Three Chicago lesbian-owned bars have opened in the past few years, creating more spaces where queer women can feel comfortable and build community with each other.
Andersonville's Nobody's Darling, Dorothy in Ukranian Village, and Rogers Park's Whiskey Girl Tavern join a long history of queer-owned community spaces in the city.
These three bars carry on the tradition of spaces safe for lesbians in Chicago and its suburbs, from Tiny and Ruby's Gay Spot in the '50s, to the long-running Lost & Found and the much-lauded Paris Dance. Other bars included Ladybug, Swan Club, Augie & CK's, The Patch in Calumet City, Star Gaze, Temptations, Razzmatazz, and many moreincluding floating parties such as Executive Sweet.
Today we also still have woman-owned Big Chicks and The Closet, a lesbian-owned bar operating in Lakeview since the '70s, and many floating parties, including Slo 'Mo.
Queer women are specifically centered at Nobody's Darling and Dorothy, while Whiskey Girl Tavern is more of a neighborhood bar. However, each of the business partners (and in some cases partners in life) who own these bars designed them to be places they themselves would feel comfortable in.
Whiskey Girl Tavern isn't geared toward any community in particular, but co-owners Christina and Heather Roberts created a space where they could enjoy time with friends and gather around women's sports.
"We wanted a bar that we could see ourselves going to," Roberts said. "We love to watch football on Sundays, and women's basketball with a nice cocktail and some dinner, so we geared it to what we would like. We want it to be for anyone who likes craft cocktails, sports and community."
Zoe Schor, who first opened Dorothy in February 2020, also started her business with the intention of designing a space she'd enjoy and that was reminiscent of the lesbian spaces she grew up in. Dorothy closed within four weeks due to the pandemic, but reopened last summer with the help of Schor's co-owner and life partner Whitney LaMora.
Schor said she "was really moved by" T's, a bar in Andersonville that closed in 2013, where Schor and her friends could relax with cheap beers, a game of pool and a jukebox.
"I was really bummed when T's closed, and I just got the feeling that it was time to open a lesbian bar," Schor said. "I've always been very interested in spaces that were specifically for queer women."
Schor also felt an urgency to "invest" in creating spaces for the queer community, after learning that lesbian bars across the country were disappearing. In 1980, there were 200 lesbian bars throughout the country but now there are only 27, according to the Lesbian Bar Project.
"There's not always access to capital and funding for people who are marginalized," Schor said. "To have this opportunity, where there were investors who were excited to invest in a lesbian bar, landlords who were excited to have this bar in their basement and so on, it just felt like something we really owed to our community."
Business partners Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle shared Schor's concern about the loss of women-centered spaces. Riddle had spent years organizing monthly pop-up parties for women throughout the city that Barnes said were popular and well-received.
"I certainly enjoyed going to them and I think a lot of women were feeling like it would be nice if we could have a more consistent space to go to," Barnes said. "We decided we would give it a go and see if this was something that the community would want and would receive well, and it's been great."
Nobody's Darling opened in May 2021 and will soon expand into the space next door.
Just before opening Dorothy, Schor said she "got cold feet" because she was worried the bar wouldn't be sustainable and that it could be dangerous.
She recalled "We didn't live in a queer neighborhood and I was worried about if we'd have enough business. I worried, 'Is it too esoteric?' I worried, 'Would there be violence?' after we had all seen the shooting that happened in a queer club in Colorado, which was so horrifying."
Like Nobody's Darling, Dorothy has experienced plenty of success, Schor said, adding, "Our community is incredibleboth the people who come out to the bar and the people who work in the bar. It's been a really special thing to be a part of."
Nobody's Darling, Dorothy and Whiskey Girl Tavern each have their own unique atmospheres and bring people together through curated community events.
Whiskey Girl Tavern is a classic sports bar, Roberts said. Visitors can expect craft cocktails, delicious chicken tenders and plenty of TVs showing sports games. The bar sponsors numerous local sports teams, including the semi-professional local soccer team Edgewater Castle, and invites neighborhood leagues to use its pool tables.
