‘The Adversity They Face Is Amplified’: How LGBTQ Venues Are Faring In the Pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, Rachel Broughton, owner of Herz bar and venue, says the Mobile, Alabama joint was bustling. Broughton left her position as a preschool teacher and opened Herz – the only distinctly lesbian space in the state – in October of 2019. Seven months later, Herz was shut down along with all other bars and venues in the state.

In May, Herz reopened on a much smaller scale. “Oh my God. It has been a struggle,” Broughton tells Billboard. “The shut down came and we had to go to half capacity and we don’t even get to half the capacity now because people are quarantining. [Attendance is] really, really low, but we’re hanging in there.”

In addition to cutting down occupancy, Herz could no longer host live music, burlesque nights or what they call Swag Shows, which are drag shows with female performers. Herz has still been able to host DJs and twice a month holds a family cookout out on their patio to keep clientele coming back.

Between handing out masks and keeping customers socially distanced, Broughton admits they are in better shape than most given how new they are, stating “because our bar is so new and so clean versus the other bars, people would prefer to come down here.”

But the venue, like many other LGBTQ spaces, has had to find creative ways to keep from succumbing to the financial complications of the pandemic. Herz has received federal Paycheck Protection Program funds and a local grant in Alabama, neither of which Broughton says were significant. Luckily, Herz became one of only 10 recipients of the Human Rights Campaign’s Queer to Stay: An LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative award.

Someone from HRC “had come to our bar one time and they were so impressed and they loved the atmosphere so much that when this grant came out, we didn’t know anything about it and they actually reached out to us and asked to apply,” says Broughton, who explains that the undisclosed amount effectively staved off their closure.

The COVID-19 closures have also greatly impacted established queer venues, like the 30-year-old Wildrose in Seattle. Shelley Brothers and her partner Martha Manning have owned the Capitol Hill venue for the past 20 years that’s “a bar for women, but everyone’s welcome.” As the country’s acceptance of the queer community has improved over the past three decades, Brothers believes establishments like Wildrose have helped in even progressive areas like Seattle. “It’s sort of an educational tool at times. Hopefully we changed the minds of some people that maybe weren’t as open-minded,” she says.

Despite being a fixture in Seattle’s gayborhood, trying to prevent permanent closure has been difficult for the room that LGBTQ artist Mary Lambert has called “formative in my 20s.”

Based on Washington laws, The Wildrose is unable to host any kind of live performance until the state’s final phase of reopening and has opted to pivot its operations to seated dining in the interim. The Wildrose currently allows roughly 40 people, including employees, to be indoors at a given time, which translates to less than 50% of the venue’s occupancy and allows for socially distanced tables throughout. Washington Governor Jay Inslee also instituted an 11 p.m. curfew for bars for the state that was first to ban large gatherings back in March.

“It’s horrible. We’re at probably 25% of what we need to be or what we’re usually are,” says Brothers. “We depend on crowds and turn over. We just don’t have that at all now.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Wildrose started a GoFundMe campaign but says the funds didn’t last long with fixed costs like insurance and rent continuing. In October, they joined the Washington Nightlife Music Association’s Keep Music Live campaign that is seeking non-government financial support. The organization launched a stunning campaign that saw massive banners depicting condos replacing local music venues to show the community what will happen if these establishments can’t secure significant financial funding.

“We’re doing everything we can think of without putting people in danger and without breaking the law, without losing our liquor license,” says Brothers, but without revenue or donations, “We will have to close. We can’t go on at this rate.”

Both Herz and Wildrose were also tapped for inclusion in the Lesbian Bar Project. The LBP launched with a short film narrated by the project’s executive producer and Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria that helps showcase the importance of these spaces for marginalized groups.

“These spaces are cherished and it’s frankly unacceptable that there’s only 15 [lesbian-centered bars] and we’ve been losing spaces at a staggering rate even before the pandemic,” says Lesbian Bar Project co-director Erica Rose, who chose to use film to help tell the stories of the remaining bars.

Rose adds: “When you’re dealing with a small business catered to a very specific but marginalized community, the adversity they face is amplified. They could’ve been barely making the rent and now it could be impossible.”

The filmmakers joined forces with Jägermeister’s #SaveTheNight campaign to seek donations for the remaining spaces that center on queer women, trans people and non-binary people. For four weeks ending on Nov. 25, the LBP is collecting donations through its Pool Fund with 100% of the proceeds going to support the participating businesses including Herz, Wildrose and New York’s Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole that are prominently featured in the film.

“Bars and nightlife are connected to music and connected to performers. It’s all entangled and then when you have something like the pandemic hit, it disrupts all of that and it’s a ripple effect,” says co-director Elina Street. “If we can help bring back the bars that helps bring back the music and that helps bring back the performers. It’s space where performers who are queer can come back and know that they have an audience that is going to cheer them on and the community where they can feel truly themselves.”

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