Meet the Queer Jewish Filmmaker Determined to Save the U.S.’s 21 Remaining Lesbian Bars

PC: Jackie Abbott

Historically, lesbian bars have been the primary spaces where queer women could gather safely. But numerous challenges are forcing them to close at an astonishing rate–there are currently only 21 left in all of the United States, compared to approximately 200 in the 1980s. In 2020 Brooklyn-based queer Jewish filmmaker Erica Rose collaborated with queer filmmaker Elina Street to create The Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary and call to action which urges the queer community and allies to support these few remaining bars and preserve the history of those we’ve lost. Lilith’s Arielle Silver-Willner talked to Erica Rose about her work, queer Jewish identity and her local lesbian bar.

ASW: Let’s talk about the Lesbian Bar Project–I loved this line from Lisa Canistracci, owner of Henrietta Hudson in Manhattan: “When people walk through that door, you can see their shoulders going down, you can see them exhaling…that’s what it’s all about.” Why use film as a tool to advocate for these spaces?

ER: If you live in a community where everyone looks and acts and identifies like you, that’s how discrimination and racism and bias are formed. I think the best way to learn about other people’s experiences is through exposure.

For me, film is the most powerful tool for storytelling [and exposure]–it combines all art forms. We decided to tell the stories of the bars, because with the number declining, I think it’s the most immediate way to spread the message–but we also get a portal into these people’s lives. We wanted to humanize the statistics, so we told the stories of the bar owners, community activists, patrons and archivists–that was really important to answer the question, “Why should we care?” Now we’re in development of a docu-series that is going to hopefully come out at the end of 2022!

We wanted to humanize the statistics, so we told the stories of the bar owners, community activists, patrons and archivists–that was really important to answer the question, “Why should we care?”

ASW: What do you hope audiences come away with when they watch your queer films, such as The Lesbian Bar Project or your 2018 drama Girl Talk, which explores queer intimacy?

ER: My work is about shattering the preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be queer. Typically any story that is about marginalized people is told by the most privileged people–that’s not to say that isn’t changing, but–-for example–-the five top-grossing films that have lesbian relationships at their center in the past ten years were all directed by men. 

To me, it’s really important to take back that narrative and to tell it from a place of authenticity. I don’t think that means representing everyone through rose-colored glasses–it’s important to show that people have dualities, complexities and faults. I do that with the Lesbian Bar Project and in Girl Talk, which talked about the disparity between emotional and physical intimacy within a queer woman’s own life to show that queer women are just as fucked up as anyone else, but also are just as beautiful and complex.

ASW: Can you tell me more about your Jewish identity and how it shows up in your work? 

ER: I’m not a religious person, but I had a bat mitzvah. I went to Hebrew school. I love having a Jewish cultural and ethnic identity. It’s where I got my sense of humor–you know, self-deprecating and anxious. And I think the way Jewish people are cultivated and encouraged to be skeptics and to question and to educate ourselves, as well as the communal aspects of Judaism are similar to my queer identity. 

My work isn’t specifically Jewish but I write Jewish characters and I have a couple of scripts that involve Jewish people thinking outside the box of who can be Jewish and what that means. I feel like in mainstream media, we have a good amount of Jewish representation, but most of that representation is of Ashkenazi Jewish people. I’m interested in Jewish People of Color, queer people, trans people. My work hasn’t gone there specifically yet, but I think there’s an opportunity for it to do so.

We also partnered with One Table during our crowdfunding campaign for the bars, which was awesome because they are not necessarily a queer organization, but they made sure to prioritize queer Shabbat tables and did a lesbian bar-specific program.

ASW: Beyond the question of queer acceptance, are there any conflicts involving the queer and Jewish communities that we should be talking about right now?

ER: I think there is a polarization between if you are supportive of Israel or not. There’s a crossover between Free Palestine and queer people, and what gets erased is that there’s queer people in Israel and who support Israel, but also support Palestine. I didn’t support Bibi and I don’t support conservatism or radicalism or all of what Israel does, but I believe Israel has a right to exist. 

