'Year of the lesbian': How queer women are breaking San Francisco's doom loop

Jennifer Swatek dances with Alexis Hazelwood while dancing during Prom night at Mother Bar on Saturday, June 8, 2024 in San Francisco, Calif.
Jennifer Swatek dances with Alexis Hazelwood while dancing during Queer Prom night at Mother bar in San Francisco in June. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

It was Queer Prom night at Mother, a lesbian and femme queer bar in the Mission district, and the dance floor was crowded, hot and sweaty. Hits from the 1980s and '90s blared to a room of tulle gowns and tuxedos spinning under rainbow disco lights.

"Everyone showed up dressed to the nines. All the regulars that we see all the time put on their best clothes, they brought dates, they danced," said Malia Spanyol, Mother's owner, at last month's event. "It was heartwarming."

The evening represented everything Spanyol dreamed of when she opened Mother last year with hopes to revive a famed corridor of Valencia Street once home to a bounty of lesbian-owned businesses and bars.

Patrons pose for a picture during Queer Prom night at Mother bar in San Francisco.
Patrons pose for a picture during Queer Prom night at Mother bar in San Francisco. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Many of those establishments shuttered over the last several decades, leaving only a handful of lesbian joints still open in San Francisco. Their closings reflect a worrying trend across the country, where fewer than an estimated three dozen bars catering specifically to lesbian clientele still remain open, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, which began tracking the endangered businesses in 2020 and produced a documentary about their struggles to stay open.

Even in San Francisco, once a bastion of now-closed lesbian bars like Maud's and Lexington Club, only three venues are listed by the project: Wild Side West, which opened in 1962; Scarlet Fox wine bar, a relative newcomer to the city and Jolene's, a club-like bar in the Mission.

The list does not yet include Mother, recently declared one of the best new bars in America by Bon Appétit.

Spanyol's decision to open the business in early 2023 couldn't have come at a better time for San Francisco's queer community — and the city itself.

The office vacancy rate remains at a stubborn high of roughly 37%, and a slowdown in foot traffic and tourism since the pandemic, exacerbated by concerns over crime and homelessness, has led to a wave of downtown business closures.

LGBTQ+ San Franciscans are trying to change the city's fortunes — one queer-owned business at a time.

Bartender Amanda Harris cuts through the crowd to deliver a drink during Queer Prom night.
Bartender Amanda Harris cuts through the crowd to deliver a drink during Queer Prom night. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Their shared goal is to breathe new energy into a city that feels bland and where the women are tired — of men, politics and attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.

Spanyol — a veteran business owner in San Francisco who first came to the city in 1989 — is part of a network of queer women behind dozens of new restaurants, wine and cocktail bars, breweries and bagel shops.

They've started surf clubs and lesbian kickball leagues, organized dodgeball tournaments and thrift-shopping parties, and reinvigorated the city's vibrant nightlife from the depths of the "doom loop."

So far, 2024 feels like the "Year of the lesbian," said Angelina Polselli, director of community engagement for the Civic Joy Fund, a nonprofit that aims to support San Francisco's economic recovery through arts and entertainment.

Polselli plays in a kickball league with hundreds of players who compete during the day and then pack the bars at night. Polselli, who uses she/they pronouns, said it's queer women and nonbinary people who have resuscitated the city after COVID.

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It's not that lesbians were previously limited to the shadows of San Francisco's queer culture, Polselli said. But at a time when women's rights and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack across the country, they said, their accomplishments matter even in liberal San Francisco.

"Instead of going into the shadows and into the closet, our response is like 'F U' we are going to be even more out and proud, we are going to be as queer as queer can be," she said.

Myriam Serrano and Crystal Brown kiss during Queer Prom night.
Myriam Serrano and Crystal Brown kiss during Queer Prom night. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Last month, the Board of Supervisors declared San Francisco a sanctuary city for transgender people, adding to a guaranteed income program started in November 2022 that provides $1,200 per month to low-income transgender city residents. In May 2023, Mayor London Breed appointed D'Arcy Drollinger as San Francisco's drag laureate, a first-in-the-nation initiative to highlight the city's LGBTQ+ arts, nightlife and entertainment cultures, according to an announcement of the appointment.

