The small rainbow sign for Purrswaytions bar is easy to miss.
On Saturday nights, a handful of women stand in a billow of cigarette smoke outside the bar’s blacked-out windows on Preston Street. They’re in cut-off tank tops and cargo shorts, elaborate drag wigs and sequins.
Inside the single door is Louisville’s last lesbian bar.
There’s just enough liquor behind the bar wrapped in LED rainbow lights to make Long Island iced tea in plastic cups. They don’t keep kegs anymore; there are so few customers the beer goes sour.
Not even half a dozen regulars help themselves to a drink in a place that is more like a community center than a wild girls’ night out. Couples sit at the bar across from erotic prints of intertwined, naked women hanging from the deep purple walls.
The photos, donated by a regular years ago, are imagery of lesbians for lesbians — intimate and sensual — a shift from woman-on-woman erotica staged for men.
On a makeshift stage two rooms over, a drag queen performs Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” A handful of customers sit in old chairs and sink deep into couch cushions with springs long past their heyday, tipping the performers with $1 bills.
There’s a musty feel to the place — not from improper maintenance or poor plumbing — but the kind that shows it has been around a long time.
But the Schnitzelburg bar’s future is fleeting, a victim of America’s embrace of LGBTQ lifestyle.
Owners Matt and Tina Seaton held a benefit this month to raise money to keep the doors open.
On Facebook, their sole advertising space, they announced: “THIS IS IT” on a Friday in early June. The rent and light bill were due Monday morning.
“People have taken advantage of this bar being here,” Matt Seaton said. “If it leaves, it will be missed, but while we’re here, it’s an afterthought.
“We’re not asking for thousands of people to walk through the door. We just want to make enough money for this bar to sustain itself.”
The long, slow demise of lesbian bars
Lesbian bars, once a haven of belonging and inclusion for queer women, have faded across the United States as clubs — both gay and straight — have become more inclusive.
San Francisco, a city with the highest LGBTQ population in the country, lost its last exclusively lesbian bar, the Lexington Club, in 2015 and received national press in Huffington Post and Vice.
New York City is home to only three self-proclaimed lesbian bars — Henrietta Hudson, Manhattan’s Cubbyhole and Brooklyn’s Ginger’s — after a handful of others have come and gone. Rubyfruit Jungle, one of the few — if not the last — lesbian bars in New Orleans, shut its doors in 2012 and Sisters bar in Philadelphia closed in 2013.
Chicago’s “Boystown” neighborhood thrives with LGBTQ-inclusive bars that mostly cater to gay men.
Andersonville, the city’s Northside neighborhood known as “Girlstown,” once was a hub for Chicago’s lesbian community in the 1990s. Its lesbian bars, Stargace and T’s, shuttered years ago.
The only city to stray from the trend is Washington, D.C., which saw two lesbian bars open in 2018 to broad community support.
A bar’s specific “lesbian” identity is difficult to define. Most queer bars now brand themselves as LGBTQ+, rather than as a specific sexuality, said Kaila Story, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville.
Lesbian establishments usually get their recognition through intentional branding from owners or a word-of-mouth reputation.
Story said she started to notice the decline and disappearance of lesbians bars in Louisville — and across the country — in 2009 and 2010.
“While I love the fact that LGBTQ+ nightlife is expanding and becoming more welcoming to all of us within our community, lesbian specific spaces have suffered, I think, from this inclusivity,” said Story, who is co-creator of the local award-winning podcast “Strange Fruit” on WFPL public radio, where she discusses politics, pop culture and black gay life.
In 2012, Story met her now-wife Missy Jackson at Purrswaytions, where Jackson was performing as her drag king persona, “King Mystikal.”
“All inclusive LGBTQ+ bars and clubs now host straight bachelorette parties, and many straight-identified folks feel right at home within queer spaces in a way that they didn’t before,” she said.
“This doesn’t mean that these spaces aren’t treasures or safe havens for many still. They are very much needed. I just think the younger generations of LGBTQ+ folk are drawn more to inclusive-venue bars in ways that didn’t exist before.”
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Looking for a place to belong
Tina and Matt bought the bar at 2235 S. Preston St. eight years ago from Stacy Grigsby when it was called Tink’s Pub, a lesbian bar that closed in 2012 after years of declining business.
At that point, Matt and Tina had been pub patrons — and performers — for more than a decade. Matt was one of Louisville’s original drag kings and has performed as the persona “Matt Sexton” since the early 1990s.
“Kings” are performers, typically female, who dress in masculine drag.
Matt and Tina have been together for nearly 30 years; they legally married in 2017. Over the years, Matt took on his drag persona. Though the couple still identifies as lesbian, Matt considers himself “one of the guys,” and prefers to refer to himself using masculine pronouns.
