lit
Dyke bar crawl
From North Beach to Cole Valley to the Mission and beyond – eight decades of girl bars and clubs.

By Laurie Koh

Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff
A PAIR OF Lycra, Lifesaver-green hot pants rode high on a lone booty one recent Friday night at the Cat Club, amid a throng of otherwise-clad asses bumping and grinding at namesake club Hot Pants. While most of the sweaty mass – mostly white, mostly baby dykes – moved to hip-hop in the back room, my little sister and I enacted our own '80s music video in front, near the wind tunnel caused by the club's enormous fans. We rotated robotically to "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," and I briefly time-warped back to Hot Pants' origins at the Mission District club 26 Mix.

Back in 2000, DJs Chelsea Starr and Cari Campbell had one aim for their club night: "really good dance music." The result was a sort of spin-off of Rebel Girl, the popular all-female-fronted riot rockfest Campbell cofounded with Elyssa Pon in 1997. Offering hip-hop dance hits with a liberal mix of whatever else DJs decided qualified, the newer club, though not that diverse, was fun and queer. The crowd looked like Gravy Train!!! had come in and made clothes for everyone – dykes and their gay boy friends took the teeny-shorts cover discount very seriously.

It might seem slightly hysterical to judge a club's life span by dance-floor fashion trends. Still, while watching a new generation of young 'uns get freaky, I wondered if the lack of actual hot pants could be a harbinger, a sort of canary in the coal mine. Would this packed, beloved club zenith and fizzle one day soon?

Campbell, 35, described how the life cycle of a party is influenced by the "weird psychology" of clubgoers: "There's the people who love being the first people. And then the people that won't go back after a certain amount of time. Some of these people might go with those people. And then the new people are definitely the ones who would go if a place shut down and reopened." If you can parse all that, maybe you'll be able to predict the future of Hot Pants.

One hears grumblings here and there, mostly via the Craigslist bitchfest. But if the tide does turn, it will likely be no reflection on the talent and drive of the club's promoters, but rather a natural evolution familiar to those who've been here a few years but that dates back farther than you might think.

The Cat Club recently changed ownership, so who knows what will happen to any of the array of dyke nights that have found their way to the SoMa venue – such as promoter Black's cabaret-dance night for women of color, Ladies Love Lounge, her hip-hop and world music night, Beautiful, and the Asian club PersuAsian. They might migrate and evolve again, the way popular hip-hop club Red once traveled from a pre-yuppie Blondie's to the Stud, which also became the home base of Junk and Muff Dive in the mid-'90s.

And maybe the Cat Club scene will fade into dyke nightlife history like so many predecessors – regretted by some, but generating nothing like the heartbreak older generations felt saying "so long" to places like Maud's, a clubhouse-like watering hole that closed in 1989 after a quarter century in business. Maybe we're just used to it by now. For more than eight decades, since the first lesbian nightspot appeared in 1930s North Beach, San Francisco girl bar culture has been a rolling stone.

  

The scene at Mona's 440 Club...
Courtesy of Mary Sager and Nan Alamilla Boyd
"The waitress was very worldly wise and cynical, and we were just a bunch of fresh-faced kids.... She said to us ... 'You kids don't belong here. You should go to Mona's 440.' "

1940s bar scene regular Reba Hudson from an oral history in Nan Alamilla Boyd's Wide Open Town

Yes, hard as it may be for Mission dykes to believe, once upon a time all the queer girls lived in North Beach, home to the popular, above-mentioned Mona's 440 and other nightspots where, on a typical night, audience members could catch performances by "male impersonators" such as Kay Scott or Gladys Bentley. The bars clustered around Broadway and Columbus were populated by queers, bohemians, sailors, and prostitutes, but sightseeing groups would also tramp through the "seedy" area looking for kicks – and find them in clubs that actually catered to tourists, like Finocchio's, where Latino "female impersonator" José Sarria held court.

Queer histories like Susan Stryker's Gay by the Bay, Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and Nan Alamilla Boyd's comprehensive Wide Open Town describe a 1930-'50s North Beach scene that was a haven for gender transgression and bars where "girls will be boys," as advertisements for Mona's read.

