On most June weekend nights, I find myself parading the roads of Austin’s 4th Street gay district, bouncing from neon-lit bar to neon-lit bar with a crowd of like-minded friends. A sense of urgency underlies our merrymaking: In April 2022, a proposed luxury condo development threatened to demolish three long-standing 4th Street venues and drastically reduce Austin’s queer nightlife offerings.
Residents of Austin are no strangers to seeing iconic queer venues bite the dust, and these losses have been especially felt by the city’s lesbian community. In the past four decades, every lesbian-specific venue in Austin has shuttered its doors.
This wasn’t always the case: Longtime residents fondly recall lesbian-focused watering holes like Chances, Club Skirt, and Sister’s Edge. By the mid-2000s, however, most of these venues had closed, leaving LGBTQ+ folks across the city in search of a space to call their own.
The disappearance of lesbian bars in Austin mirrors their fate nationwide. In the ’80s and ’90s, over 200 lesbian-specific establishments existed. Today, roughly two dozen remain, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a campaign dedicated to preserving and appreciating the country’s remaining lesbian bars. Two of the surviving venues call Texas home: Pearl Bar in Houston and Sue Ellen’s in Dallas.
During this Pride Month, I find myself mourning the lesbian bars of yesteryear and remembering their importance as community-building spaces for not only lesbians, but for all varieties of LGBTQ+ folk and their allies. So, I fill my tank and embark on a two-day, 585-mile pilgrimage to the last two lesbian bars in Texas.
Since its 2013 opening, Pearl Bar has established itself as a hangout hotspot for a diverse crowd of LGBTQ+ Houstonians. After passing—free of cover—through the venue’s entrance on bustling Washington Avenue, I gravitate towards the spacious outdoor patio, where groups of friends and couples catch up under strands of twinkling string lights.
Each Thursday, the venue hosts Steak Night, where chef Michael Spence of local Jamaican-inspired eatery 876 Kitchyn slings flavorful rib-eye cuts and hefty sides of mashed potatoes. I grab a plate and wash it down with a Queer Quencher cocktail, the venue’s blue-tinted take on a rum punch.
Pearl Bar stays packed for the entirety of Pride Month, with each weekend featuring a lineup of big-name entertainers and popular resident performers, including seven-member drag king group H-Town Kings.
As night falls, the venue’s energy kicks into high gear as patrons migrate inside to the dance floor. Under pulsating strobe lights and glistening disco balls, guests groove to the music of DJ Raqqcity, whose mix pays homage to hometown Houston heroes like Beyoncé, Normani, and Megan Thee Stallion. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I sit down with Allie and Alex, two longtime Pearl Bar regulars who share a love for the venue’s inclusive atmosphere.
“It’s a very welcoming and comfortable place to be, even for my straight friends,” Allie explains. “There’s not a lot of lesbian bars around, and I love going to other gay bars, but it’s special to be around people you can really relate to. It’s easy to meet new people and make friends here.”
Alex adds: “We’re about to be in the weddings of three different people we met here!”
Situated in the heart of Dallas’ vibrant Oak Lawn “gayborhood” since 1989, Sue Ellen’s holds the title of Texas’ oldest lesbian bar. Named after the campy, wildly popular ’80s soap Dallas and its witty lead Sue Ellen Ewing, the spacious two-story nightclub shares walls with other longstanding queer staples like The Rose Room and JR’s.
I arrive somewhat early to Sue Ellen’s, and I expect to down a drink or two before the space fills up. After passing through the venue’s somewhat nondescript entrance, however, I quickly discern that I’m late to the party. Some patrons have already taken to the massive dance floor, while others shoot pool and play arcade games in the adjoining game room. Moving upstairs to the laid-back outdoor patio, I chat with Amber, a nurse and mother of two who frequents the space.
“Sue Ellen’s was the very first gay space I ever came to, and it felt like the heavens were opening,” she says. “There aren’t many lesbian bars left, and they’re so important for women like me who came out later in life.”
Like Pearl Bar, Sue Ellen’s receives—by far—the most business of the year during Pride. On Wednesdays, resident drag and burlesque performers take the stage as Sue’s Sirens, while DJ sets and karaoke draws big crowds on weekend nights.
“Pride’s our Super Bowl,” says Mindy Robbins, Sue Ellen’s’ general manager. “Our pride runs deep, and you really feel that energy when you’re here.”
Apart from party planning, Sue Ellen’s also provides education and resources through partnerships with family-focused nonprofits like Rainbow Roundup and therapy group Room for Change, which together host a free workshop for parents of LGBTQ+ youth.
“It’s a very inclusive space, and a lot of straight people and men come here, too,” Amber says. “That’s the thing about Sue’s—it’s a family.”