In the Recession, Lesbian Nightlife Leads the Way

20090211_inq_mg1gay04-aIt’s Tuesday night at Unwind, a Los Angeles ladies night for professional lesbians run by Dawnita Moore. “I’m the type of person that, even when I’m going out, I’m looking for the next thing I’m going to do. So to combine personal with pleasure works well for me”, she says. She began the night in October, just as the stock market collapsed, and yet, so far, it’s been wildly successful. Unwind is just one of a new string of lesbian nights popping up around the country that focus on community and socializing over partying, and that use unique hooks (as well as cheap booze and food) to get the ladies in the door. There’s no silver bullet to nightlife success, but in a crushing economic pinch, these ladies nights may have just found the secret sauce to a recession-proof party.

In San Francisco’s Castro, women’s nights are thriving. Last month, a new night called Womanizer opened at Bar on Church, causing the bar spokesperson Lord Martine to opine:

“Women in our community have had limited choices, until now, because no one was taking the initiative to produce something new and exciting for them,” said Martine about recognizing the desire and queer women’s “loyalty to venues and promoters that serve them well.”

“Our sisters deserve a myriad of nightlife options,” Martine said. “They’ve been waiting for something special … and venues, female DJs, and promoters are all too happy to respond.”

Luz Villa, another SF nightlife fixture, looks at the wide range of new Castro-centered nightlife, including nights called Rebel Girl, Les Ladies Night, Mango and a Latin-themed night at Pisco, and says, “I’m feeling inspired that queer women are starting new events. I think the more the better.”

466478942_dbe586c9bdThe new events are diverse, but share some commonalities. The first is a heavy emphasis on socializing over cruising. This isn’t to say that sex is out of the question, but camaraderie and networking take precedence. Moore explains the inspiration for Unwind wasn’t simply the desire to have another party, but to fulfill a need for connection in the community that she thought was missing:

I originally was going to try and partner with someone else – since I’m also an event planner – and help them piggyback on another night they were doing. I didn’t get a very quick response, so I decided to do it on my own. I thought it was something necessary. Everyone is always looking for something new – the next big wave – so I wanted to offer up the opportunity to have something new. It’s much easier for people to go to someplace straight from work than to go home. People like to socialize and go out and they also like to network and find new opportunities.

From that sense of community or need for it comes the second big trend you’re seeing in lesbian nightlife: a sense of community activism. In a lot of ways, this is a return to the original purpose of gay bars, which once served as political organizing hotspots as well as watering holes. Many of the new lesbian nights tap into a well of increased activism that’s emerged from last year’s protests, multiple marriage bills across the states and a new President in the White House.

In Philadelphia Tracy Buchholz and Corinne Thornton use their nightlife events, like the popular Scene, to raise money for and awareness about LGBT issues. Philly.com writes of the lesbian scene in the City of Brotherly Love:

“I’m going to resist the term elders but will say that the activist experience of many people I came out with was that we gave of our time,” says Gloria Casarez, director of LGBT affairs for Philadelphia. She joined Mayor Nutter’s administration in July after leading HIV/AIDS organizations and antipoverty initiatives since her teens.

She and her peers grew grassroots organizations, learning how to be donors with their money and dedication. “But these recent fund-raising efforts have been laced with fun and have the ability to raise very real dollars for very real use here in Philadelphia,” Casarez said.

“People are having fun; that’s key,” says Buchholz, 29. “I hope I’m helping raise awareness while contributing literally and figuratively to making our community come together and helping round out our nightlife, especially for the younger crowds.”

In L.A., Moore uses her night to raise money for local causes, as well. Next week’s event will raise money for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

In a lot of ways, this is a return to the original purpose of gay bars

But it’s not all feel-good fuzzies that make the new lesbian night work. While socializing and politics are a draw, so are drink specials. Moore says that she’s seen a drop-off in nightlife overall, and to counter that at her own event, she’s ramped up the cheap goodies:

“I would say people are going out less. We’ve been offering amazing drink specials. We’re able to offer three or four dollar drinks for a three-hour happy hour, so that helps. As well as doing the same thing with appetizers, so we’re kind of giving people a break as well.”

The Bay Area Reporter sees similar tactics being employed by Castro bar owners:

“Hard economic times aren’t stopping women from partying, said bar and club owners and managers who have seen queer women pack their venues weekly. But several bars and clubs are taking the recession into account by adjusting prices and promoting special happy hours or drink and food menus to attract women to their parties, bar owners and club managers said.”

WomanizerBarOnChurchSurprisingly, the other thing these nights have in common is an increased sense of diversity. Many of Philly’s lesbian nights, specifically cater to a mixed-crowd of gay men and gay women and even Karen Opp, owner of the Stray bar in Bernal Heights, SF, one of the cities few lesbian bars, welcomes the increase in diversity of women-centric nights,saying:

“Enjoy these locations and support them. There’s nothing wrong with competition, it means that you have more opportunities and more options.”

For Moore, one of the core missions of Unwind is to get people out of their usual bubbles and to socialize with people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s this diversity that she attributes to her night’s success, saying:

I try to reach out to lots of different people who may not always find themselves wanting to be in a social situation. So, it kind of made it easier. I’m telling people that they can come alone or come with friends. Lesbians can be, like everyone else, at times a little bit cliquish, so it’s hard to infiltrate groups without knowing anyone, but it’s a smaller environment [here] and because you’re coming after work, you may not be coming with friends and there’s a greater opportunity to meet new people. I think that’s the whole point.

With the economy falling apart and everyone’s future looking uncertain, it’d be easy to imagine a nightlife scene which centered on hard-partying and mindless fun. Not to knock either of those erstwhile pursuits, but even if it’s just an after-work mixer, it’s heartening to see a new nightlife arise that celebrates and helps build community. In these cold times for the country, we’re rediscovering that cocktails can be about companionship as much as cruising and the value of a place where “everybody always knows your name.”