Boyd catalogs a succession of bars – Tommy's Place, 12 Adler Place, Ann's 440, Miss Smith's Tea Room, the Tin Angel, the Copper Lantern, the Anxious Asp, the Front, and Our Club – and adds that during the '50s there were sometimes as many as seven nightspots, all within a block of one another, where lesbians hung out in a scene that was strictly butch-femme. Many, she writes, "rented rooms on nearby Telegraph Hill, and as a result, North Beach became San Francisco's first lesbian neighborhood."

During a recent talk at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society, Boyd termed the scene exploitative – but with the queers and bohemians running the show. She played an interview tape on which Mona's owner, Mona Hood, described suckering a tourist out of $20 for the chance to see if one performer was really a woman. But what emerged from this era was something we pretty much take for granted today: spaces where lesbians could be visible to one another.

Soon enough, though, amid the McCarthy era's increasing demonization of "deviant" sex practices, the cops started cracking down, and North Beach ceased (for the time being) to be a sex-tourism draw. Police would entrap gay men and arrest women in suits and ties for inappropriate dress. (Until as late as the early '70s, bars like Maud's enforced no-touching policies so as not to lose their liquor licenses.) Some successful legal fights led to a brief resurgence, but by 1970, all North Beach's lesbian bars vanished, some closing down, others simply pulling up stakes for other hoods.

  

Located at 937 Cole from 1966 to 1989, in the now-unlikely-seeming neighborhood of Cole Valley, down-home, no-frills Maud's was the longest-running lesbian bar in San Francisco history. The closing of this stalwart, where regulars were known to kick you off "their" bar stools, is captured in Paris Poirier's documentary Last Call at Maud's. Such earnest mullets will never be committed to celluloid again.

Maud's was simply your neighborhood lesbian bar, but it existed prior to and throughout the gay rights explosion that followed the McCarthy era – long before women used outlets like the Internet to meet. Last Call is a journey through the last of the decades in which your local was truly your community. Owner Rikki Streicher bartended, fronted, or owned some of the most successful early North Beach lesbian clubs in the 1940s and '50s, helped found the San Francisco Tavern Guild, and even funded a Maud's softball team for several years.

"I think what was so important about the early bars," patron and activist Judy Grahn recalls in the film, "[was that] you might be recognized as gay. You might be seen as a lesbian, so you dressed as gayly as you possibly could. And we studied each other for costumes, and somebody would come in as a butch one week in a tuxedo ... next week she'd come in a low-cut flaming red dress. She was trying out who she might be in the world."

Patrons also remember when the butch-femme dynamic began to give way to the '60s' hippie-style free love, which in turn gave way to the andro lesbian-feminism that dominated the '70s, which – as Faderman asserts in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers dramatically sidelined the working-class butch-femme dynamic. It also sidelined the bar scene significantly. Lesbian-owned cafés and bookshops like the Full Moon Cafe and Bookstore and Old Wives Tales flourished along Valencia Street in the Mission, where troops of women moved from North Beach in the '70s, seeking asylum in an affordable neighborhood (the first trickle of gentrification). But times had changed, people got sober – the reason Streicher sites in the film for the closure of her bar. The '80s were defined by that sobriety, AIDS activism, and a lesbian community now gathering less over drinks and more at sports and social clubs, in a more-developed literature scene, and at the city's new Women's Building.

DJ Page Hodel recalled this change when we met for coffee recently. Sweet, generous, and the hardest-working 50-year-old female DJ around town (possibly sharing that title with Latina promoter Chili D), Hodel is largely responsible for the birth of the SF lesbian dance club scene as we know it.

She got started in the late '70s, throwing huge public birthday parties for herself at a time when there were no dance clubs just for lesbians and the girls were itching to move beyond shaking it around the jukebox at Kelley's Saloon on Mission and 20th Street. Her first successful run was a night at Amelia's (now the Elbo Room), and she followed it up with the Box and the phenomenally successful Club Q, which ruled the late '80s and early '90s, alongside Dinah Shore weekend promoter Mariah Hanson's more L Word-y Girl Spot.

