Like much during the pandemic, it all started with a TikTok. Lilly Brown, who works by day in unscripted TV, moonlights as a queer content creator on the app. And whether she’s telling jokes about the gay agenda or sharing thoughts on the “bury your gays” trope, her life as a queer woman in LA takes center stage. One day, a follower asked how she had so many queer friends and it sparked an idea.
“In regular life, you never know if someone's queer just by being in the same room with them,” she tells KCRW. “But if you're in a queer space, it's just that much easier to know: ‘Everyone around me as queer. Everyone's gonna relate to me. I don't have to worry about anything.’ It's hard to find these places. We can't just go to a bar.”
The Palms, the last lesbian bar in West Hollywood, closed in 2013. Just four years later, LA County’s last lesbian bar, the Oxwood Inn, shut it doors forever. The 45-year-old San Fernando Valley watering hole was a fixture in the LA LGBTQ nightlife.
So alongside her pals Adrienne Casey and Kayleen Casey — a married couple — the trio organized the first-ever Queer Field Day. It’s the latest in a wave of young queer women coming together to feed a desire for community.
They invited Brown’s TikTok followers — and whoever else stumbled upon the video through the app’s ever-mystifying For You Page — and waited.
The event was such a hit that the team held another one. A space that first saw a few hundred attendees had nearly double the attendance just a few weeks later.
Meeting at the rainbow lifeguard tower at Venice Beach, streams of queer folks from Santa Monica to Portland came out. Some came alone, others with carpools of friends or colleagues who heard about the event.
“People embraced what we were trying to do so hard. It was people immediately in line being like, ‘Did you come alone? I came alone, let's be friends,’” Kayleen Casey says. “And they introduced each other and themselves and talked about their backstory. And a huge circle, like the first 50 people to show up, just sat down and talked about their backstory. And I thought that was exactly what we were trying to do.”
Her wife Adrienne adds, “We still are getting tons of messages in our inbox telling us how important this was and how thankful they are to have it. ‘Please have another one, I want to come,’ or ‘I wasn't able to come, and I see how people are really creating a community. I need that.’”
For some, like 22-year-old Cheyenne Basurto, Queer Field Day felt lke coming home. “Looking around, I see people who look like me, who walk like me, who talk like me, and it's just so nice. I feel really, really loved and appreciated for the first time in my life.”
They were joined by their girlfriend Celina Shriver, who says she felt not only connected, but physically and emotionally safe.
“I've never been comfortable showing my body at the beach before. I've never even been comfortable wearing a swimsuit like being on the beach. And now I feel totally protected,” she explains. “I don't feel like anybody's gonna come up to me and be rude [or] be inappropriate. It's all just respect and love.”
The diversity problem in gay LA today
What is it about the space that feels so special? After all, LA has a vibrant LGBTQ community. Dozens of gay bars — from Santa Monica to the Valley to downtown LA — fill the landscape that is gay LA.
But those spaces don’t exactly cater to queer women or trans and gender non-conforming folks. Abby Solomon says events like Queer Field Day are a great start in creating welcoming spaces for all queer people.
“It is disappointing sometimes when you're going out to the gay bars, to West Hollywood, and most of it is tailored toward white cis gay men. And to have something like this, which is organized by women loving women, I feel like it's starting to get more inclusive, and that we have a long way to go.”
And what a long road it’s been. Since the closure of LA’s last remaining gay bars, the second-largest city in the U.S. has been left without any brick and mortar center of lesbian nightlife. It’s a trend reflected across the U.S., which only has 21 lesbian bars.
In recent years, pop-ups like Queer Field Day have beocme commonplace, providing LA’s lesbians and anyone who isn’t a white cisgendered gay man a space that’s uniquely theirs — like the cocktail popup The Fingerjoint, and queer dance parties like Paradiso Divine, LezCroix, and Mommy Issues.
They’re popular, but only in certain crowds. As in much of West Hollywood and other mainstream queer spots, finding gender and racial diversity is still a work in progress. Most of those spaces also revolve around drinking.
“It's not just LA. It’s everywhere. These queer women and people, they just want a space that is more inclusive and is tailored toward them other than just bars. Bars are only inclusive for people who drink and who are 21 or over,” Solomon says. “We need more of these neutral spaces where we can hang out. You can drink if you want to or you can stay sober. But there's no barrier to entry.”
LA’s lesbian legacy
So where did all the lesbian bars go? According to Angela Brinskele from the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives, LA used to be hub of lesbian life. In the 1970s, she says more than 30 lesbian and feminist spaces existed across LA.
“That was a really different life, knowing that any major city I went to — San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Gabriel — I would be able to find a women's bookstore and a lesbian bar. Times have changed drastically from that,” Brinskele says.
Today, she says there isn’t just one reason lesbian spaces faded away, but she especially blames expensive real estate, plus a lack of support from young queer women.
“What happened was young people who were only online their whole lives had no idea what it was like to experience a really great community space of any kind, because there weren't any from the time they were young until they got older,” she says. “A lot of young people didn't know they were going to need these places and they didn't know they existed. So they weren't supported and they went away.”
The start of a new wave?
However, those spaces might not be gone for long. New to the West Hollywood LGBTQ scene is a concept called Hot Donna’s. It’s a clubhouse dreamed up by Lauren Richer. After moving to the neighborhood in 2015 from San Diego, she says it immediately became clear there was nowhere she could go to meet queer women.
“I searched and searched and searched, and there was nothing for me to go and find other women when I was trying to explore this part of myself,” she explains. “I want to make a place called Hot Donna's, where empowered beautiful women of all kinds can come and meet each other and hang out and be part of this like community that really doesn't exist. A community that’s not just about sex and alcohol.”
The idea is a place where all are welcomed, but is specifically designed with queer women, gender non-conforming folks, and queer people of color in mind. Maybe even a real life version of The Planet from “The L Word,” the cafe and central hub for Shane, Bette, Alice and the rest of the gang.
Richer says she dreams of Hot Donna’s being the start of a new queer femme movement in not only West Hollywood, but LA as a whole.
“Everyone's looking and searching and seeking because there is none. There's nothing out there right now. And we're all kind of here on the ground floor together. My friend calls it an army of lesbians who are just trying to make something happen so that we all feel like we can fit in finally. And we all feel like it's our time.”
The bar is still in its development phase. Richer is fundraising through GoFundMe and is hunting for the perfect space in West Hollywood. She’s also teamed up with Queer Field Day to host a pop-up next month to raise awareness, and cash, to make Hot Donna’s a reality. They’ll be at Pan Pacific Park on July 17.