Into this fray — not just the sweeping upheaval of the pandemic — two Black lesbian friends, Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle, opened a bar in May in Andersonville, Boystown’s lesbian foil. It’s called Nobody’s Darling, plucking its name from an Alice Walker poem: “Be nobody’s darling. Be an outcast.”
Fittingly, the bar is iconoclastic, not just for being Black-owned or queer-owned or women-owned — let alone all three — but for being women-centered, as well. “The Lesbian Bar Project,” a 2020 documentary sponsored by Jägermeister, chronicled the startling dearth of U.S. lesbian bars: by its count, just 21 left nationwide.
Barnes, 52, and Riddle, 41, met 10 years ago on a women’s action committee at a gay community center. It shows.
“We’re a community-based bar. We’re providing a space for connection and support,” Riddle said.
“We have a space where our only expectations are respect, relaxation and refreshment. It’s safe, and it’s resonating,” Barnes said. “There’s nothing aggressive about it. You have women in their 60s next to gay guys in their 20s or lesbians in their 40s. And then they start talking with each other.”
In short, they’ve created the only thing better than a bar for regulars: a bar for irregulars.
Tom Tunney, a White man who represents Boystown as Chicago’s first openly gay alderman, declined to comment on his neighborhood’s tensions. But on a recent Friday night visit to Nobody’s Darling from opening to closure, patrons of all backgrounds framed the bar as a welcome antidote to Boystown toxicity. Those problems have persisted, they said, despite the groundbreaking election of Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black lesbian mayor.
“Lori Lightfoot is good for lesbians like Queen Elizabeth is good for women,” said Rebecca Angevine, 59, a White lesbian staff volunteer coordinator at a local college.
“You go to a gay bar, and you feel like an invader, invading their misogyny,” Angevine continued. “They’ll body check you on the dance floor. You’re waiting forever for a drink. They bully lesbians. It’s so disheartening to expect allies and get that treatment from them.” By contrast, she has a tab at Nobody’s Darling and shows up every Friday.
Nearby, Kelsi Morse, 27, a White female asexual queer advertising traffic manager, was giggling with her friend, Bianca Phipps, 26, a Latino trans nonbinary queer poet and cancer lab research assistant.
“Funnily enough, my therapist told me to come here ‘before the cis White gays take it over,’ ” Morse said. “I’ve been groped in Boystown gay bars by gay men. It’s like ‘you’re in our territory, and you need to follow our rules.’ ” Phipps chimed in: “And they think gay men can grope women because ‘it doesn’t count.’ ”
Asked what made Nobody’s Darling special, Phipps replied: “This is a weird thing to like, but I like that the lights are on. So many bars think darkness is intimacy. I like the trust of light.” Phipps looked around and sighed a smile: “This is the longest I’ve been in a queer space and felt comfortable — and I’ve only been here for 30 minutes.”
Nobody’s Darling does not lack lighting, but lacks plenty else. No bouncer. No velvet rope. No bottle service. No DJ booth. No cage dancers. No sign explaining that only one person at a time is allowed in the bathroom.
At a table outside, Maes Young, 26, a White nonbinary trans-masculine video game producer, explained: “People ask ‘What’s in your pants?’ or just ‘What are you?’ What am I? I’m a Pisces. To experience othering in a community of allies is frustrating. Being gay is sorta against the rules, but some gay people don’t know which rules are still valid.”
Hour after hour, patron after patron described the bar as so revelatory as to be a cultural and personal reset. “What I usually feel in a bar is defensive,” said Colette Cepic, 25, a White nonbinary pansexual bird habitat restoration agent who came out during the pandemic. “But here I feel curious.”
Patrons were drinking, sure. But they were also playing rounds of Euchre, a card game. Making out, but also tickling each other and braiding each other’s hair. While the bar surely has electricity bills, an interloper could be forgiven for the perception that the venue runs on the energy of glasses clinking in toasts and cheers. Or on megawatt smiles.
“It’s a perfect cauldron of our differences,” said Kate Heffernan, 38, a White lesbian regional sales manager, from her perch over a card game with fellow softball players, having polished off an Italian dinner the group ordered delivered to the bar.
Apart from comfort and camaraderie, there were also romance and lust. Chris Walker, 29, a Black queer trans-masculine nonbinary head of marketing, was on a first date with Mia Vivens, 30, a Black queer female personal trainer.
Vivens called the date location, which had been her idea, “the most interesting place in Chicago.” (Although it was clear she found most of that interest in Walker.) For his part, Walker said he was already familiar with Nobody’s Darling from a fellow patron: his 66-year-old lesbian mother, Charlotte, who is a regular.
The bar’s intergenerational gravity offered palpable allure to Eleana Molise, 27, a White and Latino lesbian mental health justice community organizer. “I love that I feel like I can peek into my future by seeing older lesbians, who I never get to see,” she said.
Men also found transformative renaissance and agency in the bar.
His companion, Adrian Fonseca, 26, a Latino bisexual polyamorous middle school English teacher, cheered that. “I went into the pandemic straight and came out bi poly,” Fonseca said. “This place is exactly what I need: conscientious and warm and welcoming in a way that’s timeless. It feels like it’s been here forever.”
Héctor Torres, 46, a Latino gay clinical psychologist, set the venue in its 2021 context: “With pre-covid gay bars, you had to give up who you are to be part of community,” he said. “This is a post-covid gay bar, one where we know how much we need each other.”
In 1924, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant postal clerk in Chicago, created the Society for Human Rights, the nation’s first gay rights organization. According to the 2018 book “The Boys of Fairy Town,” in 1930, Variety reported on Chicago’s boom in “pansy parlors”: “The world’s toughest town, Chicago, is going pansy. And liking it.” In 1939, Alfred Kinsey discovered what he called “a scientific gold mine” in the sexual histories of gay men in Chicago, upon whom the academic foundations of human sexuality were based when Kinsey literally wrote the book on the matter. In the 1950s, The Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, covered “female impersonators” empathetically, either with glamorous photo spreads or gritty reporting on abuse by police. And, in 1961, Illinois became the first state to repeal anti-sodomy laws.
Now, a new Chicago addition to that legacy of progress: Nobody’s Darling has given the nation a model for LGBT venues living up to LGBT values.
Of course, none of that was on the tips of any patrons’ tongues. The visceral gratitude was less historical or political, more essential, spiritual and deeply personal.
The entire night — perhaps the entire business — could have distilled to one moment: Rosa Roberts, 75, a Black lesbian enjoying her retirement in the neighborhood, lifted up her screwdriver cocktail and bellow-whispered to the ceiling, as if in communion with God.
“I feel free,” she said. “I’m finally free!”
Morgan, a freelance writer in New York, is the author of “Born in Bedlam.”