In the August 1979 issue of Baltimore's long-running Gay Community Center newspaper, Greg Lehne wrote about casual sex in the gay men's community in his column, "Gay Perspectives." How do you let a man know you are interested in getting to know him, not just getting it on? Lehne advised looking to lesbians: "The lesbian social scene, which predominantly revolves around friendship circles and non-bar activities, can also provide gay men with a model for meeting friends." He suggested men organize Sunday brunches at home, everyone inviting a friend, like those potluck-loving lesbians do.
There is some truth to this stereotype of gay men as out in the bars while lesbians were organizing at home, but it misses the vibrant history of lesbian social spaces in Baltimore. That same issue of the Gay Community Center newspaper featured a map of lesbian and gay places in the city, including at least six bars—and that's not counting the floating bar on the regular gay and lesbian cruises around the harbor, the popular Ladies Tea at the Hippo—then called The Pink Hippopotamus —or the many women's nights at other predominantly gay men's establishments. The lesbian bar scene in Baltimore was then, and for the next several decades, a place where women came out, came together—in more ways than one—and made rich lives in a world that often made very clear that it did not want them.
Louise Parker Kelley remembers those early days vividly. She was the founder and editor of the Baltimore Gay Paper, helped coordinate women's activities for the Baltimore Gay Alliance, co-chaired early Pride events, and, among other things, was a regular in Baltimore's bar scene. Kelley tells the story of her first visit to a lesbian bar, Club Madame, in D.C. She went all dressed up, to the nines, just to make sure nobody thought she was butch. She got a lot of attention that night, and finally one woman broke the ice: "So…you ever take those gloves off?" Kelley let out a breath, everybody laughed, and she started finding herself.
She built her home in Baltimore, though. The Club Mitchell, known as Mitch's or Mitchell's, was a central hangout. It was owned by Mitch, a trans man, and Rickie, who was, in Kelley's memory, "a total lech" and who contemporary Shirley Parry remembers as "a lovely woman." It was a small, packed bar that hosted a predominantly white clientele, though Kelley remembers the bar eventually "stopped hassling black lesbians." Located at Pratt and Exeter in Little Italy, many depended on the mafia to keep the bar safe, along with the rest of the neighborhood. Kelley "doubts the mafia gave a shit about lesbians," and as much as it was a home, it also became a target for assaults. Women in the bar organized an escort service back to cars, and the party kept right on going.
The Shot Tower was another popular spot. Located just behind the better known Shot Tower, it was a tiny place in an edgy neighborhood. You had to knock to get in, speakeasy-style, and if you had a man with you, he might not get in. Kelley says the bar "was a true sanctuary. It was multi-generational. Dykes and feminists were there, singing feminist songs—it was wonderful." The building is long demolished, but the community built there in many ways remains.
Patti Aarons started going to bars in the 1980s, and for her the scene built real community. She recalls hitting a whole circuit of bars on a Friday or Saturday night—Port in the Storm in Highlandtown, Allegro near University of Baltimore, Ladies Tea at the Hippo, Central Station, and Coconuts. "Every bar was crowded," she remembers, "and it was a good time to be a gay bar owner." She remembers lesbian culture in the city as a bunch of dysfunctional friend circles—lots of drama—but also the place where she made lifetime friends: "Some of the women I met in the bars 25 years ago are still my friends—like, take-vacation-together friends. It was a real sense of community that just doesn't exist now."
Bars enabled community, but they could also be a site of real division. Mitch's was hostile to black women, and for a time tried to exclude sex workers from the bar. Kalima Young, who first hit the bar scene in the 1990s, remembers Coconuts, a popular hangout in West Baltimore, as hosting a diverse clientele*. "It was a blue-collar place," Young remembers, "but black masculine-presenting lesbians made white lesbians feel uncomfortable." Other spaces felt more comfortable to Young. Kiss Cafe's "Last Kiss" ladies night in Canton "was the shit," Young says. Ladies Tea at the Hippo was another essential spot. Young recalls it as "an event you had to go to to find the bodies to dance with." Beyond the bars there were First Thursdays potlucks, the Women of Color group at the GLCCB, and other places, but they'd always end up at the bars. "Coconuts," Young says, "is where I finally learned to be comfortable around lesbians."