Page's clubs have been described as some of the more diverse scenes happening. The Box did an especially good job of mixing boys and girls. Club Q was a dance party of unprecedented size for women that was, for Hodel, about making everyone feel honored, welcome, and heard. The club "had a life of its own," she said. "I just made a place for it to happen. It was the energy of the times and the people who put it together." That energy included a newfound desire to live it up as the AIDS crisis abated a bit. "We all just watched a whole community disappear," Hodel said – a tragedy that led to a sense of camaraderie the separatism of the '70s had never allowed.

Then came the early '90s, when "everyone was coming out," according to DJ Campbell. "There was a totally different vibe going on. These rainbow flags just appeared. Shit like that, rainbow rings and stuff ... it was cool to be really gay." Q featured a troop of choreographed dancers à la In Living Color's Fly Girls. ("I wanted to be a Club Q dancer so bad!" Campbell admits.) Hodel finally closed her extravaganza of early-'90s dance music (C and C Music Factory, Dee-lite) when skyrocketing costs during the dot-com boom forced her to shut down the elaborate live slide projections of patrons for which Q had become known. Meanwhile, Hodel's audiences had discovered late-'90s hip-hop club sensation Backstreet and were starting to desert in droves. Faced with looking for another venue for her club nights, she decided to move on instead.

  

Debbie, left, and Mandee at Brownies for my Bitches, with Erika Jones in the background.
Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff
It's an age-old question, and I've heard nearly every dyke I know utter it at one time or another: Why does a busy, urban, extremely gay metropolis like San Francisco support so few full-time lesbian venues? The boys certainly have their pick. We have the Lex and the Cherry Bar – far fewer than our counterparts back in the '40s and '50s.

Well, for one, we don't seem to give a damn about the tourist dollar now, which helped fuel those early gathering places. These days a straight thrill seeker might need a password to get inside the club on drag-king night – not that a girl in a zoot suit exactly titillates the tourists the way she used to. Tourist revenue does, however, continue to benefit the boys, if the foot traffic in the Castro is any measure.

Most DJs I spoke with said it's way too expensive for most dykes to own a venue. Instead we like to swoop in for a night and take over some straight or gay-boy spot. That's how Brownies for My Bitches, a popular dyke night featuring booty dance music, go-go dancers, and – you guessed it – brownies for all, ended up at Harvey's in the heart of the Castro.

It's an interesting concept. Scanning the vast array of monthly club offerings, one realizes that the lesbian community has plenty of places to go at night. But it seems we're now either homebodies or wanderers – and tend to subdivide into several picky communities.

  

Veteran promoter Chili D and her Club Papi Productions certainly know how to take over a space. Chili, who started out DJing Hanson's Rapture in 1987, then throwing her own Latina club Colors, now produces Octopussy, Cream, Kandy, and the new Delicious, some of the biggest, most debaucherous parties for women of color I've seen.

"I'm so damn lost," I thought as I tried to find her South Bay club Octopussy, hidden on a cookie-cutter street in Sunnyvale lined with Christmas lights, cafés, and boutiques. As young straight couples finished their Thai food and headed to the cute local pub, I couldn't see any monster of a lesbian party. Then I spied a crew of lady studs in drooping hip-hop gear and followed them to the Forum's innocuous movie theater-esque entrance, which hardly hinted at the three levels of ladies, ladies, ladies inside.

The women at Octopussy – as well as, for the most part, Chili's other clubs – are a different breed entirely from the Hot Pants clientele. I witnessed not a single punk 'do or studded belt, and the crowd was largely Latina. On the dance floor a group of barely-21-looking gangstas nonchalantly swayed to the blasting wall of hip-hop. Other women ground booties like there was no tomorrow. Upstairs the Latin room was all about cumbia, with couples smoothly gliding around the floor. Go-go dancers of all sizes and shapes shimmied on blocks. The bathroom was crowded with shiny femmes grooming glistening, J.Lo-style locks – no sign of the Joan Jetts and Betty Pages that have overrun the Mission.

