,” she said. “There was always somebody there I knew to hang out with and talk to. You could go there to do work. It was just like a good space to go if you needed community.”

Our house, our rules
“I want everyone to feel welcome,” said Grace about her hopes for a new lesbian bar. “But with that, I’d want people to know that the lesbians are the ones who have that power — have that ownership — of the space.”

Others echoed similar sentiments, underlining an intentional flip of the power dynamic that typically exists in LGBTQ+ spaces — where gay men have often been centered but even now don’t always have space for themselves. Some noted that sapphic spaces could include men — especially trans masculine people — or might welcome all men but would always de-center them.

Others highlighted that it’s difficult to define what they’re looking for but that they know it’ll be a place where diversity is visible and affirmed — a place where bartenders and owners look out for the safety of cis and trans women or AFAB people.

“I do think people have become more specific about what they’re actually trying to do in terms of who they’re catering to,” added Fisher. “And we have better language to articulate that now, I think, and a better shared understanding about gender.”

“It doesn’t mean that space will be perfect,” she said. “I think sometimes we can get really caught up in the ways in which our queer spaces are not perfect. And there is no space that serves every single person, but it should serve those who are most marginalized in our communities and everybody should feel welcomed.”

Grace and others hope that if or when a permanent space emerges that it will include options for flexible use — including options for daytime and sober activities. People are dreaming up potential pottery classes and craft time, art shows, live music, accessible dance floors, fat-friendly seating, and other aspects of a physical location that would welcome people to enjoy the space in a variety of ways.

Some people who grew up in poverty or still have limited money to spend on nights out also hope to find a place they can show up without the expectation of dropping large sums. They emphasize that affordability is key to accessibility. This includes hopes for a location that is near safe and accessible public transit stations.

Aamarah underlined that business owners should seek input from people of color about how to make sure they’re protected and affirmed.

Many focused on accessibility, as Gayborhood spaces often lack options for people who need mobility devices or support. Margerum noted that affirming people with disabilities also requires business owners to think beyond mobility needs — considering neurodivergence, neurological conditions, and other aspects of accessibility.

Wexler, who liked making intergenerational connections at Toasted Walnut, believes that opportunities to meet unexpected people thrive in brick-and-mortar spaces. They underlined that a tangible location should consider the needs of older lesbians, who might not be able to access a second floor dance space.

“If we have our own space, we can do pretty much anything that the community needs with it,” they said. “So I think it’s important to listen to people of all different experiences within our community and kind of figure out what other people need before plans are made.”

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