Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Saying goodbye to Philly’s beloved lesbian nightclub

Recollections, realities and what it could mean for the future

In its heyday, Sisters was the spot for lesbians to share drinks, dance or shoot a game of pool. Over the 17 years it was open, it was host to Sapphic celebrities and special events that carried two generations of women from drinking age into adulthood. On a busy night, you might have seen a gaggle of giggly young women celebrating 21st birthdays down the bar from a klatch of elders reminiscing about the good old days and Hepburns, the former lesbian haunt that was once located in the space now occupied by iCandy.

There were also the ever-popular karaoke nights with Suzi Nash where, despite the odds and that awful rendition of "Friends in Low Places," drink tickets seemed to persevere until last call. And there were the weekends when the dance floor was packed with the thumping and bright lights defining raw escapism and just enough debauchery to be gossiped about over brunch the next day.

But things started to noticeably change at this fabled lesbian bar during the past few years. The Sunday brunch – a staple among men and women alike – was off the menu, and the once lively happy hours (when you had to arrive early just to get a seat to watch T.J. Nistico shake a bit more than half-priced martinis) gave way to a solemn after work scene with Law & Order reruns on the flat-screens or the sound of satellite radio stations well past their expiration dates.

This isn't to say the bar didn't serve a place and provide a context for women's socialization in a city that is now devoid of any other lesbian-exclusive establishments. It did that and more – even if in its final, darker days. Because there's also the staff – many of whom have been there since the beginning – and who abruptly discovered they would need to find work just a few hours after closing this past Sunday.

"I have not only lost a job, but a love/passion, a home away from home and an extended family," Sisters manager Denise Cohen posted to Facebook on Monday, shortly after finding out that the nightclub's doors would be closed for good from owners Mel Heifetz and Jim Ross. Cohen didn't respond to calls, but her personal Facebook page, as well as Sisters' own page, has been inundated with messages of support, shock and even grief from current customers and those around the world who remember it fondly.

One of the dancers of an ongoing burlesque act that performed there, Timaree Schmit (also the communications officer for the club), wrote, "My heart is broken. Sisters was more than a nightclub to me. It was a catalyst and locale for many of my most cherished creative and personal experiences, the place where many of us met our favorite people and, ultimately, thanks to a staff and regular clientele of spectacular people – family."

When Sisters – located in what was a row of stables and later a popular nightclub (Frankie Bradley's) hosting the likes of Charles Nelson Reilly and Lucille Ball before it was a lesbian landing pad – opened its doors in 1996, the LGBT nightlife scene was a different place. Most bars were still hidden in plain site, windowless and a little secretive in their own place in the community. Those who knew where to go – went. But there were no gay marketing campaigns yet. There was no real acknowledgement from the city about the gay community's positive impact on the overall culture, and the notion of same-sex marriage might have seemed more like something out of a fairy tale – in other words, grim. The gay culture in Philly (and around the country) also still valued a separation between men's bars and women's bars that cultivated a safe, fun culture, but one that was soon to evolve right along with the politics we see today.

Before long, things started to really change. First, there was the smoking ban. Many bars initially took a hit when smokers were forced outside or to other watering holes that got a pass. Then came the recession, which it can be argued hit the lesbian community hard. With women still earning less than men, there was a downturn in how women were spending their money – and how often. Sisters was still a good bet (spending money in the community at a bar operated by a woman for women seemed like the right thing to do). But the regular Sisters customers might only show up on the weekend. They would become more judicious with their spending. Times were tough.

Even more significant in recent years were the trends in other gay nightclubs and bars in close proximity. They poured money into renovations that have come to symbolically represent the changing attitudes about gay life today.

Woody's, the first gay bar in the city to even have windows, took it to the next level by creating an open-air design with outdoor seating. UBar also knocked down its walls to let in the light and modernize the once seedy Uncles. Venture Inn, often the butt of jokes ("Denture Inn") about its elder clientele (not the least bit of which is accurate) also shaped up with a new dining space and touchups. Same with the restaurant in the basement of Tavern on Camac and Westbury, which went from grungy hangout to cool gastropub with top-notch beers. Tabu also opened as a sports bar with rotating second-floor events that attract men, women and the trans community. And Voyeur, the staple for after-hours antics, has also welcomed mixed crowds, as has Stir, a lesbian-owned lounge where the homoerotic hole-in-the-wall The Post once stood. Knock, with its windows and outdoor seating scene also thrives very much in the light and out from the alleys that once shrouded this underground community.

