It seems true that in every city there is an old lesbian bar that is sadly empty on most weeknights with an old dyke behind the bar greeting the evening goers who do venture in, which touts itself the old classic meeting place in town.
In New York, that bar is Henrietta Hudson. In Brooklyn, it’s Ginger’s Bar. I’ve been to similar spots in Seattle and Cleveland. Once, while visiting the Cleveland area, I drove with friends for the better part of an hour and a bit of searching to find The 5 Cent Decision, a.k.a. The Nickel, only to walk in and find the old mulleted bartender with one other patron chatting her up at the end of the bar. The only beer choice was PBR. It was a bit of a let down.
Paris, seemingly, is no different from those American cities. Tonight I ventured into La Champmeslé, the purported “Grande Dame” of Parisian dyke bars. I’m guessing they are referring to the age and not the quality of the cognac. The only beer choice here is Heineken, which might as well be PBR, in my book.
It’s always a little sad for the queer traveler who wants to see a bit of queer life in other places, who seeks a way to connect and easily meet other women in a culture where the rules may be unclear or less permissive than in the one from which she came. Not that that’s true for Paris.
Thankfully, La Champmeslé has far more charm than Ginger’s, my local hangout back home. But it’s not without its quirks. The mirrored walls make it look bigger than it is. I noticed an American flag hanging among an array of rainbow flags and a few others, yet there was no French flag. Strange. Lots of stone gives it that old world style. The back room looks like a jail cell made with large wooden beams. I hope that jailbait look was unintentional. The standard acoustic guitar hangs on the wall, likely a homage to lesbian folk singers who, no doubt, have filled the place with their song. A lovely generous bunch of ripe roses sit at the end of the bar, a nice touch. As is typical for a weeknight, there were maybe five people in the place.
This perpetual lonely hearts lesbian bar vibe bums me out a little. The worst of it is the way these bars perpetuate the idea that lesbians have no taste, although La Champmeslé fairs better in this regard. Last year, I was on a date with a British woman in Brooklyn and she wanted to get drinks after dinner and asked if there was a local women’s bar we could visit. “Sure,” I said and took her to Ginger’s. We walked into the empty bar (to be fair, it was a Monday), circled and U-turned right back out. The Brit was not impressed. “Why do women’s bars have no taste?” she asked rhetorically. We went instead to a sweet spot near my house, also fairly empty, but with a cozy enjoyable environment and respectable music that made us feel at least a little sexy.
I’ll admit, as I got older and settled into a long-term relationship, I too, have been guilty of staying home with my lover, nesting, you know, the lesbian way, at the expense of my young always-in-the-know out-and-about always-up-for-a-good-girl-party-self. When out of town visitors would ask where the party was and I ceased to have an answer for them any day of the week, I realized I was having a priority shift that thankfully hasn’t turned into an identity crisis.
If enough of us accept the shift and tire of drinking in neighborhood bars, bored by disco standards and too much of the same old thing, there will no longer be use for our bars. Somehow knowing they’re there makes me feel a little better, but not enough to go patronize them and waste time. And indeed that’s why it’s hard for them to stay in business. I just want a little more.
I like beautiful places. I like when care is taken to make a space sexy. Lesbian bars should be as sexy as they come. Typically, they are not. But hey, I’m in Paris, a very sexy city, with enough time to explore every lesbian nook and cranny hangout and I’m going to go turn down Heinekens for wine in every one of them. And maybe, just maybe, one of them will have some nice lighting, beautiful women, and a cold pale ale awaiting my arrival.