"Christina and I were both very active in sportsthat's how we met," Roberts said. "So it's a big part of who we are and the events that we have here."
The bar hosts a variety of other events, like trivia, karaoke and live performances, and rents its space out for parties, Roberts said.
"Depending on who's here, they sort of make it what they want it to be," Roberts said. "We're just trying to meet the needs of the community and be a space that anybody can come to and feel comfortable."
Nobody's Darling has blossomed into a "laid back intergenerational space" where all kinds of people come together to converse over a cocktail or glass of wine, Barnes said. Later on in the night, the lights dim and they bring out a single disco ball, so people can dance.
"You're always going to get a great cocktail from eclectic mixologists who will entertain you," Barnes said. "There's always some regulars here who will give you a recommendation."
To enter Dorothy, visitors pass through a secretive red door, traverse a steep staircase and emerge in a dimly lit speakeasy with velvet couches, a photo booth and an "unexpected little community," Schor said.
"We didn't set out necessarily to emulate the speakeasy vibe, and we certainly didn't set out to put gays back in the basement and make them hide away," Schor said. "But, it was more about creating a special and unexpected experience."
Dorothy offers a variety of craft cocktails, "good tunes," and "a place where you can talk with your friend without feeling totally overwhelmed," Schor said.
Each of these bars' atmospheres shift depending on which events are going on. At Whiskey Girl Tavern, for example, women's sports watch parties draw large crowds of people, Roberts said.
"People who hadn't watched women's sports before were saying they really wanted to do it again," Roberts said. "People don't want to just sit at home."
Dorothy is home to Fruit Salad, a queer open mic, and plenty of viewing parties for lesbian cult-classic television shows and movies. When in her early twenties, Schor would gather all her friends to watch The L Word together because it was "unheard of" to have a show centered on the lesbian community.
"You could hear a pin drop," she said. "There'd be like 40 lesbians in somebody's living room and you weren't allowed to talk. The show always had a really strong sense of community for me."
Schor relishes that customers gathered to watch the recent L Word: Generation Q follow-up in her bar. "It's an extraordinary, full-circle experience," she said.
The three bars each feature women and queer-owned alcohol companies and other brands in order to amplify their audiences. Nobody's Darling invites food vendors into the space, like Taylor's Tacos, which is run by two Black queer women.
"Taylor's Tacos really resonated with us, and the partnership was hugely popular," Barnes said. "We thought it would be cool to give people the opportunity to come in and introduce their products to our clientele, but it also takes the burden off us when it comes to making food."
Right above Dorothy is Schor's restaurant Split-Rail and LaMora's gallery The Martin.
"Something we find challenging is that people really want to support our businesses during June, which is nice, but I like to remind people to think about where you're spending your money all year round," Schor said. "We're queer all year. There really are so many places where you can come and be a part of something, whether you want dinner, a cocktail or an art gallery."
Whiskey Girl Tavern is home to the yearly Whiskey, Wine & Women Festival, which is a tasting event where attendees can sample a variety of drinks created by women-owned companies.
"It's really important to do these kinds of things and to acknowledge that promoting the people out there making these products is part of the business as well," Roberts said. "We want to get them out into the market because it's hard to compete against all the big companies with lots of marketing."
The creation of these spaces has provided more opportunities for women to come together, share their interests and just relax with a drink. But, each of these spaces are welcoming to any customer interested in what they have to offer.
"It's really important to us that you don't feel like you have to be a certain kind of way to come into Dorothy and spend time in our space," Schor said. "We're a lesbian bar in that we're prioritizing women, trans and non-binary people and trans men, but it's also for everyone."
As a queer woman, Barnes said she's been in spaces where she didn't necessarily feel welcome, so it's important to her to create a space where women are "recognized and acknowledged."
"It's hard to explain, but on some level, it's just about feeling like you're safe, that you're not going to be harassed, that if you don't want to engage in a certain way, you don't have to," Barnes said. "There's just something about being able to exhale and actually just have a cocktail and have a conversation."