Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (CNN Business)It's just about closing time on Thursday in early June and the regulars are catching up and winding down after a busy night of darts league.
They shoot the breeze, fling back a couple of shots, and spout off lyrics ("get on your bikes and ride!") to accompany the tunes playing overhead.
Come back tomorrow night, they say, because it should be a hoot — a "Hootenanny," to be precise. In addition to weekly drag shows, music and other events, once a month, the Hootenanny Harlots drag troupe put on a comedy show that's a little bit country and a little bit, well, just bawdy enough that some performances aren't suitable to print.
On Friday, the parking lot was packed and the interior of Frankie's was awash in neon and halogen. A cadre of queens had the patrons howling.
Welcome to Frankie's in Oklahoma City, a local haunt where there's a little something for everyone. And that's by design: It was created to be so much more than your everyday neighborhood bar and, especially, your everyday lesbian bar.
"This is a place where people can go and feel safe," Ann Harris said.
Frankie's is among a rare breed of establishments, and some say it's an endangered species.
The number of lesbian bars has dropped precipitously over the past 40 years. In the 1980s, the US was home to more than 200 lesbian bars. Now it has has only about two dozen left in operation.
The plight of the lesbian bar has been brought front and center this Pride Month as movements are afoot to preserve and grow them.
One recent effort is the Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary film and campaign that's gained the backing of Jägermeister and "Orange is the New Black" actress Lea DeLaria. As Pride Month draws to a close, the project is in the final hours of a fundraiser for what organizers believe are the 21 remaining lesbian bars in the nation.
Open to all under the rainbow
In the late-1990s, when Becky Black first stepped foot in the now-closed Oklahoma City LGBTQ+ 16+ club Wreck Room, the then-17-year-old felt a mix of shock and awe, but ultimately a sense of tranquility.
Amidst the sparkles, the glitter, the makeup, and the lights, feelings of truth, acceptance and authenticity billowed up for the young, closeted lesbian who grew up sheltered and in a very religious family.
"People saw me for who I really was, and there was no judgment," Black, now 41, told CNN Business as she sat in Apothecary 39, a cocktail bar located in the city's LGBTQ+ district.
But recently she's noticed her queer and lesbian peers are pulled more toward downtown hot spots and less toward explicitly LGBTQ+ establishments -- particularly the lesbian bars.
Now Oklahoma's remaining lesbian-centric establishments -- Frankie's, Alibi's and the Yellow Brick Road in Tulsa -- are three of the 21 bars at the center of The Lesbian Bar Project's efforts.
The Project takes an inclusive approach to the definition of "lesbian bar." The label, according to the filmmakers, extends to places that prioritize "creating space for people of marginalized genders," including non-binary and trans folks.
"In a way, we're also recognizing that the community is changing," said Elina Street, who along with Erica Rose, are the filmmakers behind the project.
This change is evident in the approach taken by Ann and Tracey Harris, the owners of Frankie's, who took over a former lesbian bar they frequented (a bar where, they joke, they were two of five customers left) and converted it into a lesbian-owned bar that's welcome to everyone under the LGBTQ+ umbrella and their allies. It's also been good for business; later this year, Frankie's is slated to move to a building owned by the Harrises and designed specifically for its weekly events.
"'If you don't have a home, you do at Frankie's'" Tracey "Ginger" Campbell, 35, a Frankie's regular, said, noting the bar's catchphrase. "We really, as regulars, embrace that motto and that mantra, so that anybody that walks through here feels welcome."
From 200 to 21*
The trend of bars going dark isn't unique to lesbian, gay or other LGBTQ+ establishments.
There are far fewer bars of all types now than before.
Mostly, it's been the local watering holes that have run dry. The no-frills places frequented by a cast of regulars were supplanted by wine bars, taprooms and full-service restaurants that upped their brews and spirits game, Nielsen researchers told CNN in 2015.
In 2018, there were 34,535 "drinking places (alcoholic beverages)" establishments, down 47% from 1978, and 22% from 2000, according to US Census data.
But examining these trends for LGBTQ+ bars are fraught with challenges. There simply aren't enough data available to easily research this community and their businesses, largely in part due to the federal government's economy and population surveys not fully accounting for LGBTQ+ Americans.
As best anyone can tell, the number of lesbian bars peaked in the 1980s, topping out around 200 businesses, according to Greggor Mattson, an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College & Conservatory, who researches LGBTQ+ communities, gay bars, inequality, and gentrification.
Since the 2000s onward, there haven't been more than 33 lesbian bars open across the US at any given time, Mattson said.
Mattson's work leaned heavily on listings in the Damron guides, a longstanding LGBTQ+ guidebook and travel publication that dated back to 1964.
Lesbian-owned or women-forward bars that have opened more recently — especially those with younger owners — have framed themselves as "queer" spaces or as an "LGBTQ+" bar, he said. He added that new women-forward or lesbian-owned LGBTQ+ are opening.
"I think for all LGBTQ+ places, the onus is on them to make themselves inclusive spaces for everyone in the community," he said. "I think the surviving lesbian bars have figured that out."
Jennifer Maguire, who owns My Sister's Room lesbian bar in Atlanta, Georgia, with her wife, Jami, said she hopes other prospective business owners are inspired by the Lesbian Bar Project.
