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‘Year of the lesbian’: How queer women are breaking San Francisco’s doom loop

At Queer Prom Night at Mother, a lesbian and queer women's bar in the Mission District, the dance floor was crowded, hot and sweaty, and hits from the 1980s and '90s were blaring through a room of tulle dresses and tuxedos spinning under rainbow disco lights.

“Everybody came in their best clothes. All the regulars that I see regularly wore their best clothes, brought their dates, they were dancing,” Mother owner Maria Spagnol said at the event last month. “It was heartwarming.”

The night fulfilled everything Spagnol dreamed of when she opened Mother last year, hoping to revive the famed Calle Valencia, a strip that was once filled with lesbian-run shops and bars.

Patrons pose for photos at Queer Prom Night at Mother Bar in San Francisco.

(Paul Kuroda/The Times)

Over the past few decades, many of these establishments have closed, leaving only a handful of lesbian establishments open in San Francisco. These closures reflect a disturbing trend nationwide, with an estimated 30 or fewer bars open that cater specifically to lesbian clientele, according to a San Francisco research institute. Lesbian Bar Projecthas produced a documentary following businesses that faced survival threats in 2020 and charting their struggle to stay in business.

In San Francisco, It was once home to lesbian bars such as Maude and Lexington Club, both of which are now closed.Only three venues are listed by the project. Wild Side WestIt opened in 1962. Scarlet Fox Wine Bara relatively newcomer to the city, Jolene'sA club-like bar in the Mission District.

The list does not yet include Mather, who was recently named one of the “greatest people.” America's Best New Bar From Bon Appétit.

Spagnol's decision to launch his business in early 2023 couldn't come at a better time for San Francisco's queer community, and the city itself.

Office vacancy rates remain high. Approximately 37%Since the pandemic, concerns about crime and homelessness have also led to a decline in pedestrians and tourists. Waves of downtown business closures.

LGBTQ+ San Francisco residents are changing the fate of their city, one queer-owned business at a time.

Bartender Amanda Harris pushes her way through the crowd to deliver drinks on Queer Prom Night.

Bartender Amanda Harris pushes her way through the crowd to deliver drinks on Queer Prom Night.

(Paul Kuroda/The Times)

Their shared goal: to breathe new life into a city that has become jaded and dreary due to attacks on men, politics and the LGBTQ+ community.

Spain — Veteran Manager First coming to San Francisco in 1989, she's part of a network of queer women who run dozens of new restaurants, wine bars, cocktail bars, breweries and bagel shops.

They started Surf Club They formed lesbian kickball leagues, organized dodgeball tournaments and thrift store parties, and helped revive the city's vibrant nightlife from the depths of the “doom loop.”

So far, 2024 has felt like “the year of the lesbian,” said Angelina Polselli, director of community engagement for the Civic Joy Fund, a nonprofit that aims to support San Francisco's economic recovery through arts and entertainment.

Porcelli, who plays in a kickball league with hundreds of players, attending games by day and packing bars by night, said queer women and non-binary people are helping to revive the city post-COVID-19.

Lesbians haven't always been in the shadows of queer culture in San Francisco, Polselli said, but at a time when women's rights and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack across the country, she said their achievements are important even in liberal San Francisco.

“Instead of hiding in the shadows and staying in the closet, our response is like, 'Fuck you,' we're going to be more open and proud and be as queer as we can,” she said.

Miriam Serrano and Crystal Brown share a kiss on queer prom night.

Miriam Serrano and Crystal Brown share a kiss on queer prom night.

(Paul Kuroda/The Times)

Last month, the Board of Supervisors voted to ban San Francisco A transgender mecca,addition Guaranteed Income Program The program, which launches in November 2022, will provide $1,200 per month to low-income transgender city residents. In May 2023, Mayor London Breed appointed Darcy Drollinger as San Francisco's Drag Laureate. The first initiative in Japan According to an announcement of the appointment, the goal is to highlight the city's LGBTQ+ arts, nightlife and entertainment culture.