Gallagher's was another hot spot. It appears on the 1979 map as J.J. Gallagher's Pub at 1722 Fleet St., but was reopened at 940 S. Conkling St. in 2000 by Vera Mosley and Sue Webster. Abby Neyenhouse remembers it as "the lesbian Cheers." "I'd go there and see somebody I knew," she says. It was there that she joined the just-formed Charm City Boys, Baltimore's drag king troupe. Gallagher's was their home, performing on a stage the size of a postage stamp to a tiny bar packed with women. When its closing was announced in 2007, Neyenhouse hit a dive bar near the place. "You could still smoke in bars, so I sat at the bar, drank, and smoked while I told the bartender how much I'd miss that place." Charm City Boys looked for another home, performing at Grand Central and a few other places before the troupe broke up, its members moving on. "We think about a reunion show," Neyenhouse says, "but to start a show at 11 p.m. on a Thursday? I don't know how we did that and went to work the next day."
Glenda Rider and lesbians in the BDSM, leather, and kink scenes had their own spaces, too. Rider opened Play House Studios and Gallery in 1997, a BDSM leather and fetish play space. It burned down in 2013, but a new Play House opened that is the largest dedicated play space in the entire country. It hosts people of all genders and sexualities, and though not directly connected to Rider's original spot, it as part of a long lineage of Baltimore's active community, she says.
In terms of bars, Rider fondly remembers The Eagle as a leather bar that made real space for women. The bar was opened in 1991 by Tom Kiple, and Wes Decker tended bar. Decker had hosted a reception for International Ms. Leather at the National Lesbian Conference in Atlanta, and he was so inspired by the energy of the event that he helped organize a Ms. Baltimore Leather contest at The Eagle in 1992. Rider was one of two women who competed. "It was a thrilling time," she says, remembering a bar packed with at least 125 people from all over the region who joined her for the first Ms. Leather competition in the entire United States. Baltimore added another notch to its "city of firsts" belt, and Rider got to rep the Baltimore Eagle at bars and events up and down the East Coast. Rider emphasizes the tight-knit nature of the community: "We are blessed."
Along with Gallagher's, most of these bars have now closed. Mitchell's and The Shot Tower are long gone. Coconuts shuttered in 2009 after a woman was beaten and fatally shot outside. That left Port in the Storm as the only remaining stand-alone lesbian bar in the city, and it closed around 2010, as far as we can tell given the spotty nature of queer history. The Eagle closed for renovations in December 2012, and in 2015 lost its liquor license, ostensibly for being closed for 180 days, a rule overlooked for many bars—but not the Eagle, though it seems like its return is imminent. Kiss Cafe is gone, as are The Children's Place and the Butterfly, bars about which there's little evidence except the stories women tell about them.
Bars closed for lots of reasons: the city yanked a liquor license, gentrification priced them out, profits dipped, times changed, owners were ready to move on. The Drinkery will be an important contemporary case to watch as the forces that killed our dyke bars converge around this 44-year-old institution. Today's lesbian bars in Baltimore consist of Sappho's and the newly-opened Flavor in Mount Vernon, with its dance spot the Attic open on weekends. Increasingly, young people are drawn to queer spaces that aren't necessarily identity-based, like the Crown and even Red Emma's. And we've still got our monthly dance parties and occasional events put on by S.H.E. Productions. Young says "Glitter Thighs [a monthly queer dance party] is the closest to anything that feels like my experience."
Bars are closing all over the country, from the Lexington Club in San Francisco to Phase 1 in D.C. Philadelphia's last lesbian bar shut its doors in 2013. In her installation project "Eulogy for the Dyke Bar," artist Macon Reed has tried to make a space for people to talk about these losses, to mourn these passings, even if they are in many ways inevitable. Aarons says, "It was a real sense of community that just doesn't exist now."
It is easy to be nostalgic about these old bars, especially for those of us who found ourselves and our people there. Remembering these places reminds us we have roots. But our nostalgia needs to reckon with the ways these bars enforced racial segregation, excluded women based on gender presentation, and shut their doors to sex workers. We can also learn from these histories to see new ways to make community with each other across differences and without a steady sense of place. For all that changes, that is, perhaps, still the trick.
* Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Coconuts would switch from glasses to plastic cups on hip-hop nights, anticipating violence. This actually happened at The Hippo. City Paper regrets the error.