Drollinger, who owns the famed drag bar and nightclub Oasis, said queer San Franciscans are leading the city's resurgence because "it’s in our blood to sort of mobilize" and “take care of each other and the community around us.”

"We’ve had to make our own path in the world and oftentimes not rely on anybody else but ourselves," Drollinger said. "And because of that, there is a different kind of courage that we’ve had to develop."

Honey Mahogany, co-owner of the famed gay bar The Stud, which reopened at a different location this spring four years after it closed in 2020, said it feels good to see lines starting to form again outside queer bars and restaurants.

"That’s what San Francisco night life used to be like," said Mahogany, who also served as the chairwoman of the San Francisco Democratic Party and is currently the director of the city's Office of Transgender Initiatives. "It not only obviously impacts those performers or venues or merchants, or whatever who are directly benefiting at that time. But it also helps change the narrative of San Francisco."

Dom Avarela wears a wedding dress during Queer Prom night.
Dom Avarela wears a wedding dress during Queer Prom night. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Still, some say it's too early to claim victory for queer women.

San Francisco is one of the most visibly gay cities in America. But a queer woman hasn't served on the Board of Supervisors in more than a decade, and the city has never elected a lesbian mayor. Much of San Francisco's LGBTQ+ culture is dominated by white gay men, who hold some of the the most politically powerful positions in the city.

"I'm not going to say this is the year of the lesbian until we elect more lesbians to office," said Kate Maeder, a San Francisco political consultant who co-owns Scarlet Fox wine bar with her wife, Kaela Miller. "I want to get all the high-powered lesbians in a room to conspire on making it a year of the lesbian."

Scarlet Fox owners Kate Maeder and Kaela Miller pose
Scarlet Fox owners Kate Maeder and Kaela Miller opened the wine bar to create a safe space for the queer community. (Hannah Wiley / Los Angeles Times)

Maeder and Miller married in 2020 after meeting in 2015 at The Battery, a social club in San Francisco, where Miller was the sommelier. The two opened their wine bar on a quieter corner of the NOPA district in summer 2023 thanks in part to a city-run COVID recovery initiative for small businesses.

The couple set out to create a safe space for anyone looking for a welcoming spot to sit and enjoy a glass of wine. A cardboard, near life-sized cutout of Dolly Parton welcomes guests to the bar, recently decorated with a handful of rainbow flags for Pride Month.

"We are really seeing these little beacons that are becoming much brighter lights all over the city, and I think it's really because of the LGBTQ community," Miller said.

Even as queer business owners aim to prop up San Francisco, many still feel like the city isn't doing enough to support them.

Suki and Katya Skye married in 2020 and opened their Eastern European restaurant DACHA in Lower Nob Hill about eight months ago with dreams to recreate the sense of sanctuary they found after landing in San Francisco many years ago. Suki came from the East Coast in search of a more open-minded environment, while Katya fled anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Russia.

Suki and Katya Skye, owners of the Eastern European restaurant DACHA.
Suki and Katya Skye, owners of the Eastern European restaurant DACHA, walk in San Francisco's Pride Parade on June 30. (Courtesy of the Skye family. )

They wanted DACHA, named after Russian country cottages popular in the summer, to feel like everyone's living room. The dining room is decorated with Suki's father's paintings, the exposed brick and bookcases creating a cozy interior for their guests. The couple has hosted a variety of charity events, recently one to benefit an organization providing medical aid during the war in Ukraine.

"One of the missions of this restaurant is to get people together," Katya Skye said. "Despite their sexual orientations, nationalities, and focus on things which unite us."

But the couple said they are struggling to make the restaurant financially viable. They're worried about money, about violent incidents in their neighborhood and keeping costs low despite paying tens of thousands of dollars in fees and taxes to stay up to code in a city notorious for red tape.

"It's been rough," Suki Skye said. The couple want to feel like they're making a difference with DACHA, but say they and other queer-owned businesses in San Francisco need the city's help to be successful.

"It already has this amazing backbone of culture and people and the place itself, this like magical energy," Suki Skye said. "I really want it to be its vibrant self again, or an even better version of what it was."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.