There was a surge in Purrswaytions’ popularity for a year or two after it opened, but business steadily tapered over the past five years.
“In hindsight, I wish we would’ve (bought the bar) sooner, back when there was really a crowd coming to gay bars — because then we could’ve really made some profit,” Matt said.
“It wasn’t as easy to go to straight bars back in those days; that’s why the gay bars were busy,” Tina added.
It was just “lipstick lesbians” and “butch girls” back then, Matt said.
“Things have changed a lot,” he said. “It doesn’t matter much to us, as long as we’re OK. It’s to each his own. We don’t question people about where they fit in the spectrum. Everybody is different.”
Pride Festival brings a boost in business
The most popular time of the year at Purrswaytions is, of course, Pride Month, celebrated each June.
Tina said beyond their 40 or so loyal regulars, they see people at the bar throughout June who haven’t stopped by in years — along with some new faces.
While there was an infectious, bright energy in Purrswaytions after Kentuckiana’s Pride Festival June 15 — and hours of drag performances — it felt like a busy Saturday night, but not the wall-to-wall packed scene Matt and Tina expected.
“(The festival) is one night a year, and a bar can’t survive off that,” said Purrswaytions regular Christal Underwood, who also performs as a drag king in Matt’s group “Boyzz by Knight.” She sported a short haircut, a “Queer KY” T-shirt and knee-length jean shorts on a Saturday night, tipping most of the drag performers.
Back in the day, Underwood had to push past people in the dive bar to “crowd surf” to other rooms. She described Purrswaytions as like “Cheers, but queer.”
“Honestly, when it comes to bars, there are certain natural ebbs and flows,” Underwood said. “I think we have to change as the times change. We can’t call it a lesbian bar; it should just be a bar.
“It will have to pull a Madonna and reinvent itself — come back out stronger.”
Another big reason that Purrswaytions, and other lesbian bars across the U.S., have struggled over the years, Underwood said, is because young people come and go — but they don’t stay.
“A lot of the younger people haven’t gotten into the hole-in-the-wall type of bar where everyone knows your name,” said Missy Clutts, a Purrswaytions regular of more than 10 years and a coach for the drag diva group.
“Millennials want to be somewhere that’s super upbeat, with music so loud you can’t talk to somebody — more of a club scene,” Clutts added.
Also, the “U-Haul” stereotype still permeates queer culture, Underwood said.
“Lesbians are notorious for settling down as they get older and don’t come back out for a long time,” she said.
Matt and Tina agreed.
“We’ve been in this for a long, long time,” Matt sighed. “People that we used to party with are grandmothers. That crowd that used to party with us are not going to come out every weekend like we use to.”
Some people think lesbian bars are dying because of internet dating culture — queer women don’t have to meet at a bar anymore; they can match on Bumble.
Others argue that women have less expendable money than men and that the lesbian population is so small, lesbian bars can’t survive off such a niche demographic.
But most agree the gradual shift toward acceptance of queer people has made it so lesbian spaces aren’t needed within the community in the same ways they once were.
Vilis Yore, a 38-year-old yoga instructor by day and drag king “Rocky” for Matt’s Boyzz by Knight troupe, came to Purrswaytions while she was in college for $5 pitchers and to hit on girls.
“It’s wonderful because our culture has become more mainstream and everybody parties everywhere,” Yore said. “There’s less need for a place like Purrswaytions because the culture is changing. But at the same time, we still need this space because it’s nice to be with your own folks. I want to be in a room full of ladies.”
An uncertain future for Purrswaytions
Purrswaytions had been struggling for a long time before Matt asked the community for help. On June 1, the bar hosted people who hadn’t been there in years for their last-ditch benefit.
“People kept saying ‘life happens,’ ‘I’m sorry we haven’t been here in a while,’ ‘We didn’t know you were struggling’,” Matt said.
When Matt looked out over the bar that night, probably triple their normal Saturday crowd, he thought, “This is why we do this.”
At 2 a.m. a friend — Missy Clutts — came running to Matt, who always emcees the drag shows.
“Tina counted the drawer and says we can stay open!” Clutts screamed.
“I slept for the first time in two weeks that night,” Matt said. “It had been tugging on my heart. There was a lot of love for this bar that night.”
Matt and Tina aren’t ready for Purrswaytions to close. They may own it, but the space belongs to the community, Matt said.
To keep it alive, they’re open to mixing things up with more events, dancing and bingo nights. They have plans to host a comedy festival in August.
If they can make it to October and afford to renew their liquor license, they’ll stay open.
Over the years, people have told Matt and Tina to just “drop the lesbian thing.”
“But I am not letting our heritage go, and I guess if that is what ends this bar, then let it be,” Matt said. “But it’s who we are, by golly.”
Reach reporter Savannah Eadens at 502-582-4530 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @savannaheadens.