When I heard that Philadelphia’s last lesbian bar, Toasted Walnut, would be closing, I was sad but not surprised. In this era of online dating and social media, the COVID-19 pandemic and greater societal acceptance of the LGBTQ community, spaces for queer women are disappearing like nobody’s business. Except that it is our business, especially if you are a queer woman.
I didn’t appreciate what we had in Philadelphia — to be one of the very few cities in the country to still have a lesbian bar — until it was gone. I immediately thought of the last time I went to Toasted Walnut, seeking community around other gay women after the woman I was dating at the time canceled on me. The drag performers, the friendly bartender, the knowledge that I was in a queer space, all helped turn my night around.
My 19-year-old excursion to my first lesbian bar, the Hung Jury in Washington, D.C., was a turning point in my coming out process. Still in the closet with my parents and all my straight friends (except the one I was sleeping with), it was revolutionary to be in a space of women of all races dancing with one another freely and joyously. I went by myself, made friends, and still count as one of my dearest friends the bartender who served me that night. Spaces like Toasted Walnut and the Hung Jury were not just bars for me, they were spaces where I found lots of people like me for the first time. Enough to fill a huge dance floor. When you grow up feeling like you’re the only one who is attracted to the same sex, that’s a big deal.
In between the Hung Jury and Toasted Walnut, there were many other lesbian bars and lesbian nights in gay bars in many other cities. Phase 1, once the longest operating lesbian bar in the country, which closed in 2016. Tracks in the Navy Yard, with its legendary Sunday night house music parties. I don’t know what year Hung Jury closed, or Tracks, or Club Chaos, or the several gay bars in D.C. that dedicated Thursday nights for “ladies” — but they are all closed. Henrietta Hudson, Cubbyhole, and places whose names I don’t recall helped get me through graduate school in New York. Only Cubbyhole remains open.
Physical spaces where you can meet people in real time are important. You can meet people and know whether they are flirting with you without needing to rely on emoticons. You can ask them to dance instead of matching with someone on a dating site but never messaging them. If you have a tough day or a reason to celebrate, if you are new to the city or newly out, you know where you will be welcome. And not have to worry about fending off the advances of straight cis men.
Social media and dating sites have been great tools to bring LGBTQ individuals together in a way that creates more accessibility for many, many people. The greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community has helped LGBTQ individuals feel more comfortable socializing in nonqueer spaces. My girlfriend and I can go to many nightlife venues that have a predominantly straight clientele and not be stared at or harassed because of who we are. But there are only 15 known nightlife spaces dedicated to queer women and lesbians remaining in the United States. In a country of nearly 331 million people, that is shockingly small. Thank you, Toasted Walnut, for being one of the last few to be there for the community. And thank you to the owner, Denise Cohen, for creating this space.
Jeni Wright is an attorney for a nonprofit in Philadelphia. She lives in West Philadelphia with her two children.