Why you should care
In San Francisco, this should’ve been a nonstory. Throw in a bit of hate and a bar fight, and that changes just about everything.
If I started out a story with “three Asian and two Black women walk into a bar …” you might be right in feeling like you needed to prepare yourself for a punchline.
It’s a joke, right? Yeah, except in this case it’s not. Let me give you some background, a scene-setter: It was the ’90s, the five of us were six-days-a-week lesbian clubgoers. We wanted to dance, be with our peeps, be free and safe and to feel unity with our own kind. Lesbian bars at this time were few and far between, sort of like today, because apparently, lesbians like to stay home with their cats and watch movies or something.
But not us.
One Saturday night, we decided to try something new and visit a bar we didn’t normally go to. We were a diverse bunch. The Asian women: Cairn was a gifted artist, interested in Andy Warhol, and a DJ hobbyist. Cathy owned a successful salon. The Black women: Luciana was half-Italian and fluent in the language, a go-getter, even-keeled and calm. Then there was Brenda.
Brenda was a gentle giant: a big, bold, tall Black woman — picture a bouncer — and she was special. She called me Lil’ Bit and she was my Big Bit. We were sisters. She once literally carried me over her shoulder from a bar after I had had too much to drink, dropping me in the limo bus we had rented until I calmed down or passed out, whichever came first.
Two women dancing very close to us shoulder-shoved Luciana so hard that she stumbled. Luciana then ran straight at the women.
She was my protector, my big sister. That night we walked into the bar, I had nothing to fear. Music was blasting, dark blue lights were on and women were scattered around the room. We looked around and instantly noticed we were the only people of color there. We felt a bit like the odd women out.
We walked over to the bar and settled in between two sets of women. As we ordered our drinks, one of the women to our left said to her friends, “I wonder if they have their papers [to stay in the country]?” as she looked over at us. We were aghast, our mouths agape.
“Wait, what did she just say?”
We were a group who could hold their own. Seriously, we were pretty tough cats. I mean, we had BRENDA! Who cares if she was actually as gentle as a kitten on a pillow? So we ignored the comment. We let it slide; it wasn’t worth pushing back.
Suddenly our jam was on and we had to hit the dance floor. When your jam is on, nothing else matters. But here’s the thing, everyone else had the same jam.
While the five of us were dancing with one another in a circle, two women dancing very close to us shoulder-shoved Luciana so hard that she stumbled. Luciana then ran straight for the women, put both of her hands on one of the women’s collar and pushed her onto a table until she fell backward, with Luciana on top of her.
It happened so fast the rest of us just stood there, stunned. But not for long.
It was a win-win and I was a dyke on a bike, loud, proud and carefree. Until that night.
There was a huge commotion of bodies, and I looked over to my right to see that gentle giant Brenda had lifted a steel bar stool over her head and was about to drop it on a woman who was after Luciana. I knew this would not be good. I ran in what felt like slow motion, and jumped on Brenda’s back and screamed, “No!”
Disaster averted. Security waded in to break it up, and amid the screaming and pulling, the police were called. Then, just as suddenly, the five of us were led outdoors. And … no one else.
Just the five women of color.
We were asked to leave the premises or they were going to press charges. We couldn’t believe it. How was this happening?
These were our people and this was happening in our town, San Francisco. It was the first time I’d ever experienced anything like this. I lived in San Francisco, and I had prided myself on thinking we were the most diverse city in the world.
San Francisco was considered the Gay City at the time, with the biggest Pride parade in the country. San Francisco had diversity and gay, all in one city. It was a win-win, and I was a dyke on a bike — loud, proud and carefree. Until that night.
You see, though I shared being gay with other lesbians, that didn’t mean camaraderie or even unity. I was naive. Racism was omnipresent and ubiquitous, even in San Francisco. In fact, it was in full force, and this was a reality check that slapped me across the face.
Sitting on the curb, with a couple of cops standing nearby, we waited for the police to read the bar owners the riot act so we could get back in, drink our drinks and dance to whichever of our jams came our way. The cops came out after having heard another version of whatever story was told and suggested that we move along. Translation: We weren’t getting back in.
To call us shocked would be an understatement. The bar itself has since closed, but the current state of affairs, filled with ugliness, bigotry and more division, has brought up a question that some of us asked that night: “Are we moving backward, or is this hate new?”
I don’t know, but what I do know? Us five lesbians walk — wiser and prepared — into different bars now. And that’s just fine.