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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

Why are there so few women in gay bars?

George Costanzo stands in front of a white building.
Justin Glanville
Ideastream Public Media
George Costanzo now works for a film production company in Los Angeles.

One night, I was sitting at the Leather Stallion, a gay bar in Cleveland, and couldn't help but notice something missing.

"Where are all the women?" I asked one of the other guys at the bar.

"Women?" he said, and thought for a moment. "They come in spurts."

On this night, though, there were none in sight, and the energy was overwhelmingly masculine — just like at most of the other gay bars I knew.

At the time, I was youth coordinator at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. I worked with people who expressed their gender in all kinds of ways. Why didn't that seem to happen in the bars?

I wanted to learn more about queer women's nightlife in Cleveland: what it used to be like and how it is today. So I asked some of my friends and coworkers.

"I came out when I was 19 years old and I am 55 now," said Phyllis Seven Harris, the Center's executive director and my former boss.

Her favorite bar in the 1980s and 1990s was called Isis.

"I was just this nerdy Black girl, you know, trying to find her way," she said with a laugh. "And Isis was small. You know, you walked in the bar, like the door was here and the bar was here, and there was a little bit of a dance floor. It wasn't much, but it was our place."

Seven said she thinks lesbian bars started to close because women were at least perceived to drink less or stay at home more than men.

The rise of 'third spaces'

Today, there are no bars exclusively dedicated to women in Cleveland, and that's not unusual. A recent study showed only 21 lesbian bars remain in the U.S., down from 200 in the 1980s. And with the rise of the Internet and other types of "third spaces" such as coffee shops, bars are just one of the many ways people meet each other these days.

"I don't frequent any kind of bar," said my friend Agatha Eydenberg. "Not that I've never set foot in them, but I just like that is not where I conduct most of my space experiences, if you will."

She said one of her favorite third spaces is actually the home of one of her friends.

"She's been a snake wrangler, worked at Trader Joe's, and her apartment is exquisite," Agatha said. "Like, just everything that you want out of such a space."

Agatha said hanging out in her friend's apartment is a way to connect with people who identify themselves in all kinds of ways. She has discovered more about herself and her own identity through spending time there, similar to how Seven Harris did at Isis.

Throughout the process of collecting interviews, I began to fear that it would be much more difficult to meet queer women as these public spaces continued to disappear.

But Seven reminded me that even as spaces disappear, queer women won't. She encouraged me to continue building community where I could.

"We find ways to be separate, and that's just ridiculous when we need each other so much," she said. "We're just the 10%, if that. We have a lot against us. And so if you deviate from heteronormativity, then I want to love and embrace your queer self in all the ways that you want to be."

Seven's words inspired me to invite some women to hang out with me.

Toward the end of working on this story, I reached out to my queer girlfriends, JT and Marge. Cocktails, a local gay bar, was hosting a karaoke night, and I hoped they'd be interested in having a girls night with me.

They were, and the two of them sang a duet that had me cheering loudly from the audience — not just for the performance itself, but for the joy of being different together.

"+Voices" shares stories from LGBTQ+ young people, in partnership with the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. It's part of Ideastream Public Media's "Sound of Us" initiative to empower Northeast Ohioans to tell their own stories, facilitated and co-produced by Ideastream's Justin Glanville.