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Not Your Mother's Lesbians

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Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier of The L Word.  

It is “lesbodrama,” a word that describes all those internal, and seemingly eternal, fraught personal politics that play out between women in bars, cafés, parties, gyms, online, on the phone, anywhere we meet one another, or avoid each other, as the case may be. Lesbodrama is made all the more intense by the exceedingly small gene pool. There may be just as many gay bars and clubs as there are Gap stores in New York, but you can practically count all the lesbian establishments on one hand, with the effect that everybody is somebody’s ex-girlfriend, former tryst, or conquest. In this closed-circuit scene, ties are neither wholly severed nor mended. We must tread carefully. One sloppy move—falling into bed with your best friend, inadvertently outing a colleague, making out in a bar with the bartender’s ex—and suddenly life gets incredibly complicated and claustrophobic.

The women of The L Word are L.A. all the way, styled within an inch of their lives, cynicism-deficient, with houses and swimming pools and professions that, if they aren’t fabulous, put them in direct proximity to fabulousness. L.A. is, after all, a one-industry town. “I felt that in L.A. there was something particularly interesting and unusual going on (in the lesbian scene) and it would be a revelation to the rest of the world,” says Chaiken.

New York lesbians will undoubtedly watch with a mixture of bemusement and awe, as we behold the crew leisurely whiling away their mornings at the Planet—a lesbian-owned café as tidy as Central Perk on Friends—and working the party circuit at night cruising for love and trouble.

At the heart of The L Word group are Bette Porter (Beals), a wheeler-dealer museum director, and her partner, Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman), a film executive who has recently left her development job to dedicate herself to the pursuit of pregnancy, and to rescuing their seven-year relationship from stagnation. Bette and Tina, whose collective seven-year itch fuels one of two main story lines this season, are idealized as the perfect couple by their younger single gal pals looking to hook up—or get hooked up—throughout the sprawling metropolis.

“If you hold events just for women, they will come out for them; they’ll make the effort. We want to be around each other, women like ourselves.”
—Jennifer Hatch, 42, managing partner, Christopher Street Financial.

Their crowd includes Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), a flaky bisexual journalist as eager to make herself known as an equal-opportunity lover as she is to brainstorm ten-best lists for Los Angeles magazine; Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels), a professional tennis player trapped between her romantic loneliness and the desperate need to keep her sexuality a secret from her sponsors; Shane McCutcheon (Katherine Moennig), a sexy, cocksure female-Casanova hairstylist wanted all over L.A. in every sense of the word; and the sultry, erudite Marina (Karina Lombard), who, with her Pan-European accent, is a dead ringer for Charlotte Rampling, and who owns the Planet, the West Hollywood café where all of them congregate for daily postmortems, affirmations, and occasional snarky showdowns.

There’s also a new girl in town, and she’s looking good to everyone, especially Marina. Freshly graduated from college, Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) has moved next door to Bette and Tina to join her hunky former Olympian turned swimming-coach boyfriend, Tim Haspel (Eric Mabius). When the planetary proprietor makes a move on her at a party, the young waif finds herself in an unforeseen, and utterly confusing, predicament—The L Word’s other major narrative thread, one focused not so much on an imminent sexual-identity crisis as on the emotional chasm that has begun to develop between a couple outgrowing one another.

If New York lesbodrama is played out against a less glam—and more diffuse—backdrop, it’s partly because New York is the workaholic capital of the world, which often makes it far easier to befriend colleagues than strangers in bars. Many lesbians find that they have as many if not more heterosexual friends than they have gay pals in their lives, like Burns, who has lived both in L.A. and New York. “Here I hang out with a lot of straight people. In L.A., homos stay away from straight people. Maybe there you have to work with them in the industry, but it’s a much more insular life. New York just brings together a lot of like-minded people.”

“Who you sleep with,” quips Deborah Kass, “does not a community make.” Kass, a 51-year-old artist who lives in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill with her partner of eleven years, fellow artist Patricia Cronin, 40, says that they hang out with so few lesbians, “I can count them. I’m involved in such a tiny little world—the art world—and though we tend to hang out with a very gay and gay-involved crowd, we have often been the only lesbians in the room.” While these women feel at ease in mixed company, newly single Candace, a 29-year-old lawyer at a major firm, says socializing with her straight friends can become an issue when she wants to go out. “It’s hard for me to get my straight female friends to go to dyke bars.”

Talk to any New York lesbian about invisibility and you’re likely to get a critique, if not a savaging, of the sapphic bar scene. No sprawling bungalows, no glistening, idyllic pools, except maybe at summer homes in the North Fork or Cherry Grove for the more elite among us. Instead, our cultural mecca is host to a total of six dingy dyke bars. There are the no-frills venues, decked out with little more than a pop-filled jukebox and a full bar like the recently made-over Henrietta Hudson and neighborhood hangouts the Cubbyhole in the West Village and Ginger’s in Park Slope. Rarely is there a dull moment at Meow Mix on the Lower East Side, where revelers guzzle from plastic cups as their worlds are rocked by post-punk bands and go-go girls and bois. If ever we yearn for Bacharach or Sondheim, we might head to the piano bar at Rubyfruit Bar & Grill downtown, or go uptown to Julie’s on East 53rd Street, where the heavily bridge-and-tunnel crowd also enjoys a newly installed dance floor. Needless to say, some of these bars could stand to be upgraded.


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