On the first night the lounge would open its doors to patrons under 21, a young woman scurried inside, eyes wide.
Women gathered by the pool table, the couches, the bar. They were talking and laughing and swaying to the music, arms laced around one another’s waists.
The 18-year-old had never seen anything like it. It was her first time at a lesbian bar.
“I’ve never been to a queer women’s party before,” she told the lounge’s social director. “Just, thank you.”
For two years, there was no dedicated space for moments like this in the District. Now there are two.
As summer drew to a close, two bars for lesbian, bisexual and queer-identified women opened: XX+ in Shaw and A League of Her Own in Adams Morgan.
Though the number of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer is on the rise, establishments that cater to these communities are going extinct.
The new bars in the District are bucking a national trend by simply existing. But, their managers said, they hope to do more than that.
Both want to reestablish a home base for the city’s LGBTQ community — where talking and building relationships is prized over getting drunk and dancing with strangers — and create a space where women and gender-nonconforming people can gather, free from judgment and unwelcome advances.
The businesses must survive first.
“Lots of people mention, ‘You know, lesbian bars don’t succeed.’ And you know what? I know that,” said Lina Nicolai, co-owner of XX+. “I know that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have one. . . . Hopefully, people will see what we’ve lost and appreciate what we’re trying to create.”
Why lesbian bars have closed at such a rampant rate remains something of a mystery, though theories abound.
Gentrification has driven up rents and pushed gay clubs out of the very neighborhoods LGBTQ communities helped establish. Their most loyal customers also tend to be those least able to support such establishments.
More than a quarter of bisexual women live at or below the poverty line, according to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, as do more than 1 in 5 lesbians. Nationally, the number of Americans in poverty is closer to 1 in 8, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Among transgender people, the numbers are worse, with up to 64 percent earning less than $25,000 a year.
Though there is little evidence, some theorize that once women pair up and settle down, they don’t go out as much as gay men. Others point to online dating and the mainstreaming of LGBTQ culture.
“You don’t need a secret place to meet other queer people now. You can meet queer people in everyday life,” said Ty Ginter, a graduate student at the University of Maryland studying historic preservation as it relates to the LGBTQ community. “But there is something lost when you don’t have that everyday interaction, that home base where people can just go and gather, and that’s what the community is realizing now. . . . It’s too bad (they) only began to realize that when all the bars were already gone.”
Bars for gays and lesbians have existed in the District since the early 1900s, with the first women-focused club opening in 1936, according to the Rainbow History Project. Known as The Showboat, the basement bar near 13th and H Streets NE featured a nightly performance by a lesbian couple.
Throughout the 20th century, the gay bar became an antidote to the hostility of everyday life, a place where LGBTQ people could express themselves without fear of harassment or violence. Because bars and clubs could control who came and went, it allowed them to create a safe environment for people to dress how they wanted, meet who they wanted and organize community events and political demonstrations.
At its peak in the 1970s, the District boasted more than 50 bars catering to the LGBTQ community.
It was in this environment that Phase One opened its doors in 1971 at Barracks Row in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It remained there for 45 years.
The Phase, as it was known, had the distinction of being the nation’s longest-running lesbian bar. Then it got sold.
“I think it really opened the eyes of our community to the fact that The Phase was still a business and a business can’t stay open without the support of its clientele,” said Jo McDaniel, manager of A League of Her Own.
In June 2016, a mile from the courtroom where same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court one year earlier, the District’s only lesbian bar shut its doors for the last time.
It was the first time in more than half a century that Washington’s lesbian community didn’t have its own dedicated space.
Pop-up parties, lesbian dance nights and drag king competitions tried to fill the void by offering one-night-only events. But it wasn’t the same.
“When you have these roving parties, you’re often in spaces that are straight or made for and by gay men, and those are the people who are ultimately in charge of whether or not your event keeps going,” said Macon Reed, an artist originally from Arlington who has toured the country with an interactive art piece called “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar.”
“Dyke bars aren’t just a place for dancing and cruising,” Reed said. “They’re the place you go to meet and organize, a space that people can just be and talk and hang out when they don’t want to be in party mode.”
In the months after Phase One closed, Dave Perruzza — who owns Pitchers, the bar in Adams Morgan that turned its downstairs into A League of Her Own — noticed waves of women coming into gay bars, asking, where do we go now?
It gave him an idea: Dedicate part of his new bar as a lesbian space.
A League of Her Own, or ALOHO as it’s known among regulars, opened Aug. 9. McDaniel said she’s been surprised at how busy it’s been.
“I think it shows how much of a need there was in our community for a space like this,” she said, adding that on weekdays, ALOHO draws a bigger crowd than the upstairs, a sports-bar atmosphere that largely caters to gay men.
While ALOHO was built into the lower level of Pitchers, lounge XX+ occupies the upstairs of Italian restaurant Al Crostino, which Nicolai owns with her mother.
McDaniel and Nicolai hope that sharing these spaces — and the expenses that come along with them — will ensure their long-term survival.
“We hope that it’s like a marriage, a tit for tat,” Nicolai said. “My hope is that if it’s a slow night upstairs, the downstairs will be busy, and if it’s a slow night downstairs, the upstairs will be busy.”
Both bars are welcoming to the wider LGBTQ community, including transgender and gender-nonconforming residents, who were commonly excluded from lesbian bars of yesteryear.
Stickers bearing different pronouns — she/her, he/him, they/them — are available for patrons at ALOHO’s entrance. A printed sign on the wall declares it “a place for people who have not found their place elsewhere.”
At XX+, a blackboard hangs on the wall, declaring the “house rules.” Among them: “Ask for pronouns” and “no hate or violence is tolerated.”
McDaniel and Nicolai said that although they opened around the same time, the two bars don’t see each other as competition.
XX+ is more upscale, they said, while ALOHO has four TV screens showing sports — women’s soccer and the Mystics are prioritized over men’s events — video games or reruns of “The L Word.”
“We have a joke that XX+ is where you go on date night and if it goes well, you come to ALOHO the next day and eat tater tots together in your comfy clothes,” McDaniel said. “Having two spaces that are so different just gives our community more options.”
Events such as sports-team fundraisers at ALOHO and financial wellness counseling at XX+ have brought a more diverse clientele to the venues, which aim to be more community gathering space than watering hole.
Regulars who met at ALOHO started a group chat so they could coordinate going out and meeting up at the bar.
The thread’s name?