The Bay Area’s new wave of lesbian bars

Anna Pulley - Jun 12, 2024
Friends and Family located in Oakland, CA (Image credit: Cole Wilson & Cayce Clifford)

While there are 800-plus bars in the U.S. that cater to LGBTQ+ men and women, the number of lesbian bars has nose-dived from about 200 in the ’80s to around 30 now, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary and awareness campaign. 

You might assume that San Francisco — often hailed as a beacon of LGBTQ+ history and culture — would be the exception to this rule. And for a time, it was. From the ’70s to the ’90s, the Mission District in particular was a prime hub for queer women spaces, like Osento women’s bathhouse, Leather Tongue Video, lesbian bar Artemis Society, feminist bookstore Old Wives’ Tales, Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Cafe, and Sofia’s, which claimed to be the city’s first queer Latina bar

Yet lesbian bars, often operating on tight margins, have been among the most severe casualties of rising rents and gentrification. When the Lexington Club closed in 2015, many in the community were devastated. Only a handful of lesbian-friendly bars, including Wild Side West and El Rio, were left. 

“As queer women and people of marginalized genders,” says Erica Rose, co-founder of the Lesbian Bar Project, “we aren’t afforded opportunities to take up space.” 

Despite these obstacles, and even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new wave of lesbian bars has emerged in the Bay Area. Far more than simply places to drink beer and flirt — though such pastimes are not to be discounted — they are playing an essential role in the social fabric of San Francisco’s queer women communities, creating spaces for connection, organizing, solidarity, and belonging.


A neon pink triangle brandishing the words “YOU ARE SAFE HERE” is the first thing you see when entering Jolene’s, a queer bar and nosherie opened in 2018 and run by Jolene Linsangan (creator and promoter of the dance party UHAUL SF, now a weekly fixture). Jolene’s takes its mission of inclusivity seriously — as well as playfully.

Jolene’s offers pool tournaments, drag brunches, burlesque shows, karaoke, and Coyote Ugly–themed nights, complete with Western wear and wet T-shirt contests. Any night of the week, patrons can drink among the floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photos of breasts that plaster the “boob room.” “I love drinking sloppily around a bunch of other queer folks and getting to be surrounded by boob wallpaper,” said patron Paula Stornetta on a recent night out. “What more could you ask for?” (If butts are what you ask for, head to the all-gender bathrooms, which feature Yoko Ono–style derriere wallpaper.)

Friends and Family

Despite opening smack dab in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 — which owner and restaurant industry vet Blake Cole weathered by selling to-go cocktails and carrot cake — the bar and restaurant Friends and Family has become a queer mainstay, known for its classy, art-casual atmosphere, classic and innovative cocktails, delicious food (James Beard–nominated chef Gaby Maeda now runs the kitchen), and commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.

True to its name, Friends and Family aims to make everyone feel like part of a larger family. The bar’s events promote unity and celebrate queer culture, including comedy and storytelling, queer artisan markets (with clothing, jewelry, tooth gems, and tinctures), and popular speed-dating nights. (These nights have led to whole new friend groups and even the formation of a queer bowling team.) In addition, Friends and Family offers a Daily Affirmation, a mini cocktail shot, with 100% of the profits going to individuals raising funds for gender-affirming care. 

“I firmly believe that going out and sharing a drink or a meal together is one of the most innately human experiences, where you share good times, where you share sadness,” Cole said. “There’s a certain responsibility that I have, and that we have, to protect queer people, to allow them to be themselves — and not just that, to honor who they are and uplift that.”

Mother Bar

Mother Bar opened in 2023 in the space that once belonged to Esta Noche (another beloved queer Latinx bar that closed in 2014). With its lavender exterior and down-home vibe, Mother combines the warmth of a community center with the comforting tawdriness of a proper dive. A giant projection along the back wall on a recent visit featured interview clips from lesbian activist icons as well as cartoon hyenas brandishing nipple tassels. 

In addition to the standard dance nights, Mother hosts art shows and community discussions, Hot Goth Happy Hour, astrology-themed parties, strip club pop-ups with the illustrious Pole Angelz, Drink and Draw, and board game nights.

Why Lesbian Bars Matter

Jolene’s, Friends and Family, and Mother Bar are joined by a few other notable spots — including NoPa wine bar The Scarlet Fox; the wine bar pop-up Somebody’s Sister, which occurs monthly in the Bay Area; and Soulovely, a monthly party in Oakland for the queer and trans-BIPOC communities. 

As Erica Rose of the Lesbian Bar Project says, “It’s so important to have a space where we are prioritized, we are catered to, where our existence isn’t questioned, criminalized, or persecuted, but rather celebrated.” Visit these bars, drink their margaritas with volcano salt (Jolene’s), eat their carrot cake (Friends and Family), and participate in the survival of amazing, diverse communities. By supporting local lesbian and queer bars, we help to sustain vital spaces that celebrate and uphold the rich history and vibrant future of the LGBTQ+ community — in San Francisco and beyond.

Inspired to get out and experience some LGBTQ+ friendly spaces?

On June 18, Friends and Family is hosting a queer speed-dating event from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Use code FNFQUEERDATE to receive 50% off, up to $15 off, one ride, for the first 100 users to redeem. Code valid on 6/18/2024 until 11:59 p.m. PT. Valid only to and from Friends and Family.

On June 30, Jolene’s is hosting a Pride Party from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Use code JOLENEPRIDE24 to receive 50% off, up to $10 off, one ride, for the first 500 users to redeem. Code valid on 6/30/2024 6:00 p.m. until 7/1/24 03:00 a.m. PT. Valid only to and from Jolene’s Bar.