There’s often a pressure within the queer community to be more radical. For example, in terms of our definitions of relationships, I feel like there’s a pressure to not be monogamous. And there’s a pressure to support certain politicians. If you exist outside of that, there is sometimes conflict. Recently, during the brief war between Israelis and Palestinians, people were spreading a lot of misinformation, and it’s unfortunate because, let’s be real, our community is often at odds with each other. But there’s space for us to have a more controlled, more compassionate conversation.

ASW: Let’s get back to the lesbian bars. Why are they disappearing? And why should we care?

ER: It’s primarily because we didn’t have many to begin with. Lesbians in general have never occupied neighborhoods in the same way that gay men did. 

Then, there’s gentrification, which is wiping out small businesses that are owned and operated by and for marginalized communities–it’s hyper-focused on the coastal cities, but that’s where a lot of queer people happen to live. The wage gap is real, too. Most of these spaces are owned and operated by women, and women obviously make less money. Plus, many queer women are parents, so a lot of that disposable income will go to their families or children. 

We also have queer assimilation into heteronormative society, which has affected queer businesses, since the demand isn’t necessarily as acute as it might have been when a gay or lesbian bar was the only space a queer person could feel safe in. But that’s not the case for everyone. If I choose to only patronize heteronormative spaces, it’s essentially saying that I’m okay with space in general being heteronormative. And that doesn’t reflect our population–our population isn’t just straight, it isn’t just within the gender binary, it isn’t just white, it isn’t just socioeconomically privileged. We need space that reflects all different aspects of our community.

And of course, there’s small business loan discrimination, there are landlords that might not be favorable to a queer space and there’s technology, which has really affected space–the way we shop, the way we meet people and the way we consume information has really moved online, and there’s been a de-emphasis on meeting people spontaneously at a bar. 

The pandemic has made it very difficult for the bars to survive, as well. They had to close their doors for weeks on end and lose income. They had to deal with stringent city fines and re-adjust many of their business models. 

ASW: In the last several years we’ve seen a shift in language and now a lot of people who go to lesbian bars may not actually identify as lesbians–is there an argument to be made for or against continuing to identify the bars as such?

ER: When Henrietta Hudson changed their logo from a more feminine presenting person to someone who is gender neutral this past year, a small group was worried about the loss of their lesbian-centric space. Lisa Cannistraci had the best response: “You might’ve thought twenty years ago that you were in a lesbian-only space, but you were wrong–there were trans men there, there were nonbinary people, there were pansexual people. We just didn’t have the language to be as inclusive as our population actually is.” I think it’s the best argument to make that those identities have always been part of the lesbian fold.

A counterargument that people make is that gay men are able to have gay male-only space. But my response to that is, we can and should do better than them. I think that we have the opportunity to be far more inclusive. Queer women have always been politically active and I think the onus is on us to make sure that we have space for as many people as possible.

ASW: You live in Brooklyn, which once had a ton of lesbian spaces, but now it only has one lesbian bar (and it was closed for 19 months, due to the pandemic)… does Ginger’s Bar have a special place in your heart?

ER: Ginger’s is my spot! It feels old school and approachable. It’s one of the few spaces where I’ve felt that I can exercise queer friendship…It’s really a place where my friends and I could go and be our authentic selves. During the pandemic, we were all hearing that they wouldn’t reopen, but they just did! We love [Manhattan’s] Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson, but it’s crucial that we have at least one space in Brooklyn, where a lot of the future of queer space is starting to pop up. 

ASW: Ginger’s is located in Park Slope, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Do you think this plays a role in why it has survived while lesbian bars in other parts of the city have not?

ER: I think queer spaces that existed in neighborhoods that were not as socioeconomically privileged were depending on loyal patrons that might not necessarily have as much money to spend on drinks. I do think that if you’re the only bar in Brooklyn, potentially everyone from whatever neighborhood will come to you, and their location is pretty central. At this point it has such a loyal following because it’s survived for so long–and I think with all the three remaining bars in New York, we’ve reached this preservation mode where the queer people are like, “Oh shit, we’re really down to our final three.”