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Last call at WeHo's last lesbian bar

The closing of the Palms has heightened efforts by West Hollywood's lesbians to bring more services for them into a city known as a gay mecca but more populated by men.

June 04, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times

On Sunday night at West Hollywood's last lesbian bar, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" blared over the speakers.

Dozens of women stood outside the Palms on Santa Monica Boulevard, hugging old friends and escaping from the heat inside the crowded bar. They congratulated one couple on their recent engagement then cheered as an older woman pulled up on a loud motorcycle.

It was a wake for the Palms and for a way of life in West Hollywood.

Gay men have always well outnumbered lesbians in West Hollywood, but until recently, the city managed to maintain a small but vibrant lesbian social scene. When Ellen DeGeneres' character came out of the closet on her 1990s sitcom, the character's friends took her to the famed Little Frida's coffeehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard. It shut down not long after that. More recently, Showtime's lesbian drama, "The L Word," was set in and around the city.

When the Palms closes its doors later this week, the city will lose its last dedicated lesbian gathering space. Its demise has heightened efforts by West Hollywood's lesbians to bring more services and businesses into the city — and get back some of the spark from the past.

"These were the heady days of Ellen and Melissa [Etheridge] coming out, lipstick lesbians on the cover of fashion magazines and a little show called 'Will & Grace,' " resident Heidi Shink said of the 1990s, when she met her wife at Little Frida's. "There was a great sense of community then; lesbians were unified, organized and visible for the first time in history."

West Hollywood has long been a gay mecca, but lesbians have always been a small minority in the city. About 40% of its 35,000 residents identify themselves as gay men, but only 3% as lesbians, according to a city survey released in May.

The demographic divide goes beyond West Hollywood. Experts say gay men tend to cluster in upscale urban neighborhoods, while lesbians tend to settle in less flashy, more family-friendly communities.

Celia Alger, who used to work the door at the Palms, decided to leave West Hollywood and now lives with her wife and young son in the Mid-City area.

"West Hollywood is small, expensive and very, very gay," she said. "While it is pretty safe, it is very expensive to live there and, honestly, not the best fit for my family. They are not the most family friendly — it's still Boystown after all."

Lesbian activists in the city don't want to change that. But they want the city to help keep the community going.

In response, city officials plan to open what they call a "lesbian social space" in a Robertson Boulevard building to help foster the community. The city's Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board has also been talking about ways to attract more lesbians to the city as well as bring in more lesbian-owned businesses.

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West Hollywood became a major gay destination in the early 1960s when the Los Angeles Police Department began leading aggressive raids against gay gathering places. In 1970, members of the Los Angeles Police Commission attempted to prevent the first L.A. Pride Parade, citing the potential for violent reaction from bystanders.

Gays found a refuge in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area patrolled with a more tolerant eye by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

By the time the city incorporated in 1984, the lesbian community was small but strong. The city's first mayor, Valerie Terrigno, was a lesbian. And, over the years, there was a small cadre of businesses that catered to lesbians.

Comedian Vicki Wagner has watched the decline in the lesbian social scene firsthand.

When she first came to California from Chicago, she moved to San Clemente, where she had a hard time finding a lesbian bar. She was doing some work in the Los Angeles area and heard about the Palms.

The first time she stopped in for a drink, she met two women who were friends, and they struck up a conversation. When Wagner drove up to the bar, they'd meet and hang out. They're friends to this day.

Wagner moved to West Hollywood 13 years ago and loves the city. But when she walks through the city, she laments the lack of a vibrant lesbian community. And the closure of the Palms will only make things worse, she says.

"The whole point of being a gay person and going to a gay bar is to feel comfortable in your own environment," she said. "Unfortunately, there's not really any space where lesbians can go that's their own."

The city's lesbians now have what she calls "rotating nights" — specific nights at gay male bars dedicated to lesbians. The problem with some of these nights, though, is that "all the straight people want to come in and gawk at all the lesbians." It can be uncomfortable, she said. "The problem I have is all the gawking at the gay people like we're in a zoo."

Wagner was on hand Sunday night at the Palms. At one point a tour bus passed and one man held up his iPad to take a photo of the crowd.

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