‘The Lesbian Bar Project’ Is an Important, Inspiring Series That Could Have Used Less SponCon

The three-episode limited series spotlights lesbian bars in Houston, Phoenix, and New York that managed to survive the pandemic with joy.

‘The Lesbian Bar Project’ Is an Important, Inspiring Series That Could Have Used Less SponCon
Pearl Bar owner Julie Mabry along with staff and patrons in Houston. Photo:The Lesbian Bar Project series presented by Jagermeister and The Roku Channel

In the 1980s, like the coke that flowed freely through Wall Street, gay bars proliferated. It wasn’t the safest of times, but the wlw (women loving women) crowd found community in lesbian bars. The Lesbian Bar Project—originally a fundraising campaign to support gay bars during the covid pandemic, now a small group committed to empowering lesbian spaces—estimates there were roughly 200 bars at that time in America. Now, because of queerphobia and the rocky financial realities of nightlife spots, there are only 21 lesbian bars in the entire country. The Lesbian Bar Project (the new limited docuseries born of the fundraising campaign) seeks to chronicle the stories of three of those remaining spots in three very different parts of the country. And it mostly succeeds.

“We’ve been telling you for the past two years now that there aren’t many lesbian bars left in the U.S.,” DeLaria says in the trailer. “But this isn’t a sob story.”

Produced by Roku Brand Studio and Mast-Jägermeister US, the docuseries, which premiered on The Roku Channel on October 11th, is directed by Erica Rose and Elina Street and hosted by Lea DeLaria. The show is at its best and most fun to watch when the filmmakers are exploring the bar owners’ stories. There’s one particularly touching lunch scene with Houston’s Pearl Bar owner Julie Mabry, her sister, and their mother: Seeing a family of women talk about how queerness, addiction, and climate change have impacted their lives—all over barbecue?—was incredible.

A Kings of Houston performer at Pearl Bar. Photo:The Lesbian Bar Project series presented by Jagermeister and The Roku Channel

“Do you remember that night?” Mabry asks her sister, pointing to a photo of herself as a young girl, inside a new album her mother created to replace an album destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. The photo is of the first time Mabry went to a gay bar with her sister. “I remember it as being the first night I really saw you, like, really happy and being yourself,” her sister says. “You really became who you are.”

However, the series does not have much of a narrative thread beyond the bar owners’ stories. The show often feels like extended internet videos The Lesbian Bar Project (the collective) made to help fundraise during the height of covid. And the episodes don’t feel like a TV series with connective tissue; using the chapter format means each bar is bifurcated for the rest. A 45-60 minute documentary would have been more compelling.

DeLaria’s hosting is also uncharacteristically distracting in this format. She merely introduces the bar and its owner from a plush set at the start of each episode, and her on-camera work feels corny and unnecessary.

Henrietta Hudson’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci outside the bar.
Photo:The Lesbian Bar Project series presented by Jagermeister and The Roku Channel

The episodes are at their least engaging during the last five minutes, when they’re setting up what are essentially Jägermeister commercials. The brand sponsored the Lesbian Bar Project through its #savethenight initiative, which supported bars and clubs during the pandemic. Unfortunately, this makes the end of The Lesbian Bar Project feel like SponCon. In short: Enjoy the episode’s first 25-ish minutes, and maybe use the final five to refill your drink.

But the show has enough moments that feel informative and moving to keep watching. The filmmakers use Pearl as a backdrop to explore the expansive way lesbian bars have opened their patronage. One of Mabry’s biggest praisers is the head of the Kings of Houston, a drag king performance group, that hosts a weekly show at Pearl. As a Houstonian and occasional Pearl-goer, I loved seeing how the bar opened its door to a sweeping view of queerness.

In Pheonix, Arizona, Boycott Bar’s Audrey Corley details how women’s sports brought meaning to her life, so much so that she became a basketball coach—a job that eventually led to her owning a bar where the women she’s coached have worked. And in New York City, the show spotlights Henrietta Hudson, the longest-running lesbian bar in the country, which was literally built by lesbians who donated labor, materials, and their boom boxes. Lisa Cannistraci, who’s led Henrietta for more than 30 years says in the series: “I feel like it was a calling, and once I committed, I never let go of it.” Cannistraci said her mom knew how to get a dollar out of 25 cents, which informs how she runs her business today.

Boycott Bar’s Audrey Corley and her staff, including former players Photo:The Lesbian Bar Project series presented by Jagermeister and The Roku Channel

So much of queer history is lost because for so long we just weren’t valued as people. It was dangerous to keep queer paraphernalia, let alone study the movement with rigor. As queer historians race to preserve decades of history before the survivors die, the oral histories of how these bars came to be are more important than ever.

But it’s not enough to just chronicle the history. To that end, the fundraising effort raised more than $117,000 for the 21 lesbian bars still in the U.S. (Its 2021 efforts raised more than $150,000—about $5,000 per establishment!) Now that I’ve started traveling again, it’s nice to know there’s at least one organization aimed at keeping this kind of community space open for me to visit.

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