Recent op-eds in the New York Times and Vice mourn, respectively, the loss of lesbian bars and 1990s Provincetown. These pieces, and analogous Lost Dyke Bar Tours (in New York) and performances (in New Orleans), hit close to home. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I spent more nights than I can count in the very Chicago bar that the New York Times op-ed highlights. And I was, without a doubt, one of the Smith undergraduates the Vice article recalls: the small army of Smithies who staffed Provincetown stores and, on the rare day off, populated the women’s section of Herring Cove beach. To be sure, with little provocation I will wax poetic about that bar and that summer; about beer and fries at L Word viewing parties, and about bike rides through the dunes and evenings on the beach under the stars. Of course, unless pressed, I will omit any mention of drama, sunburn, and mosquitoes.
And yet, despite this resonance I am troubled by these narratives of loss, for each suggests that our dyke bars and our women’s beaches have disappeared because of LGBTQ acceptance, and because, as a result, we have stopped identifying, narrowly, as “lesbian.” Why would one need to sit on a bar stool beside other dykes if one doesn’t think of herself as a dyke anymore, or, in the case of younger women, never has? Yet, my fieldwork in four small cities with growing or emerging populations of lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ) residents troubles the premise that we are all “post-gay” now.
My forthcoming book reveals that the degree to which LBQ residents embrace or reject traditional identity politics — both the idea that one is a “dyke” and that being a dyke means that you share interests and concerns with other dykes — varies greatly by place. In one city, nearly everyone I spoke with identifies as “lesbian,” regardless of her romantic and sexual history. In another city, residents deemphasize sexual identity, preferring to present themselves as “mother,” “doctor,” or “gardener.” In still another, identity politics flourishes, but an identity politics that emphasizes the relation between gender and sexual identity; here femme-dykes and gender queer polyamorous individuals proliferate.
Given the growing popularity of the idea that we’ve all moved away from lesbian or dyke identity, I did not expect to find the identity heterogeneity that I did. This is not a story of differences in lesbian identity that emerge from differences in geographic region or city scale, or in demographic traits, like race, class, or gender. Indeed, the majority of people I interviewed for the book are white, professional, highly educated women with the resources to seek out residence in coastal progressive cities with colleges and universities, natural amenities, and the co-ops and bookstores we would expect to find in such places. My research shows that subtle differences in city ecology — particularly facets of city life related to the abundance or number of LBQ households and the degree to which they are accepted and included in city life — greatly influence how an LBQ migrant relates to those around her and, ultimately, how she thinks about herself. Thus, the dyke bar has not disappeared because there are no more “dykes.” In fact, in some places, the dyke bar (or at least its coffee shop or bookstore equivalent) hasn’t disappeared at all.
Beyond uncovering the surprising degree to which sexual identities are place-specific, my research reveals that LBQ residents continue to congregate. But, like identity, the degree to which they seek out one another’s company varies by place. In cities in which LBQ residents are even a little bit excluded and uncertain of their safety and acceptance they find innumerable ways to come together: impromptu gatherings at straight bars; Pride dances; lesbian-only potlucks, dessert hours, hikes, and camping trips. Paradoxically, in the places we might think of as least likely to sponsor a lost dyke bar tour or performance, the community life of LBQ residents is especially vivid. In other words, the smaller the LBQ population and the less hospitable a place is for LBQ residents, the more those residents turn toward one another. This means that if you want to find LBQ women gathered around a bonfire, instead of going to Provincetown’s Herring Cove you might try Pismo Beach (outside San Luis Obispo). Rather, then, than seeing these editorials as symptomatic of the disappearance of dyke identity, places, and community, we should see them as a new way of doing queer identity, and of gathering LBQ individuals together. In other words these essays, tours, and performances work to create the very things their authors worry are decaying.
Of course, I do not wish to deny that there is change afoot. But what I do want to suggest is that the change is much more uneven and place-specific than our growing narrative of loss proposes. Our move away from lesbian identity, and more generally away from identity politics, is locally filtered. This means that even our nostalgia tours will take different form in different places and mark the loss of different kinds of bars and bookstores and coffee shops. In turn, our nostalgia will call out different, place-specific ways of understanding, collectively, who we are.
My 20-year-old self would be taken aback by Provincetown’s upscaling, and my 30-year-old self would not have predicted the closure of my favorite Chicago bar. But those younger selves might also take comfort in knowing that today, in places where they need it, LBQ residents discover ways of finding one another — even if only via Lost Dyke Bar tours and performances.