On a cold Wednesday night in East Hollywood, crowds gather in various nooks and rooms inside the newly opened queer bar Honey’s. Folks take turns singing karaoke on a small stage, selecting hits like the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” Joan Armatrading’s “The Weakness in Me,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Stronger Than Me.” The crowd erupts at Winehouse’s iconic line: “Are you gay?”
For the first time in years, Los Angeles has an emerging queer bar scene. In a city where gay bars and other permanent LGBTQ spaces largely cater to cis men — save for the occasional lesbian or queer nights — two bars recently opened to center and serve the larger community. On February 17, former Eszett employees Emily Bielagus and Mara Herbkersman opened the lesbian natural wine bar the Ruby Fruit in Silver Lake. Just 10 days later, a trio composed of Kate Greenberg, Mo Faulk, and Charlotte Gordon opened the doors to Honey’s at the Star Love venue in East Hollywood.
The queer and lesbian bar scene in LA has been lacking permanent, standing spaces for years now. The Palms, which was the last lesbian bar in LA’s gayborhood, West Hollywood, shut down in 2013 after nearly 50 years in business. The lesbian bar Oxwood Inn, which operated for 45 years in Van Nuys, closed its doors four years later.
Before and after these closures, LA has had a truly thriving queer and lesbian scene thanks to the work of local organizers, event planners, and more, including Dyke Day, Gay Asstrology, Cherry Bomb Weho, Queer Field Day, and many more. In 2019, the Fingerjoint joined the scene as a lesbian bar pop-up. Its founder Lauren Amador and bartender Danielle Gavaldon planned to open a permanent space until plans were scrapped when COVID hit. (Gavaldon has gone on to start a queer pop-up and event bar called Sure Thing.) These physical spaces where folks are able to come in on any given night of the week have been harder to come by, and they are what Ruby Fruit and Honey’s provide.
“I think there’s nothing more important than getting a bunch of queers together in a room and meeting new people,” Gordon says. “The connections that come from that will trickle into all other walks of life.” Gordon hopes that Honey’s will serve as a hub for community-building beyond one-off events. “Honey’s is trying to offer this space that lives there,” says Faulk. “It’s a safe space you can go to whenever you want, meet people, bring people to, make new friends.”
Inclusivity is a key value at both Honey’s and the Ruby Fruit. Ruby Fruit’s owners emphasize that the space is for lesbians, but also trans folk, bi folk, and the larger queer community. The door to the sole bathroom has a sign that reads NO TERFS.
Lesbian bars and queer bars represent camaraderie and history, born from a time when queerness was criminalized and spaces existed largely in secret. Then and now, queer bars have been places where queer folks are able to find ourselves and our community. They are where we build all sorts of relationships — romantic, platonic, business, chosen family — and ideas.
I didn’t begin understanding myself as queer until mid-2020, meaning I came out to myself and my community in isolation. In the past, I’d visited gay bars in West Hollywood but always understood that these places weren’t really created for me. I’ve long heard stories of friends enjoying the Cubbyhole in New York or Pearl Bar in Houston, but Honey’s and Ruby Fruit are the first queer and lesbian bars I’ve been able to actually go to.
The sense of togetherness queer folks create and experience in spaces like these isn’t easily describable — it’s felt. These bars are among the few places I’m able to hold my girlfriend’s hand and kiss their face and not worry about an overeager straight person telling us we look cute together, or a random person stopping to gawk. Or even worse, as Bielagus recalls, a man saying, “Is there room for me?” At Ruby Fruit and Honey’s, we’re not a spectacle; we’re in community.
Amid this growing scene in Los Angeles, queerness is still being attacked throughout the country; at present, the ACLU has found more than 400 anti-LGBTQ bills winding their way through statehouses across the U.S. Many of these specifically target trans folk, blocking rights including joining a sports team, using a bathroom safely, and accessing healthcare. Queer spaces, especially those that are inclusive of the larger LGBT community, are as important as ever.
While gay bars throughout the country have been on the decline overall — after facing gentrification, endless struggles during the height of the pandemic, the rising cost of goods, issues with landlords, and more — the country’s lesbian scene is surviving and growing. The Lesbian Bar Project, a short film and docuseries by co-creators and co-directors Elina Street and Erica Rose, has contributed to lesbian bars’ survival. The 2021 release of the short documentary film, profiling several lesbian bars throughout the U.S., was accompanied by the launch of a campaign that raised over $150,000. Additional community crowdfunding and media attention has also helped save existing bars and likely led to the opening of others. In 2020, there were just 16 lesbian bars; today, as per the Lesbian Bar Project there are 27.
Both Rose and Street say that they were able to find themselves in the lesbian bar scene in New York. “Cubbyhole knew I was gay before I even did,” says Rose. “I think both of us can say fully that we came of age and helped find our authentic voices and selves in these bars.”
The next several months are key for both Ruby Fruit and Honey’s as they strive to keep the current hype and momentum going. “Any bar, restaurant, or business in Los Angeles is difficult to sustain financially, regardless of the concept,” says Greenberg, who is also the director of operations at Mozza Restaurant Group. “It’s a tough business and then you’re going after somewhat of a more-niche community. It’s not like New York where you have a million people walking by Honey’s that can just pop in and check it out. You’re a destination.”
Both bars are striving to make their first year a success and are reliant on the community showing up regularly and attending events including book clubs and comedy nights. The bars are also amping up their food and entertainment. Ruby Fruit began serving lunch in April with dishes like fried gigante beans with rosemary, kampachi crudo, and bread served alongside butt-shaped butter. Honey’s regularly hosts karaoke nights, burlesque shows, trivia nights, and drag shows, and is planning future collaborations that will include food vendors.
For now, though, the owners of Ruby Fruit and Honey’s are finding that folks have immense gratitude for the spaces that have been created for them. “People walk in the door and they thank us immediately,” Bielagus says. “It’s this mutual gratitude. We’re thankful that they’re there; they’re thankful that we have this space for them.” While technically just two bars operating in a massive metropolis, Ruby Fruit and Honey’s collective impact marks the beginning of a new era for queer LA.
This article has been updated to clarify the important role that many different organizations have played in LA’s queer and lesbian scene and to more accurately describe the scene’s vibrancy.