Shuttered queer spaces don’t have to be so tragic. June Thomas offers a different way to see them.

June Thomas Headshot/"A Place of Our Own" cover
Photo: Rachel Hein/Seal Press

In 1987, more than two hundred lesbian bars operated in the United States. Today, there are fewer than thirty. Feminist bookstores experienced a similar fate. In the 1990s, there were 135, but only about two dozen remain. The same is true of many queer establishments, like lesbian land communes and softball leagues. 

In A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces that Shaped Queer Women’s Culture, journalist June Thomas explores the transformation of lesbian communities from the exclusive, tightly knit spaces of the 1970s to today’s more inclusive, diffused networks. The book is a tribute to these storied spaces and acts as a bridge connecting different generations of queer women.

LGBTQ Nation spoke with Thomas about joy, community, and remembering. 

MARISA WRIGHT: Between the six spaces you write about in this book, there’s really something for everybody—from the literary types to the sporty folks to the foodies and more. How did you decide to focus on these six spaces? 

JUNE THOMAS: You’re right there’s a space for everyone, but I have to be honest that also these were spaces that were important in my life. I had a real urge and a desire to meet other queer people, and the places [in the book] were where you could find the people you were looking for. 

I knew I would find them at tennis tournaments or feminist bookstores. The one that was the last to go was Women’s Studies departments because I felt that they were almost like a place of recruitment, which, in some ways, was an element of these spots, but it’s not just something you could start yourself. It’s not something that you could choose to be involved in or that you had agency over, so that just felt too different in the end. 

In the introduction, you write that these spaces “all have lessons to teach readers—queer and straight alike—about the history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the triumphs and failures of activism, and the ongoing struggle for a more just and loving world.” What are some of those lessons for you?

The first one was that these experiences are not unique. I want to push up against that narrative that all the [queer] bars are closing. Obviously, there are a lot fewer bars now than there were, but the reasons lesbian bars are closing are shared by lots of bars that are closing. 

It’s hard for people who aren’t lesbians to find a cozy spot where it feels like a home away from home. It’s getting harder and harder because of capitalism. The same is true for the struggles that I described for bookstores and sex toy stores. They’re the same struggles that all independent stores have been having. It’s part of a larger narrative of consolidation affecting all kinds of places on every high street in America. There are some specific issues that women face, but these are not unique struggles.

Capitalism is a recurring theme in the book as so many of these spaces constantly hustled to exist, though many closed anyway. What did you take away from seeing capitalism pose so many problems? 

I don’t have a clear answer. It’s very interesting to me that so many people I spoke to said they really wanted a community center, but that just wasn’t possible. So many of these places are commercial spaces. Yes, a bar is a place to meet people, but the bar owner needs people who go there to spend money on booze. That’s just a reality. 

All these businesses are seriously undercapitalized because they’re competing with consolidated corporations with access to capital. At the same time, I am optimistic because there are so many more places where people can be themselves and women don’t have to hide important parts of themselves. That’s mainstreaming, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it as long as we maintain our ethics or values. 

In your acknowledgments, you note that this book grew out of a series you wrote in 2011 called “The Gay Bar: Its Riotous Past and Uncertain Future.” Why did you decide to return to this narrative now? 

I loved writing that series, but it felt like there was a bigger story. I felt there were some specific issues related to queer women that deserved their own book and their own time. Part of it too was this narrative of bars closing. I don’t think there’s anything specifically wrong with it. I just felt like it wasn’t the whole story. I wanted to bring more places to the fore. I’ve had great times in bars, but they’re not our only space. I wanted to remind people that there are other stories and other places that have been important to the history of queer women.

Just to go back to something you mentioned earlier, your personal connections to some of these spaces are woven throughout the book. What did the kinds of spaces you write in this book provide for you?

When I realized that I was lesbian, I knew that I had to find my own world. It wasn’t my intention to separate from my family or my straight friends, but I knew wanted a community. 

At that point, there was the image of “Oh, the poor homosexuals, they’re all sad and lonely.” I didn’t want that. I wanted to find my people. There was an incredible joy in knowing that if you could get to this particular bar on a particular night of the month, you would find all kinds of women and experience community. 

And for me as a bookish person, feminist bookstores weren’t just a place where you could buy books, you could also have a drink or dance. It feels very important to see queer life being played out not just when we’re protesting or during some moment of difficulty. 

This book reads as an argument for the importance of remembering the cultural history of queer women’s lives. How do you see that goal now that, as you note in the book, queerness has become more mainstream and accepted even while some of this history is being lost?

Until quite recently, it was hard to keep up with queer news. Of course, there have been gay weeklies in many big cities, but they tended to be dominated by news about men. They were also hard to find, so it was a challenge for most people to keep up with this information. It was very challenging for younger people to know what happened in 1975 in the world of lesbian bars. Even as someone who both lived through this and was involved with chronicling it to a certain extent in the 1980s, there was a lot that I thought I knew but didn’t know the full story.

I think you can see it as a failure that the store or bar is closed, or a mainstream cis-het male company took over something that feminists and lesbians started. Or you can instead focus on the joy that has happened in these spaces. They’re absolutely revolutionary in terms of the things they have set in motion. Feminist bookstores changed publishing. They changed America and the lives of so many people who stepped into those stores. So many wonderful things happened in these places: joy and fun and finding your people.

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