This article originally ran in 2016, but remains relevant today. In honor of Pride Month and Throwback Thursday, we share it once again.
Milwaukee was never a hotbed of lesbian bars, but from the '70s until recently there were always at least a few in operation at the same time, including the Beer Garden, Fannie’s, Kathy’s Nut Hut, Mona’s, Barbie Dolls and Dish.
Now, Walker’s Pint, 818 S. 2nd St., is believed to be the only women’s bar left in the city – although there are unconfirmed rumors that there’s one quietly operating on Milwaukee’s North Side. Art Bar and Hybrid are "straight friendly," gay-ish bars that don’t cater specifically to lesbians or gay men.
The disappearance of lesbian bars is not only happening in Milwaukee. Even cities with a high number of LGBTQ ladies like San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago and New York have closed the doors to most – if not all – of their women’s bars due to lack of funds and low turnout.
The most recent impactful closing took place earlier this year when The Lex in San Francisco shut down after 18 years of business. In 2013, West Hollywood – where almost half of the residents are lesbians – shuttered its last women’s bar, The Palms, after 43 years.
What’s happening to the American lesbian bar? Do gay women not need girls-only entertainment spaces anymore? Has the country become so accepting of lesbians that they no longer need their own bars?
Bet-z Boenning, who worked as a bartender at Dish in the ‘90s, opened Walker’s Pint in 2001. Although she agrees there is now more acceptance of gay women in Milwaukee, the city still has a long way to go.
"We don’t have to go to dark bars and hide anymore, but that’s not to say that women don’t need safe spaces anymore, because we do. There is always the risk of getting picked on, made fun of or worse when you’re a lesbian and it still happens a lot," she says.
Recently, Boenning traveled to Nashville and only found one women's bar. She also noted a shortage of lesbian bars in Chicago and Madison.
"You would think Madison – the lesbian capital of the world – would be loaded with women's bars," says Boenning.
However, despite the lack of competition from other lesbian bars, business has not increased dramatically at Walker’s Pint.
"Actually, I’m working harder today than I was 14 years ago to get people in here," says Boenning.
Boenning says it’s always been more challenging to attract lesbians than gay men to bars because, generally speaking, most gay men still go out after they are partnered.
"Women like to nest. When they are single, they are out, but when they get a serious girlfriend, you don't see them as much anymore," she says. "The joke about the lesbian bringing a U-Haul to her second date is funny yet kind of true."
Boenning also believes, these days, it’s easier for gay women to show affection for one another in a straight bar than it is for gay men so they don’t feel the need to go to an all-lesbian lounge.
"Straight men aren't as threatened by lesbians as they are gay men," she says.," she says.
Lex Stath, a bartender at Walker’s Pint for 11 years, agrees with this. "Lesbians can go pretty much anywhere in Bay View or the East Side now and be comfortable," says Stath. "It’s great for humanity, but not so great for lesbian bars."
Boenning also says because women statistically make less money than men, when two women pair up they often have less disposable income than a straight couple or two gay men.
The prevalence of social media is most likely another reason why lesbians don’t congregate in bars as often anymore. Sarah Berg, who lives in Bay View with her wife, started going to lesbian bars in the late ‘70s and has noticed a decline in recent years.
"Lesbian bars were how you met other lesbians, but now you can do that online and at home," says Berg. "Plus, the Internet allows us to meet lesbians with our same interests. You can find lesbians who are into films or Dr. Who or whatever you're into. The Internet narrows down our search for the right person."
Berg says that as more and more women come out, the less they need to flock to bars to find support.
"The more we come out and live our lives openly, the more socially acceptable it becomes and the less we need to seek out support and community anywhere, including bars," says Berg.
However, she does not believe the lesbian bar will disappear entirely.
"There will always be the 19-year-old lesbian with a fake ID who wants to check out the bar. And because of that, every city will always have at least one lesbian bar," says Berg.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.