Guest Post for International Lesbian Day: A Boomer’s Bar Life in Pittsburgh

I first met Sue B. a few years ago on social media. She and my wife had mutual friends so we began corresponding and dining out together back when we did those thing. I begged and pleaded with her to put her recollections of queer women’s history into writing. There’s very little first person documentarian specifically of queer women who would most often identified as gay or lesbian in the 70’s era. As you’ll read in Sue’s essay, the influence of capitalism, the cyclical nature of organizing, and gender parity play huge roles in these histories. At the same time, the impact of feminism and racial privilege were embedded as well. 

Our histories matter and I urge you to write down what you recall. You had something to say back then and you still do. Lesbian identity belong to all women as does lesbian history so Happy National Lesbian Day and enjoy this trip down memory lane – Sue K.

Sue B. identifies as a feminist lesbian. All opinions are her own.

I knew in high school that gay bars existed in Pgh, but I didn’t know the names of any of them.  That changed one day riding the bus up Fifth Avenue, when I spied a double women’s symbol on the outside of an old bar uptown called Shawn’s.  I wasn’t sure, but I wondered about this place for years.  I wasn’t very good about being closeted in college, and was befriended by a small group of lesbians who figured me out in our shared women’s studies classes (in 1979, women’s studies was a big thing).  When I came of age, they took me to the place where the lesbian-feminists went once a week: Shawn’s.  It was a real dive, with low lights, black & red color scheme, low lights, and painted Pink Panthers on the wall (along with such 70s staples as a Charlie’s Angels poster, black-light flowers, and a jukebox full of disco, Fleetwood Mac and Anne Murray 45s).  Shawn’s was open every night, but the only night it drew a crowd was Thursday. I never why that one night was THE night, but most Thursdays after 10:00, it was wall-to-wall “wimmin” drinking Miller Lite amid a cloud of cigarette smoke.   

There were some real characters in residence at Shawn’s, starting with Shawn herself.  All of 5’3 (in cowboy boots), Shawn (whose real name was Leslie) was an old-school Bull Dagger – she wore men’s clothing (during a time when gender was VERY binary) had very short/blunt hair, walked like John Wayne and talked with a practiced snarl.  She was amazingly tough, as she had to be just to keep the bar open. Straight men and thugs were always wondering what was going on inside, but Shawn was wiley and adamant about keeping them on the outside of the heavy door. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and while the city cops didn’t make regular appearances, they did raid all the bars on occasion – especially when election campaigns were heating up.  On those nights, the jukebox would be quickly unplugged, couples would separate, the lights turned up and everyone would have to show their LCB (Liquor Control Board) cards as proof of age.  City police raids on gay bars are the root of my knee problems, but that’s a story for some MOTH night.  By the mid-80s, the women’s movement lost steam, the crowds dwindled, and 

So there were two other places frequented by lesbians in the 70s & early 80s: the Norreh (aka Donny’s) and The Tender Trap.  You might find a few hardcore dykes and fag-hags in the men’s bars, but – really, what’s the point?  😉   The Norreh was a private club situated at the bottom of Herron Ave (the name is ‘Herron’ backwards), just across the bridge from the old Iron City brewery.  There were 3 floors, each with its own culture.  The main bar on the ground level was general population, and generally had a healthy crowd.  The 2nd floor was the women’s floor, and there would be good crowds on the weekends.  I was known to close Shawn’s on Thursdays, go to the Norreh at 2:00, catch the first bus home around 5,  eat, shower, and go straight to work on Friday morning.  The lower level of the Norreh was a place I never went near – I was told that it was A) a leather bar and/ot  B) an orgy room for the guys, but I can neither confirm nor deny either idea.   

Donny was a member of the Pittsburgh Tavern Guild, the group that sponsored the Memorial Day and Labor Day picnics at North Park.  On Thanksgiving and Christmas, he would put out a nice buffet for people who were disowned or otherwise alone.  He also collected wheat pennies, and you could get a beer or a well drink for a roll of pennies (50 cents), which I did often.

The populations of Shawn’s and Donny’s felt very different.  To the Norreh regulars, Shawn’s was a dirty dive for hippies and dykes, and to the politically-minded lesbians, Donny’s was bourgeois and boring (think Izod polo shirts with upturned collars, and tennis bracelets).  The third option in those days was The Trap, which is now Casbah on Highland Avenue.  Named after an Elvis Presley movie, it was owned by a pair of brothers, one straight and one gay.  It was originally a piano lounge, and fine dining with dancing place, in stark contrast to the rest of funky, hep Shadyside.  After initial success, business faded, and the gay brother convinced the straight brother to turn the downstairs party room into a gay dancefloor on the weekends, The Trapeze, and eventually it was just queer all the time, popular with all genders.  The upstairs was a softly lit, tastefully decorated lounge with large seating areas, a grand piano and a quiet bar in the back, while downstairs it was a bumpin’ dance bar.   

Oh, and there was Pegasus downtown (Liberty Ave), which was a huge below ground space with a stage and big dancefloor – that was mostly male (lots of drag shows) but women did go there to dance, especially the 4:00 Saturday & Sunday “Tea Dances”.

In the mid 80s, a new lesbian bar opened on Eighth Avenue in Homestead.  It was a family restaurant that was inherited by a “senior” lesbian, and she turned it into a gay bar.  I think that was Players, but I’m not absolutely sure – I never actually went (no car), but I know that it was popular, especially with elder lesbians, but it was only open for a couple of years.  A lot of women, especially the well-heeled, just went to Zack’s Fourth Avenue downtown, turning their nose up at “dyke” bars and preferring to party with the affluent gay men.

