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Texas has two of the country’s last 'lesbian bars.' Why it matters.

Sarah Gabrielli, left, and her two co-producers pose by a car as they embarked on their road trip to 22 lesbian bars.
Courtesy Cruising
Sarah Gabrielli, left, and her two co-producers pose by a car as they embarked on their road trip to 22 lesbian bars.

From Texas Standard:

Of the roughly 22 lesbian bars in the United States, two of them are in Texas: Sue Ellen’s in Dallas and Pearl Bar in Houston.

The decline in the number of lesbian bars has not escaped media attention, but podcast producer Sarah Gabrielli says she and her friends wanted to document the stories of these establishments and the role they still play in a new way. So they went on a road trip and asked lots of questions in their podcast “Cruising.”

Among the questions they wanted to answer was: What is a lesbian bar these days anyway?

“Basically, what our criteria is for the podcast is they have a history of catering to lesbians and being run by lesbians,” Gabrielli said.

Gabrielli says some of these bars were always inclusive of anyone who wanted to walk through the door. Others used to be open only to women. That’s changed in recent decades.

“But I think that's kind of a wonderful thing, and that hasn't changed the sense of family that's there and community that's there,” Gabrielli said.

Over the past several months, “Cruising” has taken listeners from the producers’ home city of New York and across the country. Two episodes released in April will focus on the Texas bars.

The Dallas bar Sue Ellen’s is named as a nod to the character in the TV series.

“So the big thing about Sue Ellen's is that it's huge,” Gabrielli said. “It's by far the biggest bar that we went to on our entire trip. I think it's three floors, and from all of them there are these balconies where you can look down at the bottom floor and the main bar and the dance floor. It's just it's gigantic, which being from New York. We're not used to having that kind of space at all.”

The bar is in Oak Lawn, which Gabrielli said they heard referenced in other places on their road trip as an iconic gay area. Owner Kathy Jack had been a part of the queer nightlife scene in Dallas for a long time before opening Sue Ellen’s. She told Gabrielli lesbian bars used to have to take many precautions.

“There was one club in Dallas it was called the Conference Room," Jack said. "When you walked in the door, there was a red light. And they had this one cop that he would come in … and immediately the red light comes on because they would see him coming. If they were caught dancing, you're going to jail. Touching in any way, you're going to jail. That's just the way things were."

At Pearl Bar in Houston, owner Julie Mabry long had dreams of developing a lesbian-owned space open to all. She told Gabrielli it started when she visited a gay bar with her sister in San Antonio when they were both teenagers.

“When we walked in, it was the first time that I saw my sister really come out of her shell. Like, become a human really is how I saw it. Like, happy,” Mabry said. “And so from that time, I just never forgot how she felt when she walked in. It was like that was her safe haven.”

Part of the decline in the number of lesbian bars may be that they are no longer the only safe haven. Digital spaces have opened up new ways of connecting. But Gabrielli says she still believes there is a place for bars that were founded on being a safe space for marginalized people. She shared a story she heard from a woman they called Eve. Eve's using a pseudonym because she’s from Lebanon where her experiences have made her fearful about sharing her sexual orientation despite reporting that the country has become much safer for LGBT+ people and the overturning of some legislation that targeted them. Eve’s family at home still doesn’t know about her sexuality. But she found a new sort of family when she relocated to Houston after reading about Julie Mabry at Pearl Bar.

“So I came here to follow Julie, and when I see her, I'm crying and I told her, 'I can't believe yesterday I was in a bad country and today I am with you.' So she hugged me and she said, I'm here. This is bar. It's like your home,” Eve said.

Note: This story was updated to include more context about Eve's concerns over "honor crimes" and other dangers facing LGBT+ people in the Middle East.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.