It’s Throwback Thursday and it’s also the opening date for Franky Bradley’s, a hip new spot located where Philly’s lesbian bar, Sisters, used to be. In recognition, this week’s #TBT honors the legacy of the venue. And while the closure is still heartbreaking, it’s a clear demonstration that we’ve made enough social progress that LGBT people feel safe to go to far more bars and nightclubs than we used to. This piece originally ran in August of 2013.
It was Mrs. Jones’ 1st grade classroom, some random morning, in Western Nebraska. Immediately after we recited the words “Pledge Allegiance to the flag,” a sole improviser from somewhere behind me added, “Michael Jackson is a fag.”
At recess, I inquired to a friend what a “fag” was. I was informed that it was a gay person, a boy who liked boys and wanted to have sex with them instead of girls.
Stunned, I was awoken as if by the backfiring of an old car.
“Wait, you have to pick teams?”
I waited until my senior year of high school to come out as bi. And by come out, I mean, I kissed a female at a party and apparently somebody in my small town put out a press release. Friends I had known since kindergarten stopped talking to me, others grew nervous about being seen alone together. But it wasn’t all bad. Every closet lesbian and bicurious girl in the county made sure to let me know that if I wanted practice making out, there were options.
The nearest gay bar was 228 miles away.
It was probably 2000 and I was probably too young to technically be there. Lit like the management was ashamed of the decor, the first lesbian bar I ever entered was dark, eerily quiet and inhabited by absolutely no one I wanted to fuck. They were all at least a decade older and far less animated than I had hoped.
I tried to get a dance party started, but it resulted in me just shaking it by myself in front of a bunch of strange lesbians.
Little did I know that this was foreshadowing.
For 2 years, every Thursday we met up at Jackie’s center city apartment to pre-game. And every time we would debate whether we would try to get to Sisters early and enjoy the ridiculous drink special ($10 for 8 drinks and 2 hours to use them, plus a buffet) or drink vodka until 11 and then pay the lesser cover price (no drink tickets). Nearly every Thursday night we trekked the city blocks, ranging from moderately buzzed to inappropriately schwasted, excited to dance…surrounded by lesbians.
It was a magical concept for us queer girls from small towns: a big city nightclub with real nightclub lighting, a big booming sound system and the possibility of drunkenly making out with someone cute. And maybe that someone would get our number and we would text back and forth to figure out if they were totally boring when sober. And maybe we’d meet up again and start a torrid love affair. Or maybe it was just dancing and we’d never see them again.
But every gay community is ultimately its own small town. If you met someone at a lesbian bar, it’s unlikely that you’d never see them again.
There would be more chances. And also more awkwardness, when we actually couldn’t escape them, despite the fact we’d broken up with them. And more awkwardness at the realization that all of your friends’ exes were there too. And their exes. And randomly, some straight girls who were there to support their one gay friend on her first journey to the lesbian bar. And they made sure to declare aloud their straightness within seconds of meeting them. Although after a half an hour of the gay pour, some nightclub lighting and early 00’s R&B, exceptions were made.
The Gay Pour
1.Colloquial term describing the relative potency of alcohol served at GLBT-focused establishments.
2. Description of a mixed drink comprised almost entirely of alcohol, with non-alcohol mixer added largely for color.
Example: Damn, the gay pour got me again. I’m only two rum-and-cokes in, but I’m pretty sure I just sexted my grandma.
When a straight person’s favorite bar closes, they’re sad. It’s a loss of community. There’s the inconvenience of having to strike out looking for another place that can become a familiar haunt in which to comfortably unwind. There’s wasting time and money trying out a series of different drink menus and debating whether you like the music until you find a new place. But odds are good, assuming you live in a big enough town, that you’ll find another one.
Sisters was literally the only lesbian bar in Philadelphia. In a city of a million and a half people. There are dozens of gay bars that cater to male clientele. It makes sense: gay men have more money, spend more money and go out more often than their female counterparts. It’s a more sustainable enterprise to target that population.
But for 17 years, Sisters made work. When there was literally no other place a lesbian could go to hang out and not be other-ed by straight people or men, it was open 7 days a week. You could opt for a straight club where men would incessantly introduce themselves by rubbing their crotches against your backside. Or there was also the option of partying with ladies who are, on the average, much less rape-y.
