Throughout our research and discussion within class, our group began to identify a presence- or lack thereof- of queer women’s spaces throughout the country. Philadelphia’s Gayborhood is a cornerstone of gay nightlife, but it is a ghost town in regards to exclusive spaces in which queer women are represented, and able to mingle.
This study examines the struggles experienced by Philly’s only queer women’s bar owner, and her take on the lack of queer women’s space. Additionally, we take a look at the geography of Philly, and how community centers, living spaces, and bars have diminished over time.
Interview with Denise M. Cohen, Owner of The Toasted Walnut
One of the city’s most prominent pioneers for queer women’s spaces is bar owner Denise Cohen. In 2017, Cohen opened the city’s first lesbian bar since 2013, the Toasted Walnut. Denise recounts, “I was told by the bank’s, ‘don’t open a gay bar, [open a] straight bar with a gay night, it will be more successful,’ but my passion and dedication is for the LGBTQ community.” Historically, lesbian bars have not been nearly as successful as gay bars, so queer women often do not bother spending time creating spaces specifically for lesbian and queer women. They often accept that any queer space is also a space for them, even though it may not be dedicated to them in particular.
Similarly, Denise recognized that she wanted her bar to be welcome to people of all races, genders, and sexualities, however, she wanted to tailor it toward the queer women first. In describing the culture of the bar, Denise explains, “We strive to be sincere in presenting a space for those who want to have fun, can come and have fun… A place a doctor or lawyer could enjoy along with the student still in school – a party bar regardless of race, age (21+) or gender.” Denise has strived to make the Toasted Walnut a quintessential component of gay Philadelphia.
She is the owner of the only current bar geared toward queer women, but is inviting to all.
Denise feels that the community has been greatly supportive in the last two and a half years, since her opening, and explains that the odds were stacked against her; most businesses close within the first two years, nonetheless one specifically tailored to queer women.
Despite all of the hurdles, Denise has remained confident that the need for a space like the Toasted Walnut outweighs the odds stacked against her; “No place will succeed unless the community supports it. I guess what to ask isn’t what type of a [business] opening will strengthen the community, but what will the community want to… support; therefore, strengthening our community”
You were quoted saying “everybody is welcome, gay, straight, male, female, people of color…” Do you feel that has held up? Or are the patrons of the Toasted Walnut predominantly white lesbian women?
I do believe it has held up as our staff and our clientele represent all demographics gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, all ages (21+) and all races. We can’t be everything to everyone all the time that’s impossible and there will be people who don’t jive with the vibe of the crowd but we strive to be sincere in presenting a space for those who want to have fun can come and have fun.
How had the culture changed in the two years since you have opened?
With the struggles of any new business (most fail within 2 years) staff changes, hitting the mark for some customers missing it for others, generating growth, navigating expenses I believe the staff and the customers are the ones who keep this a party bar a professional fun place that is safe and engaging.
Do you think there is a lack of queer women establishments in Philadelphia?
A business opens because someone navigates all the struggles of raising money, meeting city requirements, building a plan, putting that plan in place – I went through 2.5 years of all of that to get my business open none of it was a struggle because I was a lesbian it was difficult because I am not rich and never will be – money opens businesses if a queer woman really wants to open an establishment just like a straight woman they should make it happen whatever their concept may be and we must be supportive.
What other places (bars, community centers, coffee shops etc.) could open that would strengthen the community?
No place will succeed unless the community supports it – I guess what to ask isn’t what type of a place opening will strengthen the community but what will the community want to open that they will support therefore strengthening our community – hope that makes sense.
Mapping Out the Change in Queer Women’s Spaces
Depicted on the left is a map of Philadelphia showing the sites of lesbian and gay sites back in the 1960’s as identified by Marc Stein in his book City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love. On the left is a map of Philadelphia showing lesbian sites only from the 1950s to today. As you can see there is a much smaller amount of lesbian sites in Philadelphia. In fact, there is only one current space that targets queer women, the Toasted Walnut, though queer women are present at many other Philadelphia establishments. There has been a drastic decrease in queer women’s spaces across Philadelphia today than there was nearly 60 years ago! It is important to note that the map in 1960’s has gay sites mapped as well. However, we draw attention to the fact that there have been so many fewer public and commercial spaces for queer women, and this has gone down over time.
The amount of queer woman’s spaces in Philadelphia has decreased by a large margin over time and the impact to the queer woman’s society is even larger. The sites shown on the modern-day map include bars, restaurants, cafés, and community centers.
Barbara Gittings Way
On Locust Street from 11th to 13th, you are not only on Locust, but you are also on Barbara Gittings Way. In 2012, Philadelphia dedicated this section of the street to honor the notable feminist, and Philadelphia resident, from the 1960s. Gittings was an activist that focused on LGBT equality and ran the first lesbian publication, The Ladder. She is most famous for her work with the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1965, she participated in the first gay picket line, the Annual Reminders, right in front of our own Independence Hall.
Her notable work has led to the American Library Association giving out the Barbra Gittings Award every year for the best gay or lesbian novel, as well as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, gives out an activist award named after her. At 21st and Locust, there is a Pennsylvania Historical Marker that reads, “Known as the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement, Gittings, who lived here, edited The Ladder, the first wide-spread lesbian journal. She led initiatives to promote LGBT literature in libraries and to remove homosexuality’s classification as a mental illness.” This, as well as a section of a street, is her representation in the city of Philadelphia.
This is the overwhelming story of underrepresentation of queer women in Philadelphia and the lack of conversation of their impact forwarding LGBT history. Her impact here in Philadelphia was pivotal in Philadelphia’s history as well as the history of the LGBT civil rights movement. Her activism, books, and magazines will live on forever and impact the future of the LGBTQ movement.
Overall, we noticed a trend in terms of queer women’s spaces in Philadelphia. The city has rarely had more than a few spaces at a time specifically for queer women, and the ones that have existed have not lasted very long. Throughout Philadelphia’s history, there have been far more gay establishments than lesbian ones. After WWII, gay residences in Center City were more concentrated than lesbian residences, but the heaviest concentrations for both were in Center City (Stein, 2000). Communities of queer women did emerge in West Philadelphia, in part because of the various universities in that area that were attended by many radical, feminist queer women.
Queer women have also been excluded from gay urban spaces in multiple ways, whether in the form of lack of representation in storefronts and commercial establishments, or sexist violence and harassment (Gieseking, 2015). While there are few spaces for queer women in Philadelphia to this day, LGBTQ people, in general, have been becoming more accepted in broader society, and queer women have been mixing more with queer men in social settings, which helps to sustain the community of queer women in the city.