PROVINCETOWN — Of all the places where one might expect to find a lesbian bar, Provincetown is surely near the top of the list. But residents and tourists say they instead find a “dyke bar” desert here. In fact, there has not been a lesbian bar in town since the Pied Piper closed in 2018.
Provincetown is proving to be a microcosm of the country when it comes to lesbian nightlife. The loss of lesbian bars has been a hot topic in recent years.
There is research on the phenomenon. And there are also some ideas for a renaissance.
Japonica Brown-Saracino, chair of the sociology department at Boston University, published her research on the decline of dyke bars in the American Journal of Sociology in 2019. Her work attempts to explain the lack of success these places have had and documents efforts to commemorate them after their closing.
The Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary co-produced by Lea DeLaria and released during Pride Month last year, highlights the struggles of the 21 remaining lesbian bars across the country, in places like Mobile, Ala. and Bloomington, Ind.
That is what is most surprising. “Provincetown really represents this paradox,” Brown-Saracino says. “Places where we would most expect to find a lesbian bar are the places where it’s hardest to find them.”
More Than Safe Spaces
Historically, bars provided all kinds of resources for lesbians, Brown-Saracino says. “They provided places where people could be ‘out’ in public in relative safety,” she says. And also forge friendships and romantic connections, find job opportunities, and network in various ways.
These places are important as more than just safe spaces, Brown-Saracino adds. They are “places for joy and fun and celebration.
“There’s a huge difference between feeling like ‘I’m not going to get beat up for holding my girlfriend’s hand in this bar’ versus feeling a sense of pride and connection with other people who might have identities similar to mine,” says Brown-Saracino.
Provincetown has not always been without dyke bars: the Ace of Spades, the Pied Piper, and the Pied Bar occupied 193A Commercial St. for nearly 70 years. In Building Provincetown, David W. Dunlap calls the space a “landmark of women’s history” and a “social center of lesbian life.”
Brown-Saracino says financial inequality is one reason lesbian bars have short lives. “They’ve always struggled economically,” she says. “A big piece of that story is that lesbian, bisexual, and queer women, and trans individuals, have historically earned less money than their gay male counterparts and certainly had less disposable income.”
Comedian Kristen Becker thinks this holds true locally. She says that, in the past, Provincetown “was a place that was accessible to most people.” The lack of lesbian bars is a reflection of a change in who can afford to be here, she adds: “It’s rich white guys.”
Parties and Places
Becker revealed her feelings about the lack of happenings for women, and especially nonheterosexual women, in a joke during a set in 2020. Shortly afterward, the owners of the Provincetown Brewing Company approached her, suggesting that they make “Dyke Dock” a reality together.
Two summers later, Becker and her co-organizers, Katie Fitzgerald and Anne Attella, put on a series of parties — with names like “Dissent” and “Squirt” — for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. Dyke Dock has served as an opportunity for socializing, networking, fundraising, and “maybe a little bit of making out,” Becker says.
She calls the parties “joyously irreverent,” and says they’re a place for queer women from many places to gather. Even lesbians from Boston will meet each other here, she says, “because there’s no real space there. They’re going to go home with a sense of community they didn’t have before the event.” Becker hopes it’s creating chances for women to feel “loose, in the same ways that gay men get to here.”
Having a physical space to do that is important, Becker says. “It’s not just ‘We’re going to let you sit on our patio for a few hours and drink our beer,’ ” she says. “It’s ‘We want to help you create a space for women during this time.’ And those are two very different things.”
The Provincetown Brewing Company, though owned by men, is doing that, Becker says.
Becker wonders about the potential for women-owned businesses to create women-centered events. “There are a couple of women who own bars in town,” Becker said. “I’m trying to elbow my way in to create space.” She keeps asking, she says, “Where are these people who actually have the space?”
Cass Benson of Provincetown has owned the Harbor Lounge for 13 years. She’s not convinced lesbian-only places would be well supported in town. Her beachfront establishment is open to all. “We encourage everyone to come — that’s our business model,” Benson says. “It’s a short season; we gotta get ’em all in.”
Benson says she did not consider making the Harbor Lounge a lesbian space. “Why would I?” she says. “Just because I’m a lesbian? No, I want to run a bar that’s for everybody.”
She believes that the lounge being lesbian-owned is not important to its customers. What matters more to her patrons, she says, is the fact that Benson and her wife are community members. “I think it’s more important that we’ve been here for 30 years, have two kids in the school system, and people know who we are,” Benson says.
As for the closure of lesbian bars in Provincetown, Benson says, “If you don’t support something, it’s going to close.”
Brown-Saracino says that, since lesbians tend to “fly below the radar,” people may underestimate the potential of the lesbian market. “There still are a lot of LBQT individuals in Provincetown,” she says. “I think sometimes we are overly cynical about our ability to sustain institutions.”
“I wonder if the kind of bars we need today aren’t just bars,” Brown-Saracino says. “If you have a space that is a coffee shop until noon that welcomes LBQT individuals and their kids, even.” Such a place might host nonprofit fundraisers, book signings, and, she says, “be everything for everyone to the best of its ability.”
On Aug. 17, the Provincetown Business Guild will bring back the spirit of the Pied Piper with a “Pop Up Girl Party.” Tickets are donation-based and available at ptown.org/carnival, with 80 percent of proceeds to be donated to Womencrafts, a lesbian bookshop that is raising funds to purchase the building where the shop is housed.