PROVINCETOWN — Lesbian bars were the places where women went wild — they partied, hooked up, got in fights and more — especially in the early 1980s. Sue Harrison remembers one Halloween contest at the Pied Bar, when she and her friends made a branding iron out of a coat hanger and heated it up on the deck’s grill.
“A couple of us were on the deck and several more of us were inside dancing,” she says. “Our target was a sexy blond named Trashette — a legend in those days — dressed in black leather pants that I had made in my leather shop Half Moon Bay. We had it set up with the DJ to play ‘My Sharona’ by The Knack. When that started, two of us went over and broke in on the blond and her partner. We shoved the partner away and told her she should back off. We got Trashette by the arms and started dragging her out to the deck. She was yelling and fighting and we were telling her she had to be punished because she had been a bad girl.
“On the deck we bent her over the back of a chair and spanked her pretty good with a couple of adorable little apartment sized whips. She continued to yell, and we said [that] we didn’t think she was quite sorry enough, but we had something to finish the job. Then our gal pulls the branding iron off the grill, it is glowing. There was a collective gasp from the crowd. And before anyone could move we stuck the branding iron on her butt. There was a lot of smoke and screaming and then right before people grabbed us — because now they had decided it was time to intervene — we all stopped, stood in a line and took a bow. Then we walked out of the bar. I think we won a prize that night. No blonds were harmed in the making of this prank. The pants had a quadruple layer of leather fitted over her buttock.”
There are no more stories like that in town, where lesbian bars no longer exist, though there’s no shortage of lesbians.
“Lesbians don’t engage on that kind of level anymore,” Lynette Molnar, producer of Girl Power Productions, says. “They don’t go out and dance like they used to. In San Francisco in the 1940s there were 40 lesbian bars and now there are none. At that time lesbians couldn’t be anywhere except in the bars.”
Ann Maguire, who opened her Provincetown lesbian bar in 1975 in the basement of what is now Cuffy’s, says that Sisters allowed women to express themselves freely.
“Now there are so many places gay women can go out and feel safe,” Maguire says. “Couples can walk down the street holding hands. They are doing stuff they couldn’t do back then.”
And yet, she says, there are still parts of this country where lesbian bars exist, and need to. Places where women can’t hold hands and walk down the street. But that isn’t Provincetown.
Sue Harrison thinks back to the heyday of the lesbian bar scene here during the 1980s and into the ’90s. Among them were the Vixen, a popular women’s nightclub that closed around 2010; Chaser’s, which is now the Underground bar, a mixed bar run by lesbians; the Pied Bar, which still exists but is open less and usually a mixed crowd; and the Crown & Anchor, which had bars dedicated to lesbians.
“The Crown & Anchor used to have a downstairs cellar bar that was primarily women and an upstairs area near the cabaret room that was also primarily for women,” Harrison says. “At one point I remember they put up a wall — one side was straight and the other was for gays, which was really weird and didn’t last long.”
Harrison said this all changed following the infamous February 1998 Whaler’s Wharf fire, which damaged parts of the Crown & Anchor, requiring it to be rebuilt.
“There are certainly fewer women bars than there used to be,” Harrison says. “I think the lack of lesbian bars in town is due to a combination of things. There’s always been more bars for men rather than women. In general men make more money than women. In terms of making a living, gay male bars have more money to throw around. But I think now it seems to be dividing up again and becoming more mixed.”
Cheryl Andrews, the selectmen chair, says that it used to be a big event when the Pied Bar opened for the season.
“The opening night of Pied, everybody got dressed up and there was food and it was the place to be to start the season,” she says, adding that in her younger years she’d be out every night, acting like a hooligan. “Short version is that the town provides what people want. … The female crowd that is here now tends to be older. We don’t do what we once did anymore. I can’t stay up that late. … But, don’t get me wrong — I miss it.”
Molnar remembers hanging out, too.
“I’ve been going out since I was old enough to get into bars,” she says. “There used to be, every single night at the Pied [Bar], around 400 to 600 women. It couldn’t be any more different than it is now.”
Alix Ritchie, founder of the Provincetown Banner, thinks the loss of lesbian bars can be attributed to a couple of things.
“One factor is: it’s all about money and whether somebody can make enough money in a lesbian bar that’s strictly for lesbians. That’s maybe a little tough,” she says. “And I also think it’s a cultural thing. Everybody is into gender-queer. There’s this really interesting question about whether if you bond together with people like you then are you excluding other people? Are you being exclusionary or not? If you are inclusionary, does that mean you start to lose what’s core about your identity? It’s a tough question that a lot of people circle around.”
Molnar also thinks the way money and time is now spent contributed to the death of lesbian bars: people hook up using dating apps on their phones.
And yet there are still a handful of gay bars for men in town, such as the Atlantic House, the Boatslip Resort, the Vault at the Crown & Anchor and Purgatory at the Gifford House.
“Men, even if paired, often are more open to additional sexual partners as long as it is strictly physical,” Harrison says. “That means they are more likely to be hanging out in bars even if in a relationship.”
Though the women’s bar scene is gone, Women’s Week is still a hit. A dancing-room only crowd packed WayDownTown on Monday night for a Women’s Week opening night party.
“The good news for me is that Women’s Week is in its 33rd year,” says Molnar, the president and founder of Provincetown for Women, who helps to organize Women’s Week events. “Women still want to come here and — especially for people coming for the first time — they find it magical and unlike any other place they’ve been. I’m proud of the fact that things are changing. People thrive when they are here and are thrilled to be here.”