Beyond the facades, the culture was changing, too. Philadelphia unrolled the country's first and largest LGBT tourism campaign designed to attract travelers to the region. The 13th Street corridor – once a bastion for crime and prostitution, and a bane for Center City just footsteps from the Avenue of the Arts – also boomed with new restaurants and shops (many of which are owned by lesbian power duo Marci Turney and Valerie Safran who are getting ready to open the new Italian bistro Little Nonna's where the old Bump – then Q Lounge and Kitchen, then Fish, then Rhino Bar – once was).

There was even a widespread campaign to rebrand the Gayborhood as "Midtown Village," though most old-timers are loath to use the trendy new moniker even now. To the city's credit, though, it stuck to its LGBT roots and renamed the corner of 13th and Locust Street as Barbara Gittings Way after the lesbian rights pioneer, paying tribute to these blocks that hold a special key to Philly's fascinating gay history.

As for Sisters, dwindling customers, dated décor (including peculiar half-women-half-cat artwork that has been a source of well-meaning mockery among regulars for years) and an unreliable food menu ever since Chef Crystal Fox moved onto Giorgio's on Pine, may have contributed, in part, to the demise of this once beloved hot spot.

But Sisters closing on Aug. 11 also signals a shift in LGBT nightlife in general. Where women may have once craved their own social clubs (there were actually several lesbian bars in Philly by the 1980s, like Sneakers, Mamzelles, Seasons and the Two-Four) more and more watering holes – like iCandy, the newest member of this elusive cadre – not only welcomes a mixed clientele, but also employs a diverse, friendly staff. It's also not unusual to see women at the renovated Woody's (where there are now female bartenders – a first for the men's nightclub), as well as Knock, Venture, UBar, Westbury and Tavern on Camac, some of the most popular gay bars in the city today.

Much of the city's 20 and 30-something lesbian community has also headed south – literally – to East Passyunk Avenue, a burgeoning gay-friendly enclave where craft beers seem to have replaced any yen for wet t-shirt contests and Jell-O wrestling that punctuated Sisters' past. The days of drawing the line in the margarita salt over which bars are for the gay men and which one's are for the lesbians are over. More and more gays and lesbians are frequenting "straight" bars and restaurants where they feel just as accepted, just as comfortable holding hands, celebrating a birthday or anniversary or just being themselves. But that isn't to say that the Gayborhood couldn't support a lesbian bar to replace Sisters. It should, perhaps even one that caters to a new generation of queer women with a whole new set of rules.

"I'm having trouble finding the words," Kristen Hess wrote on Facebook. She's a longtime bartender at Sisters who followed Cohen from Hepburn's when it, too, shut its doors in 1995. "Sisters was more than just a place to work," she said, "and the staff was more family than co-workers."

While any end of an era tends to create nostalgia for what once was (even if some of the most nostalgic didn't support Sisters in recent years and months, enough to keep the bills paid and doors open anyway), the closing of a longtime gay bar has a special set of sincerities by nature of it already being a little off-the-beaten-path, a little out of the mainstream and more of a home for people who may have been away from their own families for years.

"This is really sad for a lot of reasons," says Anne Ryan, a longtime customer, "because that's where I spent my 20s, because you could always count on it being there and open – and it's the only lesbian bar. I don't feel there are any viable lesbian options at the moment in Philly."

For many customers like Ryan, the news is especially bittersweet. Sisters, with its tiny door off of 13th Street that once opened into a world of acceptance and affirmation when society was still lagging behind in both, has become nothing less than a touchstone for almost two decades of Philadelphia memories. And it's certainly not lost on the people – near and far – who made it what it once was.

Sisters and, will continue to host the Big Gay Boat party on the Moshulu (401 S. Columbus Blvd.) on Aug. 25 (6 p.m. – 12 a.m.).

McDonald is a writer based in Philadelphia.