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Last Call for the Lexington

With the shuttering of San Francisco’s only dyke bar, has queer culture grown up—or is it dissolving?

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Considering the many options for day-drinking in the Mission, the crowd inside the Lexington Club on this hectic St. Patrick’s Day weekend afternoon is respectably dense. Not as rowdy, maybe, as the heaving, wall-to-wall mass of sailors, schoolgirls, boy scouts, and paramilitary types that packed the place during the last Folsom-weekend uniform party I attended, six or seven years ago. And not as X-rated as the evening in 2009 when queer porn diva Princess Donna took over the bar to make a movie, with an actress delivering drinks from a ball gag attached to a serving tray and crowd members stripping down to their jock straps. Still, a steady procession of queers, spanning the age and gender spectrums, filters back and forth between the pool table, the bar, and two of the most storied bathrooms in the Mission—whose walls and stalls, covered with raunchy paeans, offer a succinct snapshot of a San Francisco subculture during these past two up-and-down decades.

On the bar’s crimson walls hangs a final art show. One gorgeous, old-timey-looking shot depicts a group of Lusty Lady dancers outside the now-shuttered strip club. Another, mundane but poignant, shows three patrons sitting at the bar on the Lex’s first night, in 1997; a cigarette dangles from the mouth of one, whose backward-facing baseball cap makes an effective time-stamp.

Ever since October, when Lexington owner Lila Thirkield announced that San Francisco’s sole remaining full-time dyke bar would be closing early in 2015 (the date of expiration has now been set for April 30, a week after a two-night blowout party), the place has been much on the minds of the city’s eulogists, and Thirkield has seen a corresponding uptick in business. Even so, she acknowledges, weeknights have been pretty thin of late. The odd sweaty Saturday night notwithstanding, the Lex’s centrality in a neighborhood once brimming with dykes and queers has waned.

Thirkield blames the demise of the Lex on the erosion of her customer base, exacerbated by a recent rent hike. When she opened her bar on the corner of 19th Street and Lexington, she says, “I felt like everybody lived within a 10-block radius. It was enough to fill a bar for years.” But, she adds, “it’s not in the right place anymore. That place has changed.” The beloved dyke bar’s space will be taken over by the PlumpJack empire.

The Lexington was never quite my living room, but you could say that I grew up there. It opened before I was out to anyone, sitting there like a homing beacon while I scraped together excuses to walk past it. The years after I made it inside, around 1999, are now a slightly hazy montage of lonesome early forays, exuberant reappearances with queer cohorts, crushes on bartenders, sweaty dance parties, hooking up, shacking up, a growing fondness for the bar’s contemplative late afternoons, and, eventually, a decline in attendance as I slowed down, developed a taste for $10 glasses of viognier at Mission Cheese, and forgot how crucial it once felt to be inside that space.

Now, of course, I’m half-regretting all those nights I stayed home with my girlfriend when I could have been downing shots and otherwise doing my part to keep the bar in business. My immediate peers can be excused their diminished urge to spend their nights shooting pool, punching the jukebox, and perusing the artwork for photographs of ex-girlfriends. But what happened to all the younger dykes and lezzies who were supposed to take our place?

As Gary Gates, coauthor of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, points out, the national LGBT population, thanks to greater cultural acceptance of lesbians and gays, now has more urban meccas to choose from than it did when the Lex opened. So when longtime queer residents leave the city, they aren’t necessarily replaced by their younger equivalents. Sociologist Amin Ghaziani, in his 2014 book There Goes the Gayborhood?, notes that in 2010, historically gay zip codes had fewer same-sex households than they did in 2000 or 1990. Add those facts to a cluster of social realities—from San Francisco’s extortionate rents, to dating apps like Tinder that, Gates says, have made it “less salient to be in a particular place to find other lesbian or gay people,” to queer women’s relatively modest spending power—and it’s not surprising to hear that San Francisco’s dyke community is losing an icon.

But not everyone has left town—some folks are just finding their good times elsewhere. In this city, the Lex has always been just one vision of what dyke and queer nightlife can be (one that, some detractors will tell you, was never that inclusive, particularly of people of color). Regular parties like Cockblock, U-Haul, Switch, and Pussy Party continue to provide real estate for drunken lesbian cruising. There’s also a newer generation of parties—Hard French, Swagger Like Us, and House of Babes among them—that don’t much bother with dividing up the LGBT community, instead promoting a mad free-for-all of gender expression and sexual appetite. (For what it’s worth, the Lex has moved more in the free-for-all direction itself of late.)

For many queers, the Lexington was essential. Looking back over 20 years, my friend Railroad says, “I remember needing to go find myself and be queer and surround myself with women. A place like the Lex was like, ‘Amazing! This is what San Francisco has? I have to move there!’” But, she adds, “My hunch is that people who are coming of age right now don’t necessarily need or value that as much as we did when we were little twentysomethings, because there’s more social acceptance around being a homo.”

And at a certain point, Railroad continues, she wanted to be able to integrate her gay male friends into her social scenes. “That’s part of why I think Hard French is successful, and Swagger. Those are queer parties that are simply queer parties”—multigendered and loosely defined from the get-go. Of her own diminished need for dedicated spaces, she says, “I think that was probably a natural outgrowth of growing up.”

Perhaps such events, and even the girl parties (and straight people) invading the gay male zone of the Castro, are the outgrowth of a scene, and even a larger culture, that’s growing up, in which it feels safe enough to let some dividing lines fade away. There’s plenty to celebrate in that. But something vital is being lost too, a kind of brick-and-mortar visibility that I don’t think has quite outlived its usefulness or power. The Lex may not have been a home to everyone, but for 18 years it held down a space in which to see and be seen, in every sense of the phrase. And then there’s simple history. As Railroad says, “It’s heartbreaking to see San Francisco breaking off piece by piece. And this is one of those pieces.”

Back at the Lexington, we’ve reached the twilight hour that inexorably follows an afternoon of boozing. I look up at the 18-year-old photo from the Lex’s opening night, at the baseball-capped queer, and wonder where they are now. “Slow Hand” comes around on the jukebox again, and it seems like a cue to head out. The crowd is thinning, making dinner plans, and I hear someone ask a friend where they’re headed next. It’s an excellent question.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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