wild nights wild nights

Lea DeLaria Walks Into a Dyke Bar

Photo: Courtesy of The Lesbian Bar Project

Legend has it, if you go to the New York lesbian bar Cubbyhole on any given night, Lea DeLaria could be bellied up and ordering a drink. The performer, 63, known most recently for playing the braggadocious butch Boo on Orange Is the New Black, loves lesbian bars like Cubbyhole so much because she says she’s just about “the only open dyke out there who’s a part of their brand.”

“I can talk about dyke bars all day,” DeLaria says. “I’ve been the ambassador for a very long time.”

In a more official capacity, DeLaria is part of the Lesbian Bar Project, a Jagermeister-sponsored campaign and documentary short spotlighting the few remaining lesbian bars in the United States. In the doc, DeLaria takes a shot of (what else?) Jager with Cubbyhole’s owner, Lisa Menichino, and kicks off a conversation around why queer-women-centric spaces are dying at a time when the LGBTQ community is growing significantly — a recent Gallop poll shows 5.6 percent of Americans identify as LGBT.

New York bars like the Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson’s, and Gingers are anomalies in 2021, as most major cities find themselves devoid of women-centric spaces, and with only 21 lesbian bars left in the U.S., the Lesbian Bar Project aims to support and bolster the last ones standing with DeLaria as its celesbian connoisseur. Since it’s one of her favorite topics, DeLaria shared with the Cut some of her favorite lesbian bar memories.

When was the best era for dyke bars?

Around the late ’80s and early ’90s is when dykes started coming into their own and having our own crazy, rad spaces. I can automatically say the Clit Club in New York City — that was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.

We started having sex parties. We started having crazy wild dance parties. You would go to the dyke bar, and you’d dance, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, you had places like the Dinah Shore. There were preppy dykes out there, and there were sporty dykes out there, and there were working-class dykes out there, and there were dykes who didn’t even want to be called dykes. Dykes who want to dance, dykes who are into BDSM — all this kind of stuff. Before that, most of the places were just set up for standing around and drinking, and if anyone was speaking, they toed this perfectly politically correct line. And I, again, was one of the leaders of our community that said, “You don’t have to toe that politically correct line.”

So that time was the wildest time to be a lesbian. Unfortunately, it was tainted by lesbian chic.

What was lesbian chic, and how did it change things?

Lesbian chic, let’s be clear, really had nothing to do with lesbians and everything to do with straight men. Lesbian chic was used by the media and the industry and especially Hollywood — very guilty of it — as a spank bank for straight men. Straight men have this lesbian fantasy thing where they think that they’re going to slide in between us. It’s like, What the fuck do you think we want with you? Your dick? Well, trust me, honey, how long can you stay hard? My dick’s hard right now, and it’s in a box under my bed, so we aren’t looking for you, pal.

I remember Starlight literally moved [locations, from Cafe Tabac to the Starlite Lounge]. Starlight was a party that happened here in New York, and so many straight men started coming to it that they [eventually] moved it to a different place, and they only took lesbians. They were fine with the rest of the [LGBTQ] alphabet, but it was primarily a lesbian dance party.

[One night at Cafe Tabac,] I was in the club, and I was dancing, and this really rich white straight guy was — I don’t even know how to say the things he called me. And I said, “Honey, you are talking to the wrong lesbian,” because I was the first openly gay comic on television in America. So I was a celebrity at whatever dyke bar I went to. And he cut in front of me to go to the bathroom, and when I pointed it out — because this is New York and I am a New Yorker, and you’re not going to cut me in line — he turned and had words with me. Security came over and starts giving me shit. I’m like, “Am I being kicked out of a dyke party?” And indeed I was.

Before anybody could find out what was happening, I was thrown out. Trust me, only to be tracked down very quickly and told, “Very sorry about that — we’ve actually fired the guy.” But the best part was when they said “Throw her out!” I said, “I have a tab at the bar.” They’re like, “Throw her out, I don’t care!” Well, I’d been ordering Dom Perignon all night, so I was like, “Throw me out!

It seems like the few celesbians from around that time — Melissa Etheridge, Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang — hung out at parties. Did you ever hang out with them or go to lesbian bars with them?

I went to those parties a couple of times and then I said, “I’m done.” And I’ve known Melissa a very long time — since the ’80s. They all had different paths to take, and when you’re talking about those particular celesbians, the usual suspects at that time, they were on different paths. I’ve never been in the closet, ever. Melissa had to come out; I didn’t have to come out. [k.d. lang] had to come out, and why anybody would need k.d. lang to come out is beyond me.

It wasn’t my scene. Why would I do that when I could go to — this is Los Angeles — watch some hot strippers at Peanuts, or pick up a girl at the Palm, when I don’t even have to take her back to my hotel room, you can just fuck right at the club? So why would I want to go to some exclusive “I have money and nobody knows I’m gay” party?

Are there any specific anecdotes of nightlife at the time that really stick out to you? 

I was at Ginger’s [in Brooklyn] once, and one of the reasons I like going to Ginger’s is the pool table. What I say when I go to the pool table is, “I’m an O.K. pool shot,” and I stay at the table for a pretty long time, because I’m better than O.K. There was this really hot girl there who was watching me, and she put the moves on me, and I was like, “Why not? What the fuck.” So I go back to her place, we’re in her bed, we’re enjoying stuff, and then suddenly we hear bang, bang on the door. I’m like, “What’s that?” She goes, “Nothing, ignore it.” So we continued, and we hear the bang on the door again. [Imitating another person] “I know you’re right there.” I’m like, “What’s going on?” And she goes, “Well, that’s my girlfriend. I guess I left her at the bar.”

So I’m like, “Is there any other way out of here?” Honey, I was ready to climb down the fire escape — there was no other way out. I put on my clothes before the door swings open. The girlfriend’s there, blocking the way. And the girl goes, “I looked everywhere for you. Everywhere! And then I come back and find you fucking Lea DeLaria?”

I had to stop myself from going, “Let me be clear: I’m the top. I was fucking her.”

Did you ever see them ever again?

Never. I was in Manhattan. I didn’t live in Brooklyn. I can give you a million stories about Cubbyhole. Cubbyhole is probably the only lezzy bar in the world I haven’t had sex in the bathroom of.

That’s shocking. 

Well, it’s so small. Cubbyhole is always crowded — how rude would it be? I know it happens — I’ve talked to Lisa [Menichino, the owner]. That’s why they had to put the sign “Only one at a time.” Like anybody listens to it.

So is Cubby a good date spot for you? 

I often take girls to the Cubbyhole. To me, Cubbyhole is everything I love in a bar. It’s got the community. It’s got the camaraderie. It’s a dive. You know, one of the reasons that Laura Prepon and I became really good friends [during Orange Is the New Black] is because it was a slow day on the set, and somebody said, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” And Laura Prepon and I in almost complete unison said, “daytime drinking in a dive bar.” And I took her to Cubbyhole. She was getting mobbed, even more than I was.

Once Orange hit, [the cast] would all go there. We did this thing called Orange Is the New Brunch on Sundays, a group of us would get together. And sometimes it was as many as 20, and sometimes it would just be four or five, but we always went to Cubby afterward [and got mobbed by fans]. I’m at the point where it happens to me whatever dyke bar I go into. It’s just the way it is.

Lea DeLaria Walks Into a Dyke Bar