Femmes could catch the eye of another femme and not worry about freaking her out, if the signals were read wrong. Butches could relax and drink a beer with friendly faces who were interested in similar things. People in between or outside those boxes were cool to come and party without fear, enjoying a nightclub in a way that a lot of folks take entirely for granted.
Immediately after it was announced that Sisters was closing, trolls emerged, as if summoned by the scent of emotional pain. A number of people, largely the kind of folk who actually make a nightclub lame and uncool, mouthed off about how not that great it was and they’re glad it’s gone.
I assume they also drive up to funerals, park next to the headstone and remind everyone of the time the deceased did that mortifying thing at Christmas.
And then they’d poke the widow and be like, “c’mon. i mean, right?”
I worked at Sisters for five years, as a member of the house dance troupe, as the promoter of a regular event, as the Chief Communications Officer doing online promotions.
It wasn’t stripper money or anything, but both my boss and the clientele treated me extremely well. After a year or so, it became one of the most reliable sources of income I had.
And the work was enjoyable. Drunk people most certainly are annoying. And rude. And messy and crazy. And wonderfully friendly. And generous, kind and validating. And entertaining. Always entertaining.
The family I made at Sisters: I can’t even.
- My work wife, chef Crystal, whose 90s rock anthems and open mic comedy stylings in the kitchen filled the spaces during slow nights.
- Will, the bartender who would sign along with all the lyrics using ASL.
- Fran, the bouncer who would hand me a candy as I walked out the door after a long shift.
- Barback Natira who greets each person with a hearty, “Hello, comrade!” despite not being even a little Russian.
- Angie, whose doodles drawn at the coat check were so good that I entrusted her to do my last tattoo.
- The inimitable Natalie, a bartender who could intimidate a Viking with an eyebrow raise, but whose friendliness feels like sunshine cutting through on a winter day.
- I can’t start a list. What am I doing? Do I want to spend the night crying? These people are family. All of them.
I was supposed to have a show at Sisters in nine days. It was going to be a fundraiser for the Slutwalk. I’m scrambling to find a new venue, expecting the date will get moved back. Worried this might be the universe telling me it’s time to go, to leave the nightclub world and the burlesque scene and the whole industry before I ever reached a point where other people thought I was too told to be on stage wearing bootie shorts.
But i like being on stage wearing bootie shorts.
Like a small town factory shut down, the closing of Sisters leaves a lot of people in the lurch. Good people are unemployed, their livelihood lost without much of a heads up. Hundreds of people are flocking to the facebook page to mourn the loss of the club with the gnashing of teeth usually reserved for the death of a popular high school student.
“Where will the lesbians go?” They ask. Some will go to clubs that combine the whole LGBT community together, attempting to cater to a diverse population that literally has nothing in common except the shared experience of oppression. It’ll be fine. It’ll still be fun.
Some folks will just go to the floating parties that happen every few weeks. That’ll be a lot of fun and an excellent celebration of community. But what about Wednesday after work? What about happy hour and brunch and Sunday afternoons when a game is on? Oh well.
My best friend met her wife at Sisters 6 years ago. There are lots of stories like that. Couples that wouldn’t have had a chance without the safety of the knowledge that “we’re both here and we both know this is a gay bar.”
Each night, they curl up in bed, talking about the next trip they’re going to take. My best friend really wants to do more international travel, but her wife insists they can’t leave the country again until they finally see the Grand Canyon. It’s been on her to-do list for entirely too long.
They talk about getting a dog, something that’s not too big for their house.
One time while we were out dancing, something like 6 months after their wedding, my best friend was unable to stop gushing about how in love she was. It was the kind of enraptured giddiness that you might expect from a 15 year old whose crush just said, “hi” in the hallway. “I’m just so happy!” she bubbled, delighted she had found someone who made her feel safe and whole and loved and adored. And they were building a life together.
This is the sort of story that starts for lesbians at a place like Sisters. This is the sort of story that will keep happening, but maybe with a few more roadblocks.
Love will find a way, it’ll carve out a new path, albeit a circuitous one. Life will go on, further chapters are yet to be read.