Chicago's Lost lesbian bars
An examination of Chicago's lost lesbian bars, why they've disappeared, and what comes next.
Watch the short documentary Disappeared: Chicago's Lost Lesbian Bars. Film by Jacob Pieczynski.
A World Disappeared
Disappearing Lesbians >
I think that lesbians are disappearing...
74 year-old Marti Smith smiles as she sits in her "uniform from back-in-the-day" – a pair of jeans, a blazer, and bolo tie. Marti fondly recalls what time spent out on the town once looked like.
“We would come in on a Saturday night and go to several bars.”
For lesbians in the 1970’s and 1980’s, these bars were more than a place to gather… they were the only way to meet other women that shared their lesbian identity.
“Back then, that was really the only place to meet other women.”
For Marti, bars would provide the beginning to meaningful relationships that would extend beyond the bright lights, music, and safety of lesbian bars. Marti remembers just how valuable the bars were in meeting other women, as she recalls, “I met the only woman I ever lived with for 15 years in a bar."
Yet, these spaces that meant so much to so many have disappeared, leaving those like Marti – those that experienced what lesbian bars meant to the very ability to survive as a lesbian – wondering what happened.
“I think that lesbians are disappearing. Not just the bars. And it’s not just happening here – it’s happening nationwide. I’m not sure where they are…”
Archival texts and archival footage courtesy of Gerber Hart Library and Archives.
To understand the emergence of lesbian bars, its first necessary to understand the circumstances these spaces were created in response to.
May Ann Johnson, President of The Chicago Women’s History Center, lived through robust transformation of the lesbian community. Mary Ann describes the beginning of the LGBTQ as a largely reactionary movement.
“The early LGBTQ movement emerged in the late sixties and early seventies and was largely in reaction to the fact that women couldn’t find space in the other movements of the time.”
Women have been at the foundation of all of history’s major movements; from the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement, women have been silent, but powerful agents of change.
The Need for Lesbian Spaces >
There was harassment of people who were different. And there was a feeling that lesbians needed to set up a space where they were safe...
“Women have always been activists,” Mary Ann asserts, “but women who participated in those movements often felt that their voice wasn’t taken seriously and the issues that specifically affected women weren’t being addressed.”
This lack of efficacy in other movements led to the creation of women’s own movements in an effort to advance interests that were largely ignored.
“They were very capable and experienced in organizing. So they said, ‘Why are we doing this for someone else?’ Let’s do it for our own interests. So women began to set up their own organizations.”
Yet, these new women’s organizations did not give equal voice to all women– lesbians found themselves left out of the subsequent women’s movements. Similarly, the gay rights movements may have gained notoriety, but lesbians felt that they were left out of the conversation too often.
Thus, another reactionary movement was born.
“Lesbian Feminism developed kind of as an alternative to those other movements.”
The underlying notion that if your interests are not properly represented, you can create new spaces that do serve those interests was key to increasing the number of lesbian bars in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
For lesbians, being open and visible in mainstream society was not an option. Lesbians were harassed in bars across Chicago and so, following the spirit of the LGBTQ movement and the Lesbian Feminist movement, lesbian bars thrived.
Mary Ann adds, “there was harassment of people who were different. And there was a feeling that lesbians needed to set up a space where they were safe, where they could be open, because, before this time it was very dangerous to be a lesbian.”
Click on the markers to view the names of known 1970's/1980's Chicago lesbian bars.
“The heyday of lesbian bars in Chicago seems to have been in the seventies and eighties,” according to David Sievers, co-curator of Gerber Hart Library and Archive’s Lavender Women and Killer Dykes exhibit.
Lesbian bars were spread across Chicago, but were most plentiful on the north side, near what might be referred to today as the Boystown area.
“Lesbian bars ended up around Addison… it was a neighborhood that was sort of gentrifying, but had not yet gentrified so it was cheap to live in.”
Carolyn Davis lived on the south side of Chicago, but would take the train to the north side to meet friends. Carolyn noticed a stark contrast in the ways geography impacted her ability to be open and visibly lesbian.
“You could walk on the sidewalk with your partner and didn’t have to be talked about, bullied, or discriminated against,” Carolyn says. “You come to one neighborhood on the north side and act one way, then go back to your neighborhood and act another. [It was] very segregated.”
Still, folks came from across the city and suburbs to visit lesbian bars because they were more than just a physical place to go. “Yes, [bars] may be a commercial space, but it’s not just that. It’s a community space for people to meet and find community with each other,” says Jen Dentel, also a co-curator of the Lavender Women and Killer Dykes exhibit.
Feeling Welcome >
You could walk on the sidewalk with your partner and didn’t have to be talked about, bullied, or discriminated against.
Jen adds, “even just going to a lesbian bar was a political act” because of the danger it posed. Because of this, lesbian bars were hidden away, to minimize the risk of harassment.
