Last call? Not yet
America’s lesbian bars are vanishing. Many had shut down even before the pandemic, and a year of lockdowns shuttered even more. Once numbering in the hundreds, by one count there are only 21 left.
Now, some organizations are trying to save the ones that remain. The Lesbian Bar Project started as a 90-second micro-doc celebrating the history and vibrancy of these establishments. When it went viral, donations poured in — by last fall, it had raised $117,000 for the bars it profiles, and is hoping to hit $200,000 by the end of this month. Another group, Queer to Stay, received over 100 grant applications from bars looking for assistance during the pandemic, from Blush & Blu in Denver to My Sister’s Room in Atlanta. Ten of these businesses were awarded grants, and Queer to Stay has since announced that this year it will double the amount it disburses — as well as the number of establishments it supports.
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Part of the reason for the decline in lesbian bars is positive: as acceptance has risen for the LGBTQ community, the number of gay establishments has fallen across the board — by one count, by 37 percent since 2007. For lesbian bars, however, the challenges may be unique. “Women business owners have a much tougher go at it,” said the co-owner of Nashville’s Lipstick Lounge. “As someone in Nashville, it definitely would have been easier if I had been a male.”
Room to grow
Ca Saw, a refugee from Myanmar, says he wouldn’t still be living in Kansas City if not for Juniper Gardens, a nine-acre site where, for 14 years, refugees have learned how to farm in a Midwestern climate. Part of a program founded by the resettlement group New Roots for Refugees, Juniper Gardens is more than a place to grow lettuce — it’s a business incubator for new arrivals.
“They come here, they have their own plot, they have access to shared infrastructure, like a greenhouse, coolers, a wash stand, equipment, and they’re starting their farm business here,” said one of the program managers.
Participants, of which there are currently 13, sell the produce they grow at local markets, and are offered coaching to strengthen their sales strategies and networking skills. All revenues are theirs to keep, and are meant to supplement another income, either theirs or their spouse’s. In their first year, most make up to $6,000, though in their final year some make $20,000. For those that want to improve their English, the scheme serves as ESL practice as well.
The program has been successful enough that it will soon move to a farming site ten times as large. The new location will allow graduates to grow their produce in the same space as other students, helping to integrate them into the community. As a former farmer himself, Ca Saw is grateful for the help transitioning his skills to his new home. “I don’t want to go to, like, a factory job,” he said. “I would buy a plot and raise pigs and chickens, maybe goats. Grow produce. That is my goal.”
Get out and vote
In the U.S., where incarcerated people — and even people who’ve already served their time — often can’t vote, a number of states have made strides toward expanded voting rights for these groups. Between 2016 and 2020, at least 13 states expanded the right to vote for people with felony convictions, amounting to millions of newly enfranchised citizens all across the country. Thousands of these folks live in key swing states like Nevada and Iowa. And many are reclaiming their voting rights just as the officials who oversee the justice system are coming up for election: judges, district attorneys, sheriffs and the county commissioners.
The downside, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project, is that the justice system is failing to adequately inform these newly empowered voters that their rights have been restored. In Iowa, for instance, the last state that still banned people with felony convictions from voting for life, only 5,000 of the estimated 45,000 affected people have re-registered to vote. Without sufficient official support, getting groups re-registered has fallen to community activists. And many of those with felony convictions worry about accidentally breaking the law by voting.
“When you get a law passed, the hardest part is getting people to implement it,” said one person with a felony conviction in New Jersey. “I had to actually tell my parole officer that he is supposed to be telling people they have the right. He didn’t even know we had the right to vote.”