An Insider’s Guide to Lesbian Spaces in NYC

Text and Photographs by Jeanette Spicer

Lesbian spaces in New York City represent resistance and visibility for the lesbian community, providing opportunities to comfortably gather and connect. Since the early 1970s, NYC has seen the rise and fall of spaces conceptualized and realized by lesbians, for lesbians, like Pandora’s Box—a storied lesbian bar in the West Village in the early ’90s—and the second-ever feminist bookstore in NYC, Manhattan’s Womanbooks, which was around from 1975 to 1987. Yet over the last decade, homogenization and the perpetuation of homophobia and sexism have led to the further erasure—or a pure lack of—these spaces. The advent of dating apps and changes in policies like the legalization of same-sex marriage have also contributed to the disappearance of some of these venues.

Some sites included here remember those lesbian trailblazers who came before us, while others work against the erasure of contemporary lesbian spaces, particularly in an unprecedented time. A few are personally formative places that now feel like home. With an isolating global pandemic that had led to closures of many NYC spaces, and the lesbian community going largely unrecognized, these spaces have become harder to locate and, sometimes, remember. As a member of the lesbian community in New York City, my home for over 10 years, I’m compelled to shine a light on these resilient institutions.

Clockwise from top left: Steph and Virginia; Niamh O’Reilly; Virginia tattooing

This Time Tmrw

67 West St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn

In Greenpoint, tattoo artists Stephanie Tamez and Virginia Elwood, business and romantic partners of 13 years, opened This Time Tmrw Studio in August 2020 (with a third business partner, Sophie C’est La Vie). Taking its name from a Kinks song, the studio is situated in a warehouse overlooking the East River and Manhattan skyline. While Elwood and Tamez have been notable names in New York City’s tattoo community for two decades, opening their own studio has provided an opportunity for them to create a welcoming space for lesbians and LGBTQ+ individuals. They treat their clientele like family, and their careful aesthetic curation and relaxed demeanors make the studio beautiful and homelike.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park

90 Kent Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn

No more than a 15-minute walk from This Time Tmrw Studio is Marsha P. Johnson State Park, the first state park in New York City to honor an LGBTQ+ and trans person of color. Marsha P. “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was integral to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, as well as an organizer for AIDS activist group ACT UP. With Sylvia Rivera, she founded STAR House, which provided housing and help for homeless LGBTQ+ youth and sex workers in Lower Manhattan. The area was once a 19th-century shipping dock—one can find vestiges of the past like train tracks and cobblestone streets; the park stretches seven acres along the East River and has views of the Manhattan skyline and the Williamsburg Bridge. Along with a host of new facilities and improvements, the park will soon add an education center with classrooms, plus an outdoor art installation in honor of Johnson and the LGBTQ+ movement in the summer of 2021. Currently visitors can find signage about Johnson’s life as activist in the park.

Alice Austen House Museum

2 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island

The Alice Austen House Museum, also known as Clear Comfort, was built in 1690 on a small hill in Staten Island. A queer historical landmark, Clear Comfort served as Austen’s home for almost all of her life, including for a portion of her years (1917–1945) with romantic partner Gertrude Tate. Austen was an avid tennis player, as well as (reputedly) the first woman to own a car and drive on Staten Island. In the canon of photographic history, however, encountering Austen’s work is like encountering a unicorn. Her moving, intimately honest photographs of her lesbian partners and circle of friends were made at a time when women were not even permitted to be openly gay, and certainly were not documenting it in the ways that Austen did. Inside the museum, visitors walk through the same rooms as did Austen, Tate and their close friends. Each wall reflects a moment in time, showing us her family history, decades of dedicated work (including photographs made in a darkroom without running water) and various clubs that she created as explicitly lesbian spaces at a time when lesbians had to remain largely invisible.

Currently on display at the museum is the photographic exhibit Radical Tenderness: Trans for Trans Portraiture. The exhibit showcases work from four trans or nonbinary photographers, highlighting tenderness and intimacy for trans people, by trans people.

"Don’t Tell Her Art Can’t Hurt (Part A)," 1993, by Laura Aguilar. Gelatin silver print, 57 x 40 inches. © Laura Aguilar

Leslie–Lohman Museum of Art

26 Wooster St., Soho, Manhattan

The Leslie–Lohman Museum of Art in downtown Manhattan provides a platform for LGBTQ+ artists, activists and scholars. The museum has been preserving and building the LGBTQ+ community in some form since the late 1960s, when Fritz Lohman and Charles Leslie began exhibiting gay artists’ work in their Soho home. Fritz and Leslie continued to collect and show gay artists through the 1970s and into the ’80s. As the AIDS epidemic devastated NYC, there was an emergence in the culture of existentialism around the struggle for survival. Realizing the speed and breadth of the work being made, as well as the need to preserve the work of dying artists, Fritz and Lohman founded the Leslie–Lohman Gay Art Foundation in 1987. Since 2016, when the organization became a museum, Leslie–Lohman has been hosting six or so shows a year, along with maintaining a research library with thousands of volumes and offering public programs throughout the year.

The current exhibit, Show and Tell, by Chicana artist Laura Aguilar, is on view through June 2021. Aguilar’s multifaceted and complex work covers subjects such as her body, Latina representation, the lesbian experience, depression and the art world. One of the most striking elements is her consistently earnest approach to her own mental health and her quest of what it means to be an artist. In the image above, Don’t Tell Her Art Can’t Hurt (Part A), Aguilar makes contact with the viewer, prompting us to consider the impact of the art on Aguilar herself.

Sarah Hallonquist (left) and Loretta Chung of Dyke Beer

Dyke Beer

Various locations in NYC

Sarah Hallonquist and Loretta Chung are the brains and grassroots activists behind Dyke Beer, both a product that honors and celebrates LGBTQIA+ spaces and history and a pop-up series that hosts events throughout New York City, like Queeraoke and this listening party in Gowanus. The two met at a Dyke Bar Takeover Collective event in 2018 (Chung co-founded the collective, and Hallonquist was working the door), so named because the events “take over” predominantly straight-leaning bars and carve out space for dyke/queer people that is so often absent, particularly right now. Hallonquist and Chung often hire butch kings and burlesque dancers to perform, and the small entry fee they charge goes to a different LGBTQ+ nonprofit each month. They created the Dyke Beer beverage as an extension of the events collective. As Chung explains, “We wanted a product for queers that was a little nicer than the average dive beer.” Their American saison has balanced notes of black tea, chamomile, white pepper and bubblegum. Dyke Beer’s mission is to create a community that is diverse, engaging and welcoming, reminding us not only of these kinds of lost spaces but also of the chance to create them anew.

Jacob Riis Park

The Rockaways, Queens

The beach at Jacob Riis Park, in the Rockaways in Queens, has roots in queer history as early as the 1940s, when white gay men dominated the sands. In the 1950s, lesbians carved out more of a scene, and with each passing decade Riis has become an increasingly popular refuge for the diverse LGBTQ+ community to escape NYC’s heat and humidity. Home to events such as the annual Fat Femme Beach Day, Riis is a unique, majestic place where the ocean washes toward abandoned buildings, framed by barbed wire fence. The fence is covered in flowers, personal items and messages that read “Queer Trans Power” and “Know Your Power,” among other sentiments of hope and resilience. These tokens glisten in the sun and wind, many of them memorializing queer lives lost. The collision of harsh fencing with the idyllic background of the ocean signifies queer visibility, resistance and joy. We can weather the winter, shine in the sun and remain where we have always been: here.

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