Still, those that were meant to find these bars did.
Vicky Weidenkeller recalls how her experience in lesbian bars of the seventies and eighties often felt secretive. “It was like we had a secret society and you had to be a member of the society to know what was going on,” says Vicky.
“Many of the women’s bars were not easy to find. If you went up to the door, they would open the door and tell you it was a private party until they realized that you were, you know, part of the group.”
Going to Lesbian Bars >
Even just going to a lesbian bar was a political act.
Because of the inability for lesbian bars to be open and visible, finding documents and photos of the experience within these bars is hard to come by. Still, accounts of those that experienced these spaces paint a picture of a space like no other.
“What I remember most is that there was a lot of drinking and a lot of dancing. It was very liberating,” Mary Ann describes.
Advertisements for lesbian bars within 1985-1987 Women's Travel Guides. Travel guides courtesy of Gerber Hart Library and Archives.
A Dangerous Time
Lesbian Bar Danger >
They would be ruined, just for going to a bar.
“The bar is what kind of kept you alive,” Vicky recalls. “Really, the only place you felt like you could be yourself was in a bar.”
Lesbian bars were rare safe spaces, glimmers of what it felt like to be able to exist without having to be on guard. Yet, experiencing these spaces came with tremendous risk.
Mary Ann recalls all the risk that came with going to lesbian bars:
“You could lose your job, you could be attacked, you could be ostracized.”
Being outed was a serious risk that some lesbian women were willing to take to be amongst community in the bars. Police would raid gay bars across the city citing the dress ordinance.
“Chicago had a dress ordinance called the zipper ordinance,” says David who did research on the dress ordinance to prepare the Gerber Hart exhibit.
“It was called the zipper ordinance because women were allowed to have zippers on the back of their pants because that was considered women’s pants. But if they had them on the front of their pants, they were dressed like men. And that was an excuse for a lot of raids in Chicago.”
Some weren't content with the limitations this imposed on them. Marti and her friends found a way around the zipper ordinance.
“We would wear jeans and have them on backwards! And then sometimes we would go to a bar in Indiana [where there was no zipper ordinance] and on our way we would take turns stopping along the roadside and turning our pants around because it’s really uncomfortable wearing jeans backwards,” Marti remembers.
"AKA Zipper Pants"
Scroll over the image to view Marti Smith's self-proclaimed "uniform" from "back in the day."
Still, police would arrest lesbian bar patrons and “newspapers would publish all the names of the people arrested,” says Jen. “You could lose your kids. You could lose your job… It was a way of keeping queer people in their place.”
Being lesbian came with great risk. Many lesbian women have at least one story about a time they were concerned that they might lose their job. Marti, Carla, and Vicky share their stories:
Click each audio player to hear each individual account of the risks of visiting lesbian bars.
Shuttered Doors and New Beginnings
“Today, there are not the same number of lesbian spaces as there were in the seventies and eighties,” David states.
By the end of the eighties, many lesbian spaces shuttered their doors. Today, lesbian bars are not as plentiful as they were in the eighties and have all but disappeared.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot. There’s a real loss of women’s spaces… I mean almost all of the bars basically,” says Carla Harrigan, former frequenter of the lesbian bar The Ladybug.
“This last pride fest on the day the parade was happening… I woke up and I felt really sad. I was mourning the loss of the women’s spaces around here.”
The Disappearance of
Lesbian Bars >
The neighborhood has changed a lot. There’s a real loss of women’s spaces… I mean almost all of the bars, basically.
I went with Carla to revisited the former location of The Ladybug. I learned that The Ladybug was where Carla met a former girlfriend. Today, The Ladybug’s former home at 3445 N Halsted is a Fajita Factory.
Still, Carla laughed excitedly as she looked through the front window. In her memories, Carla can still see the dance floor where the kitchen now is, the bar where the bathrooms now are, and all the experiences that are contained within the building’s walls.
“People are saying ‘Oh well, you know, we don’t really need women’s spaces or lesbian spaces because everyone is assimilating. I really don’t buy it,” says Carla.
Carla’s sentiment sums up what most lesbian women from the seventies and eighties seems to believe; that lesbians need somewhere to go to be open and fully accepted. The new generation, may not entirely agree...
Mary Ann Johnson
I think women started to pull back and began to question their dependence on drugs, their dependence on alcohol. I think that might've been part of why there weren't so many bars.
I think as the whole LGBTQ community gained more relevance that the idea that they need to go to a bar to meet somebody was not there. We lost that secret club.
I think that lesbians are just disappearing. Not just the bars...
It's happening nationwide. I don't know where they're going.
Do We Need Lesbian Bars Today? >
I would argue that we don't necessarily need lesbian bars. We need queer bars and queer spaces.
