Recently, a landmark of the lesbian community in London closed due to its lease expiring and rent price increasing by half, after being alive and well since 1996.
A native of the United States, I went to England for graduate school receiving my Master's in gender & sexuality and media studies. At the time I still hadn't come to terms with my sexual identity, and given a restrictive upbringing in the Pentecostal faith, I didn't have an opportunity to explore it; or any non-heteronormative identity, for that matter. Uncertain and inexperienced, I chose to utilize the only other lens (besides my upbringing) I had easy access to and one that seemed like a safe option: the lens of the social scientist. I capriciously began experimenting and researching the social and cultural landscape before me.
I was in my early 20s, roaming the bustling streets of London, immersing myself in the cultural diversity and intellectual freedom and eventually found my way to this all-inclusive lesbian bar situated in the capital's center. While I considered myself a dedicated feminist activist (borderline radical, if I'm honest) and social scientist, I also struggled with the naivety of the classroom. I was under the impression most women who identified as lesbian, queer, transgender or bisexual were also proclaimed feminists.
Was I wrong?
Lesbian bar + Hook-up culture + Feminist Activism = Disappointment?
Why the heck was I trying to conduct this unofficial research at a lesbian bar? Well, I believe my pseudo-social experiment was the only way I could comfortably engage with women who shared my awakening identity -- an identity subdued and exiled by that fading religious attachment. But I wasn't really aware of that when I stepped across the threshold.
The first time I set foot into the intimate nightclub, I examined the positioning of gendered power and sexual hierarchies in the social environment. I considered the modern décor and vibrant all-female space. My eyes were drawn to the television screens flickering mainstream, sex ideals of the female body. Often the women were engaging with men in sexual ways, which I found totally abstracting. I needed a drink.
Shouldn't there be authentic portrayals of women-on-women sexual appeal at a lesbian bar?
My comforting whiskey and ginger in hand, I began to browse the mingling crowds. My mind chewing on question after question:
• Do I look like bisexual? Queer? Lesbian? None of the above?
• Am I fitting in? Or will they think I'm just here for research?
• Will they answer my arbitrary questions?
I began polling. I asked the women I encountered all sorts of feminist-centered and identity-based questions, driven by that subconscious desire to find an answer to my own, personal ones. The first night, I polled about 25 women; by the end of the year, I had spoken with hundreds. In spite of my identity crisis, I had a mission: While sexually and romantically pursuing women, I would also preach the good word: feminism. Yup, bad idea...
The main question of the evening:
Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, what type of feminist?
I didn't really know what to expect. In retrospect, my fantasy was that they would passionately engage with me about their personal history, their feminist pursuits, and how much they embraced their womanhood by way of sexual orientation. The reality of their social situation was so far removed from my fantasy and feminist philosophies that the experience became entirely surreal.
Many of the women I questioned throughout my year-long personal crusade didn't identify as a feminist at all and I would receive rather discouraging responses:
• Hell no, I'm not a feminist.
• Is this a joke? Why don't I buy you a drink honey?
• You're too pretty to ask those types of questions.
• Um, I guess. If I say yes, will you let me take you home?
Further, many of the women who "chatted me up" initially treated me like just another "dumb femme blonde girl." Once I began talking, however, they changed their tune. And once I told them I was a feminist, they either appeared threatened or nervous, often resulting in disengaged or crude behavior.
I spoke with many types of women: butch, chapstick, femme, boi, gold stars, professionals and many more. Over the year, I witnessed female-on-female physical fights, sexual harassment, unwarranted groping, verbal abuse and mockery of femme-looking women. Only in recent studies has society become aware that rape culture and sexual violence are significant issues for the LGBTQ community. Personally, I was ridiculed, sexually harassed and groped without any semblance of approval, and despite my values and beliefs, I still allowed it all to happen.
You see, when it came to women, I didn't have a clear standard to measure their advances. I couldn't reconcile the fact that these were women. Our culture teaches us how to defend ourselves against male aggressors but these same-sex threats were too alien. Obviously, I knew it was wrong, and I knew a violent response would put me into one of those female-on-female physical fights, so I found myself trying to educate these perpetrators and bullies on how to treat women with respect. Unfortunately, this "Saturday morning cartoon show" method of crisis prevention didn't meet with much success.
Often times, the women who initiated harassment or any form of violence at the club had no interest in my lesson plan. They expressed annoyance and anger when I tried to build a conversation with them on the issue. In the end, most of these situations were resolved by female bouncers breaking them up, or ejecting offenders, but such preventive measures did nothing to address the social and cultural implications of aggressive female-on-female behavior in a LGBTQ community.
On a positive note, there were women I engaged with who expressed genuine interest in feminism, and wanted to learn more about my mission in promoting feminism, female respect, and female love.
I understand that the bar setting is not the optimal place to discover your sexuality, nor to conduct an unconventional poll, but this renowned London lesbian social setting was far more than your local pub. It was a community for women. It held special events, international lesbian movie nights and activist-centered parades. Being situated in Soho, trendy and upbeat, this lesbian bar attracted people and celebrity figures from all over the world.
Many of the women I cultivated relationships with in the community expressed the discriminatory faults of the place, but because it was the only community available to them, they accepted its flaws. I could relate; I had, too. Despite the patriarchal undertones, sex-saturated and at times threatening atmosphere, the club accepted our expressed identities. I fully believe that many of the negative women I encountered reenacted behavior that enforced social inequalities -- perhaps similar discrimination or prejudice they had experienced -- because the setting still reminded them of those experienced injustices.
The patriarchal cultural narratives were still present in this lesbian bar: the depiction of objectified ideals on the TV screens, the female-degrading songs played by female DJs and the female-exclusive weekly strip shows.
So rather than being the community we really longed for, the club operated like any other heterosexual bar, but with LGBTQ branding and a bubbly pink logo.
My experiences that year helped me realize the need for a social, economic and political push towards developing progressive and egalitarian communities for all types of women, all types of people, particularly a space where women feel safe to explore their identities, pursuits and desires. Whether the aim is to find friends, date or simply be surrounded by like-minded individuals, people shouldn't have to settle for oppressive, alcohol-infused environments simply because there aren't more accessible options.
Years later, and with the bar gone, I find myself asking: Was it all worth it?
Absolutely. The answers to my questions were far from ideal, but they made me consider bigger questions, larger problems. More importantly, I have come to know that it was never really an experiment. It was the way through to finding my own answers and finding myself.