Her critics have accused her of exploiting women by featuring go-go dancers, strippers, and lap dancers. But Chili, a 52-year-old butch with peppery hair and a broad laugh, brushes it off, saying she just wants to throw a good party and give her patrons what they want to see: beautiful women.

When I visited her in the apartment near Dolores Park where she's lived since the late '70s – and which she shares with a sweet elderly dog resembling a snuffling bale of cotton – Chili tied her love of throwing a good party to social activism, an idea she's explored as cofounder or participant in queer Latino groups like the AIDS-prevention organization Proyecto ContraSIDA por Vida.

She pointed out how powerful the club scene can be, in terms of outreach: "You're struggling to get 20 guys into a workshop, but you could get 1,000 Latinos into a club." She recalled marching politicians down to Colors just to show them that a queer Latina community existed. "There would be, like, 300 women dancing salsa, and it would be shocking. That's what I'm about, making visible the community that has been invisible."

"In my day," she added, "if you met another Latina in a club, oh my god! You would be like, 'Oh man, let's exchange numbers,' and you'd hug each other and remember each other's names." She bemoans how quickly gay acceptance has opened the way to pettiness (see Craigslist, where almost every lesbian event is tossed up for endless debate and criticism). "To be so mean-spirited breaks my heart, because in my day we didn't have it. It took everything we had to figure out where you're supposed to live and how you're supposed to be."

It might indeed be better if we all just got along, but clearly not all the conversations are pointless bitchfests. Black, the 35-year-old African American promoter responsible for Ladies Love Lounge and Beautiful, raised an interesting, if uncomfortable, point – one you've probably seen discussed on Craigslist, in fact. From her first days spinning at club A.B.L.U.N.T. (Asians, Blacks, Latinas, United in New Tribes), Black has pushed to get hip-hop out there, but "now everybody plays it. Now all the white clubs have it. I'm going, 'Y'all never played hip-hop! Y'all never played hip-hop! It's like a rule at your club.' I'm not even sure they understand how that looks." She added, "I mean, all these white people in there screaming, you know, 'nigger this' and 'nigger that.' It's kind of weird, but you know, I think it's just my prejudices – what I would prefer to see."

According to Black, the SF pattern is white DJs clearing the way for lesbians to throw clubs, then women of color becoming instrumental in bringing in new music. The majority of lesbian DJs spinning now, she pointed out, are women of color, from Emancipation to K-bug.

Black's own new musical frontier is world music: Beautiful (formerly Tight, at the Endup, soon to be renamed Tighter) boasts an ambitious mix of South Asian, Latin, and hip-hop – which has yet to find its legs in the cavernous Cat Club.

  

So with all the changes, evolutions, migrations, and club life cycles, why the hell is Mango, at El Rio, still full of sunshine and good vibes? Going strong since 1998, the outdoor tea dance features hip-hop, reggaeton, Latin beats, and – brace yourselves – friendly women. People actually look at each other and smile. It's also extremely diverse in age and race. Chantal Salkey (Kiss My Black Ass Productions) started the party because "when I moved to SF, I was appalled by the lack of diversity at the few women's clubs that did exist." She linked the success of Mango to a few simple principles: "Basically it comes down to this," she told me. "Don't be afraid of diversity. I live in the real world with great music from every genre, and I don't want women to live in the dark ages musically. You are not going to hear music like this at other women's clubs. It's kinda cool to hang outside, eat BBQ, and get your freak on with the sun shining on your back."

Campbell waxed poetic about Salkey's "brilliant" seasonal formula. "One of the things about throwing a club is ending it. You end it, people go crazy. They have it nailed down, because they have the best DJs, the best music. They close it down, and people freak out. The last day of Mango, everyone is lining up down the street. People have six months, and all they do is think about Mango. It's like the best relationship. They break up with you, and then they get back together with you."

A few events manage to hit that magic balance where everyone feels like it is "their" club, and that, I think, is what makes or breaks it. Even if just for a night, we all need to party in spaces that belong to us. Cheers to that.

E-mail Laurie Koh.

Thanks to the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society (www.glbthistory.org) for providing numerous resources for this article.