"I hope to see more lesbian bars open throughout cities and states, and some people might say, well, we got the paper right here saying, 'Don't do it, because they're practically extinct,'" Maguire said. "But if you're a smart person, and you have the right people and the right concept ... it's not easy, but it can be done."
Lesbian, bisexual and queer individuals' identities and, ultimately, the degrees of their need to congregate and seek acceptance amongst others are likely place-specific, according to Japonica Brown-Saracino, a professor of sociology and women, gender & sexualities studies, who wrote about LBQ people in four small US cities.
"One narrative right now is that we don't need lesbian bars anymore," she said. "I think that's somewhat true in some places and quite untrue in others."
And the concept likely explains why several of the remaining bars are in states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, she said.
Herz, a lesbian bar that opened in October 2019 in Mobile, Alabama, serves as a hub for a wide swath of LGBTQ+ people from nearby southern states, said co-owner Rachel Smallman.
"We've become a sanctuary to a lot of people," she said.
A pandemic to contend with
The closures of lesbian bars and LGBTQ+ spaces have been attributed to myriad factors, including gentrification, rise of online dating, increasing acceptance, evolving language around orientation and identity, macroeconomics, and business-specific operational issues.
But the most common reasons cited by the operators of the dozen lesbian bars interviewed by CNN Business is the wage gap and financial disparities of queer women and gender minorities, as compared to their straight and cisgendered counterparts, as well as gay men.
LBQ women tend to have lower income, lower spending ability, and higher rates of poverty than gay men, straight women and straight men, said Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The Williams Institute conducts and compiles research on sexual and gender minorities.
"We always say, 'gay is so resilient,' ... for the most part," said Moe Girton, owner of lesbian-centric bar Gossip Grill in San Diego, California. Girton and her business partners have a small and growing empire of LGBTQ+ restaurants and bars in Southern California.
Gossip Grill saw a sales decline of 80% during the pandemic; however, gay club counterpart Urban Mo's saw sales decline 40%.
"[Gossip Grill's clientele] just didn't have the resources." Girton said, noting the pandemic's disproportionate effect on women, especially women with children. "We really felt that pinch of being economically more challenged than the boys' bar."
At Slammers, a lesbian bar and pizza joint that opened in August 1993 in Columbus, Ohio, business has come in waves over the past couple of decades; however, the Covid-19 pandemic nearly drowned the longstanding bar. As sales dropped off, Slammers also had to contend with damage that resulted from looting.
"There was a GoFundMe page that went up against [owner Marcia Riley's] will," Bobbi Moore, Slammers' general manager said. "The community came together. I think we asked for $4,000 and got upward of $8,000. There were people coming to help, people we didn't know, asking, 'Can we paint?' and 'What can we do?'"
Once Slammers opened back up, business took off again, Moore and Riley said, adding that the bar appears to have gotten a visibility boost from the Lesbian Bar Project, noting an increase in out-of-town visitors.
Gentrification has also been a culprit in the demise of LGBTQ+ spaces in recent years, not only in pricing out businesses but also in dispersing the neighboring clientele.
"The world is getting harder and harder to have a physical space," said Nicci Boroski, co-owner of The Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana. To preserve the long-term future of the bar and entertainment space, co-owner Smoove Gardner recently purchased The Back Door's building.
'This is their space, too'
In the Walker's Point neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sits a green, front-gabled building that's kept ale flowing for more than a century. And for the past 20 years, the name "Walker's Pint" has donned the awning.
The "non-divey dive bar," that's a "not on the corner" corner bar, as owner Bet-z Boenning describes it, has sports on the TV, memorabilia on the walls and good gameday specials.
It's also the city's and, likely, the state's only remaining lesbian bar, said Boenning, who opened the women-forward sports bar in July 2001.
Coming of age and coming out in a time when lesbian bars where forced to hide away in dark, dungeon-like spaces, Boenning, 50, didn't want that for her bar.
Walker's Pint has big, open windows.
"I wanted sunshine," she said. "I wanted to be able to look out and see out, see what's going on around us."
Acceptance has increased for some members of the LGBTQ+ community, but it hasn't been evenly distributed, said Ally Spaulding, general manager at A League of Her Own bar in Washington, D.C.
"Just because marriage equality has passed doesn't mean the fight is over," Spaulding said. A quarter of the staff members at the bar, which also goes by the more laconic ALOHO, are non-binary and trans, Spaulding said, adding that "this is their space, too."
"Humans need connection, and sometimes there is nothing more powerful than coming into a physical space where you see someone else like you, and it can be so affirming and life-changing to say, 'You are not alone, you are welcome, you are valid for exactly who you are in this moment,'" she said, "and you are valid for who you will be 10, 15, 20 years from now."
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the Yellow Brick Road lesbian bar, Whitney Duggins pondered the questions of why lesbian bars are important and how they remain relevant.
The 34-year-old had a revelation: "Elephants."
"[Lesbian bars] are an endangered species. Why do you protect the elephants from poachers and habitat destruction?" Duggins said. "Because they know where the water is. Just like those ancient, patient, wrinkled old grandmother matriarchs, we, too, hold the history of our people."
It may be going too far to describe a "smoky juke joint" as a church, Duggins said, but physical places can serve as sanctuaries and a connection to the past. In Duggins' journey embracing their non-binary identity, YBR played a critical role in providing that safe space.
"I feel like I am who I am," Duggins said. "I'm not in crisis anymore."