Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance . . . All such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.—Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” On Photography

A lesbian bar is an obvious place to imagine being a lesbian, but it isn’t where you imagine a whole lesbian life would actually take place. It is an explicit but liminal space.

Liminality is a quality built into the definition of a wetland. Marshes are essentially flooded fields, swamps are like flooded forests, and bayous are slow-moving streams that meander through the flat or lowest part of the terrain in a given region. All of these landscapes can be classified as wetlands. 

free-floating lime-green duckweed on the swamp water surface
imagine it would work like marbling on your body
if you dip in slowly enough

Wetlands are often described as the most “productive” forms of wildlife habitats. A healthy wetland acts as a kind of a natural sponge during a flood, absorbing the energy of storm winds and waves before they reach the mainland. They are threatened by development, logging, sea level rise, and erosion. Thirty-five percent of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970 and 2015. 

You look for the bars on your computer, your window to the world, and there are 70 million search results. Most of them look like this:

A Rapidly Shrinking List Of All the Lesbian Bars Left In The United States
The Curious Disappearance of the Lesbian Bar
Sixteen Lesbian Bars Are Left For Women In The United States
The Rise and Fall of America’s Lesbian Bars
Few Lesbian Bars Remain in the U.S. Will They Survive COVID-19?

Lesbian bars have never been “productive” in the mainstream, economic sense. It is after all, a business model that seeks to target less than 6 percent of the population. 

You don’t know exactly what you hope to find yet. It’s hard to imagine that many women in one room. You realize the only frame of reference you have is maybe . . .  Girl Scouts? Thanks to Google Images, you don’t have to imagine.

You can’t see any real surroundings, just ecstatic and annoyed faces illuminated alike by the unflattering flash of a party photographer’s camera. Spiked short hair, window paint, skinny bottles lined up against a mirror, blurred open mouths, red light illuminating pillars of smoke, hands curving around bare waists and shoulders, pink neon in the shape of a triangle mounted over a doorway, asymmetrical hairstyles, dozens of rainbow paper lamps hanging from a low ceiling. On each face you read an expression of collective joy and safety. It seems exclusive to the members of these crowded rooms. 

Descriptions under each image echo the sentiment of the earlier search results; the heyday of the lesbian bar is over. You click around and arrive at blogs with puns in their titles and outdated pink interfaces – the apparent original home for so much nightlife photography. It seems that there are only a handful of dedicated bars left, in addition to ‘themed’ nights in men’s clubs. Older lesbians lament in comment sections that girls these days seem happy using dating apps to meet each other, that they are less willing to spend money, or to talk to older people they don’t know. The posts are teeming with nostalgia for leather butches and lipstick femmes; clandestine meetings in a pre-internet, pre-dating app world. You develop an internal scrapbook for what has disappeared: the chivalrous culture of greaser bars in Pittsburgh, glamorous Hollywood lesbians seated in velvet lined booths at The Palms, and radicals organizing over cheap beer in the West Village, all gone now. 

Somehow, even the world’s most powerful and biased search engine cannot tell you exactly how many bars there were at the ‘peak’. All of the articles use words like “plentiful” to describe the bars of the ’50s and ’60s, “dozens” to describe the ’90s, and “a handful” to characterize the contemporary national scene. 

What a weird way to come into all of this knowledge, tinted with disdain for your age group and the traditions you are unknowingly destroying by simply having a phone. You are learning about a community through the mourning of it’s historic primary meeting space. 

This experience of the discovery of something’s existence in conjunction with it’s endangered status – like the black rhino, the local newspaper, or coral reefs – is familiar to the members of your generation. Consequently the world is empty, large, and frail. There is still so much to lose. 

Phase 1 was a legendary spot in DC. They claimed the title of longest running lesbian bar in the U.S. until 2016, when they went out of business after forty six years. It was located in the Navy Yard. There was a false wall built into the entrance to protect the customers from the bottles, garbage, and firecrackers tossed through the door over the years. Lesbians, as all queer people, are a group incredibly stratified by race and class. Twenty-four percent of lesbian women live in poverty as opposed to 19 percent of heterosexual women. While cities that are hailed as havens for LGBTQ+ people get more and more expensive, they are the first to get priced out. 

viceland documentary about the dwindling scene
handsome JD Samson is your tour guide, wow
unfortunately this only contributes to the feeling you have that

Susan Sontag says that photography makes the world feel more available to us than it already is. Your visual knowledge of something is not the same thing as a true understanding of it. 

Sometimes you find yourself just image searching “wetlands” or “lesbian bars” with no other specific modifiers. You are looking for something, doing your best not to read any captions and clicking through the results faster and faster, creating the effect of a zoetrope on the inside of your eyelids, something like a movie but with enough gaps to put yourself in there. 

In the 1800s, vast bottomland hardwood forests covered almost thirty million acres along river systems in the southeastern United States. 

the fluted trunks of trees that are
used to frequent flooding

Your eye moves around an image, from the clouds reflected in flat swamp water, to the white ibis perched on a floating log, to the photographer’s orange kayak only just peeking into the corner of the frame. It’s easy to forget that a person has taken each and every photo you have scrolled through. There are so few humans in the images that most of the time you feel as though you are peering through God’s Great Eyeball at a patch of sawgrass prairie in the Everglades or a gator’s gnarled brown back in Gumbo Limbo. 

flash on
dancing with a purse in hand
pair of
eyes peering over the rim
of frosted glass

There is nothing new about this mediated experience of longing. In 1956 a publication called The Ladder was created by The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco. This was the first lesbian newsletter; and in many ways, a kind of proto-lesbian internet. At the height of its popularity The Ladder had five thousand subscribers scattered all over America.1 At least five thousand women monthly read the minutes of meetings they had not attended, read descriptions of protests they had not marched in, and looked over classified ads and new business announcements for a locality they were not a part of.  

Some other words for a swamp –  dismal, morass – signify that this is a place to get stuck. This is unstable ground.               

the white gutter that frames each image result
isolates the viewer from a context, a possible history

You have been taught to think about a successful future as one that merely recreates the heterosexual family unit. In doing this you become an island. You have to understand that it is experience that unites queers as a political group, not just this abstract individualist concept of internal ‘identity’. It is so isolating to think of being a lesbian as merely who you are attracted to – queerness flows through every aspect of your life. These are the kinds of things you could realize only by GATHERING with other lesbians, even if it’s on UNSTABLE GROUND.

You get this weird feeling when you are looking at photos of wetlands . . . you don’t really want to visit as a human tourist, standing on a boardwalk or wading through the rushes. You imagine your presence like that of an animal; a fish or frog, or the oozing mud, the swamp itself. 

But which part of it is ‘the swamp’, anyway? It’s not just the cypress knees or the biting flies or the detritus or the brackish water – Not any one element on it’s own removed is the swamp. It’s a collection of these things that all claw together, and flow eternal.

  1. Martin Meeker, “Organizing Lesbian Connections” Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s – 1970.
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