Local activist, nightlife photographer, and historian Andie Meadows understands why older lesbian women value lesbian spaces, but has differing thoughts on the modern value of lesbian bars.
“Everyone over a certain age will tell you, yes, we absolutely need a physical neighborhood where we can all see and be around each other. While younger people don't necessarily feel the same way,” says Andie.
Part of this change in sentiment seems to be caused by the technology that young people have at their disposal.
Andie explains, “We have the ability to feel so connected to people that we may never see… Technology has really kind of ignited this conversation between intergenerational members of the queer community of, do we even need Boystown [and lesbain bars]?”
Yes, technology has brought people closer than ever, but that’s only part of it. Looking deeper, Andie argues that as people have been able to identify in ways that were not prevalent in the past, there has been a shift in what spaces are needed.
“There's also a shift towards queer as opposed to a lesbian bar. I would argue that we don't necessarily need lesbian bars. We need queer bars and queer spaces,” says Andie.
“When you start, you need to find your people and protect them and stay together. And thus we have lesbian bars and we have gay bars. But as we move forward and we find our intersectionalities in the corners of our community that need us most, that model doesn't work and we have to expand. So that's why I would argue that we need more queer bars and not more lesbian space.”
The combination of lesbians being more assimilated into society, the availability of technology to connect people, and the shift toward intersectional identities, rather than identifying simply as gay or lesbian has created a community that does not rely on lesbian bars like in the past.
Today, there has been a shift towards pop-up parties and events geared toward the queer community. Andie explains, “Lesbian spaces have always kind of leaned towards pop-up events. Originally kind of being in homes and moving around that way. Now you have much more powerful lesbian pop-up spaces or just queer pop-up spaces. Peach party is a huge one.”
While lesbian bars may have almost vanished, the new generation has found its way in reinventing spaces to include new communities that need their own space.
Modern Activism: Hanging on to the History
Just as lesbian bars have had to transform over the years, so has lesbian and LGBTQ activism. Today, activism takes many shapes.
Andie may be of a new generation, but she has not forgotten the history of those that came before her. Andie gives walking tours of the Boystown area and thinks that there is greater interest in LGBTQ history than many believe.
“A lot of elders are under the impression that young people just aren't interested in their histories, which is not the case. They just don’t have access to those histories.”
Andie’s queer photography project “Queens Who Bathe” captures intimate images of members of the queer community in her bathtub and tries to make access to that history, and queer resources, more accessible.
Interact with the webpage to view Andie Meadows' website (andiemeadows.com/queenswhobathe) and interact with the Queens Who Bathe collection. Images contain nudity. Copyright Andie Meadows.
“About two years ago, I moved into my home that has a clawfoot tub. It's beautiful. It's huge. It's wonderful. I had my friends over… they were first getting into drag and we had a little photo shoot in the tub. But it was such a good, such a wonderful and fulfilling experience."
“After that I put out an open call of, if you're in the queer community and you want to get in my tub, let's do it. And that eventually became this project where I build out these kind of fantasy sets for members of the queer community who are working in some way to make the community better.”
"I think of it as an activist tool, a, it's a tool to archive and to ensure that no one has to work as hard to find queer resources as our ancestors."
“I think any kind of queer historic research is activism,” adds Andie.
Gerber Hart Library and Archive’s exhibit Lavender Women and Killer Dykes works to keep this important history alive in a more traditional way. The exhibit examines lesbian feminism and lesbian separatism in Chicago.
The exhibit, co-curated by Jen Dentel, Isabel Singer, David Sievers, and Erik Rebain, is another example of how activism today, in part, means connecting people to LGBTQ history.
View images of the "Lavander Women and Killer Dykes" exhibit at Gerber Hart Library and Archives. Exhibit co-curated by Jen Dentel, Isabel Singer, David Sievers, and Erik Rebain.
“Gerber Hart is really about connecting the community with its own history,” explains Erik Rebain. In that way, this exhibit, and the entire Gerber Hart organization, is yet another example of how activism today, in part, means connecting the LGBTQ community with their history.
Connecting folks to their history does more than educate; it empowers. “Finding that history is really empowering and makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself,” shares co-curator Isabel Singer.
“I think that because all of these women were so incredible at community building, they show younger lesbians what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself,” Isabel says.
The Last Frontier >
I think the last frontier... is transgendered people. I mean once they have been established and accepted and become like everybody else, what's left?
Times may have changed. Spaces may have evolved. Identities may have become more inclusive. But still, lesbian history remains vital to today's generation… and the work of the LGBTQ community continues, taking on new battles.
The past generation of lesbians recognizes these new challenges; “Things do change for the better,” shares Vicky. “I think the last frontier, and I don't know what we'll do after this, is transgendered people. I mean once they have been established and accepted and become like everybody else, what's left? I mean, I really don't know. It's like we've conquered the world.”