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Not Your Mother's Lesbians


Melisse Gelula, 33, magazine editor, with Tiffany Wolf, 33, drummer.  

Boy bars will occasionally pick up the slack, offering a weekly girls’ party on an off-night. It is almost always a Sunday night. These days, the scene is at Starlight Bar & Lounge, on Avenue A, where things don’t get going until well after midnight, a challenge for any professional over 30.

“We always get the funky off-nights. I guess women aren’t very committal when it comes to going out,” surmises Christine, 32, the general manager of KSA Publicity, who now forgoes late-night outings to be with her partner, Karen, and their 9-month-old son, Ziggy. “They’re not going to generate the kind of revenue a place would need on a Friday or Saturday night as it would if they rented it out to a gay-male party or a straight party.”

Many lesbians over 30 see only twentysomethings in the bars. “Meow Mix has that I’m-not-set-in-my-career-yet feeling,” observes Denise, 38, who works in finance. “I think the same holds true with the West Village bars. It’s all 21-year-olds. You don’t go to bars and see people in their thirties. They domesticate, pair off, hibernate, whatever.”

Christine, who lives in lower Manhattan, theorizes that there are three stages of lesbian bar life. “You go to Meow Mix in your twenties. Then you graduate to Henrietta Hudson, and then you eventually graduate to Rubyfruit (which caters to a middle-aged clientele), from young age to middle-ish age to your retirement age, presuming you don’t hook up with a long-term relationship. Some people don’t ever want to couple up. It’s not their thing.”

Some theorize that the dearth of sapphic nightlife is gender-based; that women just don’t go out as much as men. “If you look in straight bars, there are always more men,” observes Karen, 40, an independent film producer. “They have more money, and they go out more than women, that’s all there is to it. So, when you have gay men and gay women, it’s magnified. Of course there are women who carouse and men who nest, but they’re the exceptions.”

Melisse thinks the bars are also to blame for women’s waning interest. “The lesbian bars in this city that have closed—and even the ones that are still open—were not giving lesbians what they wanted, and they were not any longer representing who lesbians are in 2003 and 2004. The really frustrating thing is that the stereotypes really convey a limiting image of who we are supposed to be. I feel really circumscribed sometimes. Those bars have a way of recapitulating those standards. We want to see women who look like us.”

Melisse, who lives in Park Slope with her girlfriend, Tiffany Wolf, a drummer for the rock band Triple Creme, says, “Maybe that’s why we retreat to our homes, to make a world that we wish existed outside. I’m not self-hating. I go to dyke things all the time. It’s just that my idea of what that means is not even offered. It seems like the fags have a better idea of what I want, or the Ian Schragers of the world have a better idea of what I want.” She cites as an example a neighborhood restaurant/bar, Long Tan, which has qualities she’d love to see adopted by a lesbian venue: affordable drinks served in glassware; hip décor; sexy, friendly wait and bar staff; and, above all, ambience.

There are also a handful of circuit parties, like Shescape, which has become an institution if only for the fact that it’s been going on for twenty years and draws hundreds of professional-women couples and singles, both from the outer boroughs and outlying suburbs. Invitation-only parties like the Brooklyn-based “Muffler” bring together a more hipster sapphic element, 200 women at a time, ranging in age from twentyish to fortyish. And the more upwardly mobile may find themselves running into one another at benefits like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center women’s events. “A lot of my social life and that of my friends’ is centered around these series of benefits,” explains Jennifer Hatch, 42, the managing partner of Christopher Street Financial, an investment-management firm that works with the lesbian and gay community. “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.”

How far will The L Word go in changing the uneasy out-but-invisible experience of gay women? At a minimum, it will begin to fill a huge void, and not only by serving up platters stacked with brainy lesbotic eye candy. We will actually get to behold scene after scene of soft porn written and directed by lesbians—an especially momentous occasion because we’re renowned for our mood-killing, self-conscious erotica.

But it will also begin to redress a grievance: that lesbians have long been perceived as interchangeable with hard-core feminists of the humorless persuasion. “Whereas with gay men, it’s perfectly fine to have a gay hairdresser and watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which are all very pat and cute and funny, gay women are considered serious, boring, political,” says Denise. “Rosie O’Donnell drills that stereotype of the dumpy lesbian home every time you see her in the New York Post. She’s either saying something obnoxious or she’s got some god-awful outfit on. I saw a picture of her in the tabloids at the U.S. Open wearing khaki pants that were way too short, with tube socks and clogs. I wouldn’t even wear that to take the garbage out.”

These images may seem limited to the aesthetic realm and therefore easily rectified, but Candace believes it goes deeper than how we present ourselves to the world. “Generally, society is more comfortable with the idea of women having sex with each other than men. It’s a strip-club and porn kind of thing. But when it exceeds the realm of fantasy, I think there’s a huge discomfort with it because it is seen as a rejection of the heterosexual norm, or men. Gay men are not perceived to be rejecting anything.”

As much as The L Word focuses on romantic relationships, the show devotes its attention equally to the intricacies—and intimacy—of friendship, which is where so much of the lesbodrama enters the picture. On the show, as in life, friends double as competitors in the limited dating arena. Unless a statute of limitations is set and made readily available, we are constantly running the risk of tromping on our pals’ territory. And of course, what turns up the heat on a friendship quite like romantic and sexual tension?

And The L Word plays this out with a cast of women who don’t remotely suggest the sapphic stereotypes to which American audiences have grown accustomed. Bette’s soft, curly hair caresses the shoulders of her exquisitely tailored power suits; Shane’s chiseled features are framed with a glam-rock shag and clothes that look as easy to tear off as Paris Hilton’s; Marina could seduce anyone, anywhere, anytime. There are no mullets for miles.

Is the new lesbian image, as put forth by The L Word, too metrosexualized? Inevitably, there will be those who argue that it is, and just as many who will argue that it’s been a long time coming. We’re argumentative—it’s part of our lesbodramatic legacy. But after years of living down our dumpy reputation, perhaps it behooves us to put our best, most madeup faces forward, for a change. I mean, how many “anomalous” dykes does it take to prove to straights and gay boys that not all lesbians wear bolo ties and Birkenstocks? After The L Word, the answer will, one hopes, be zero.


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