Lesbian bars are disappearing. Gossip Grill opens up a way to survive
A few days later, Brittany Rae Leach, Gossip’s marketing manager, joined me at the bar during off-peak hours. She has a big smile on her face and auburn hair that has been waved with precision. When she talks about Gossip, she crackles like a bonfire. She says the decision to identify as a women’s bar and not a lesbian bar isn’t just driven by appearances or results. If anything, it’s personal. “Our choice to think of ourselves as a women’s bar affects so many people very deeply rooted in our community,” said Leach. “It was really important for us to be inclusive and as far away from hypocrisy as possible.”
Gossip Grill is a community space for queer women. Dina Johnson, a sterile treatment technician at a nearby hospital and a regular at Gossip for 12 years, uses the bar as a base for various fundraising efforts to benefit the local homeless community. When she learned that Gossip was struggling to keep its doors open during the pandemic, she launched a GoFundMe to raise money for unemployed staff members and to pay the bar’s lingering utility bills. At first, Johnson only asked for $ 1,000. But donors passed the $ 1,000 mark in less than three days.
“A lot of people didn’t just give ten or fifteen dollars. They donated hundreds. This is how much this place is loved, ”she says. “If I needed anything I’m pretty sure [Moe] wouldn’t say no to me. Moe is always for that no matter what I do.
Sitting at the top during our first meeting, Girton regales me with bits and pieces of Gossip’s story. In 2011, during the county-wide blackout that left 1.4 million people without power, the community flocked to the bar. Chris Shaw, founder of Gossip’s parent company, Mo’s Universe, had a generator installed on-site, prompting staff to throw an impromptu dance party that became an annual event. When the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando took place in 2016, the community mourned Gossip. When Biden was elected president in November 2020, that same crowd partied here. “Whenever something happens and no one knows what to do, they come here,” Girton says. “It’s important. This is the house.”
Erica Rose, who created the Lesbian Bar Project with Elina Street, tells me on Zoom that the struggle for space has defined, and in turn confined, lesbian life across the country. “Homosexual women have never occupied neighborhoods the same way as gay men,” says Rose. She notes that while homosexual communities have succeeded in colonizing entire neighborhoods, there are no lesbian equivalents. And the pandemic, which was already plaguing small business owners, has disproportionately affected women.
Lesbian businesses that will survive for decades will need to follow Gossip’s lead and grow into something beyond a bar. “We have to look for new ways that bars can meet the needs of the current generation,” she says. “They become community centers. They become restaurants, spaces for the family, spaces with sober options, spaces for political organization. Lesbian bars are more than just bars.