Drollinger, owner of a famous drag bar and nightclub oasisHe said queer San Francisco people are leading the city's resurgence because “there's a certain sense of unity in our blood” and that “we care about each other and the community around us.”

“We've had to make our own way in the world, often on our own, without relying on anyone else,” Drollinger says, “so we've had to develop a different kind of courage.”

Honey Mahogany, co-owner of the famous gay bar studwhich It reopened at a different location this spring. Now, four years after they closed in 2020, he said it's good to see queues starting to form outside gay bars and restaurants again.

“This is what nightlife in San Francisco used to look like,” said Mahogany, who served as chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and now serves as the city's nightlife director. Transgender Initiative Office“Not only does it obviously impact the performers and venues and merchants who are directly benefiting at the time, but it also helps change the narrative of San Francisco.”

Dom Avarella wears a wedding dress for queer prom night.

Dom Avarella wears a wedding dress for queer prom night.

(Paul Kuroda/The Times)

Still, some say it's too early to claim victory for queer women.

San Francisco is one of the gayest cities in the US, but in over a decade, no queer woman has served on city council, no gay mayor has been elected, and much of San Francisco's LGBTQ+ culture is dominated by white gay men, who hold some of the city's most politically influential positions.

“We're not going to say it's the year of the lesbian until we get more lesbians elected to public office,” said Kate Mader, a San Francisco political consultant who co-owns Scarlet Fox Wine Bar with her wife, Kaela Miller. “We want to get all the leading lesbians together and conspire to make this the year of the lesbian.”

Scarlet Fox owners Kate Mader and Kaela Miller pose

Scarlet Fox owners Kate Mader and Kaela Miller opened the wine bar to create a safe space for the queer community.

(Hannah Wylie/Los Angeles Times)

Mader and Miller met in 2015 at The Battery, a San Francisco social club where Miller was a sommelier, and married in 2020. The couple opened a wine bar in a quiet corner of the NOPA neighborhood in summer 2023, thanks in part to the city's COVID-19 relief package for small businesses.

The couple wanted to create a safe space for anyone looking for a place to relax over a glass of wine: A near-life-size cardboard cutout of Dolly Parton greets patrons at the bar, which was recently decorated with several rainbow flags in honor of Pride Month.

“We're really seeing little lighthouses across the city becoming brighter lights, and I think that's really because of the LGBTQ community,” Miller said.

Queer business owners are working to support San Francisco, but many still feel the city isn't doing enough to support them.

Suki and Katia Suki married in 2020 and opened an Eastern European restaurant. Dacha They moved to Lower Nob Hill about eight months ago, dreaming of recreating the sense of comfort they found when they arrived in San Francisco years ago: Suki came from the East Coast in search of a more open-minded environment, while Katya was fleeing anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Russia.

Suki and Katia Sky, owners of Eastern European restaurant DACHA.

Suki and Katia Sky, owners of Eastern European restaurant DACHA, participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 30th.

(Courtesy of the Skye Family)

Named after a popular Russian country cottage for summer, the couple wanted the dacha to feel like a living room. The dining room is decorated with paintings by Suki's father, and exposed brick and bookshelves make for a cozy space for guests. The couple hosts various charity events, most recently one to benefit organizations providing medical aid during the Ukrainian war.

“Part of the restaurant's mission is to bring people together,” says Katia Sky, “focusing on what unites us, regardless of sexual orientation or nationality.”

But the couple said they're struggling to keep the restaurant financially viable. They worry about money, violence in the neighborhood and keeping costs low despite paying tens of thousands of dollars in fees and taxes to comply with regulations in a city notoriously bureaucratic.

“It's been hard,” Suki Skye said. Though the couple wants to feel like they're making a difference with DACHA, they say they need the city's support to help them and other queer-owned businesses in San Francisco thrive.

“This city already has such an incredible backbone of culture, people and the place itself, it's just so magical,” Suki Skye says. “I really hope to see it come back to life, or even better than it was before.”

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