In the early-to-mid 70s, a group of lesbian-feminists (and a couple mostly straight feminists) met at Pitt and formed Wildsisters Women’s Cultural Collective.  They started producing occasional poetry readings, art exhibit, coffeehouses, and concerts by “women’s music” artists like Alix Dobkin, Margie Adam, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, and Holly Near, all the while saving any profit with the dream to open a women’s cultural space that would be a combination restaurant, art gallery and performance stage.  They bought an old bar with a long progressive history at 27th and Jane Street on the Southside.  Before it was WildSisters, that space was Wobbly Joe’s, a socialist hangout that featured folk and rock musicians.  The “Wilds” were/are some of the brightest and most creative women I’ve ever met – lawyers, psychologists, artists, poets, entrepreneurs, theater folk and a couple of women working in the trades, and together they were able to pull everything together to make a space that to me was heaven. 

Eventually, WildSsters didn’t make enough money to continue without sucking up all the energy of the collective, and they had a big community meeting to announce that they were closing “the restaurant”.  It was a big deal, covered by local reporters (Tony Norman was there, and others), and the place was absolutely packed.  The patrons were hot – they were adamant that the space stay open, but at the end of the meeting, after many testimonials, we had to admit that if these women couldn’t make it work, maybe it just couldn’t work.  Just to prove everyone wrong, though, a new group of women – mostly professionals but some dedicated volunteer activists & students as well – solicited funds, bought the liquor license and café supplies from the Wilds, refreshed the inside space and re-opened the space as Bloomers.  Several local bands formed to play on these stages: Jane Street,  Nemesis, The Thrown-together Eclectic Band, Rendezvous, etc.  When Bloomers gave up the ghost, a new group of Gen Xers found investors to open Common Grounds coffeehouse on Ellsworth Ave in Shadyside. That lasted a few years in the 90s.

While WildSisters and Bloomers was never exclusive, there was such a close community of regulars that some people ( the Zack’s crowd and people who didn’t go out much) who said they felt like they didn’t belong there.  I can see that, in hindsight, but it was home to me and damn I miss that place.  There was a grad student who did a thesis documentary about the Wild Sisters; she interviewed as many collective members as she could find – there was a screening and exhibit at Pgh Center for the Arts about 15 years ago.  

Later in the 80s/early 90s there was a very popular place in Dormont, but I can’t remember the name right now.  That’s probably trauma-induced – I was there once, doing sound for Rendezvous, and it was a night-long panic attack – hundreds of drunk, privileged young white women knocking into me and putting drinks on my sound equipment, and loud as hell.  Much later, came Cattivo in Lawrenceville.  Then there were a few places that were only gay on weekends – like CeCe’s in Sharpsburg – a family owned Italian café that the daughter would open late on Saturday nights for lesbians.  These were word-of-mouth places, and I wasn’t really in the right circles to know much about them.

Besides the bars in the 70s, there was Birmingham Booksellers, a 2nd-floor walkup shop run by Florence  and Gray.  It was a fun place to browse, especially for those of us just coming out.  That was in the same building that was later occupied by St. Elmo’s Fire bookshop, on Carson Street at the end of the Birmingham Bridge. They sponsored the Birmingham softball team, all lesbians that played in various rec leagues.  Gray died about 10 years ago; she was a force of nature, and she would open her house at Indian 

Also, the Pitt Women’s Center on Forbes ave in Oakland hosted grassroots community groups like the Feminist Writers Guild,  Women Against Sexist Violence (I was a member of both), and others.  As I recall, the PWC director was Susannah Downey, but she was someone I didn’t know except by reputation.  

In the 80s, the Gertrude Stein Memorial Literary Society formed, pooled together about $1000 and bought a bunch of books and music albums, sold them at Wildsisters, rinse and repeat, and then opened the feminist/lesbian/progressive bookstore familiarly known as “Gertie’s” on Carson Street around the corner from the 10th St Bridge. I was part of that collective for about 10 years.

Oh, that reminds me – Gray and Flo (the bookstore proprietors) along with Jan Cole, started a weekly salon-type dinner at WildSisters/Bloomers; we just called ourselves the Wednesdays, and discussions could be pretty lively, and covered  a plethora of topics, with people flowing in and out all the time.  The groups kept gathering after “the restaurant” closed, going to different restaurants, but it was hard to make reservations when you didn’t know how many people might be there from week to week.  That group started dissolving after Gray and Jan died, and – IMHO – from old age; I quit going long ago, but they may still get together from time to time.

Tangentially, there used to be 3 NOW chapters around town – South Hills, East End and Campus.  There was great tension between straight NOW members and lesbians, and that eventually tore apart the South Hills NOW chapter – that and electoral endorsements.   

Finally, about 8 years ago, there was a “women’s salon” on Cedar Avenue, between the Giant Eagle and AGH.  I never went, don’t know who opened it, and it didn’t last long.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday – Sue

What is International Lesbian Day? Check out its beginnings in Australia and New Zealand.

.In recent years lesbians encourage the community to either get together or show support by donating to charities supporting lesbian women. International Lesbian Day is all-inclusive. It’s a day to be shared by lesbians and also allies of lesbian rights.

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