Categories
Event

Show Me What You Got
Book Launch

Save the date

We are thrilled to announce an outdoor launch at Mcgolrick Park on Thursday, Sept 17th from 4-8 EST for our second issue, Show Me What You Got! Come picnic and grab a drink on us at this socially distanced launch. All 3 editors will be set up at a table with our new issue available, as well as new merch (hankies and t-shirts)! 


Due to the circumstances of COVID, and at the parks request, we ask that all folks please wear a mask and keep clustered gathering to your respective groups/pods. The park is a large open space, and ADA accessible. 

We are so grateful for the support of all of you and the ability to continue to be a platform for marginalized dyke communities. We look forward to spending a nice day and evening at the park, soaking up the last bit of summer and supporting lesbian art!

Read more about the second issue here

Categories
Art

Andrea Lhotská

(Illustrator) Interview

Butch is Beautiful, 2020.

Andrea Lhotská is a Czechoslovakian artist and printmaker whose work centres around lesbian and particularly butch lesbian identity. Their favourite medium to work in is gouache paint, as well as lino printing. They have also self-published two riso printed zines and are currently working on a third.

We spoke with Andrea to get more deep into their creative process with illustration, zines, printmaking and butchness.

Florencia: Do you have a personal construct for what’s ​masculine​ and what’s ​feminine​? Have you taken those ​standards​ from society or have you deconstructed and created a ​new ​masculine, feminine or neutral standard?

I find it difficult to create my own constructs of what is masculine and feminine when society’s standards of what is masculine and feminine are so rigidly imposed on everyone. I disagree with most of society’s standards (like who decided that embroidery or funky socks or colourful cocktails are feminine? ridiculous!) but whether I like it or not, these standards affect how other people see me. I aim to be seen as neutral, but given that the body I which was born with is seen as feminine by default, I often express this through things people would consider masculine.  Overall, I think this quote from Claude Cahun sums up my relationship with the masculine and feminine the best: “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”.

F: When did you start representing these butch characters, people, and bodies in your work?

The first ever butch I ever drew was a character I created back when I was much younger, unhappy and still in the closet. At the time she was almost an alter ego, someone I wanted to become without knowing it yet. My first bigger project involving butch characters was a comic book which never saw the light of day – it was much too ambitious for me to pull off with my skills at the time. I’m hoping to return to it one day though, when I’m more confident that I can actually finish a project of that size. I’m still very attached to the characters and story, and storytelling through art is something that I’m trying to work towards.

F: Can you talk about the origin of this in your drawings and how this repetition of the theme started?

I really started centring my art around butch characters and people around a year after I had started identifying as butch. I realised that I almost never saw anyone like myself even in art and media made by other lesbians and sapphic women, and it was something that I desperately wanted more of.  For me art is not something I do by profession, just something I do in my free time alongside university. So the subjects of my art are usually based on my whims and whatever I feel like doing at a particular time, which means that when I began making butch art it was mostly for myself. It was only after my first zine sold out that I realised that it wasn’t just me who wanted more butch representation and visibility, which really drove me to continue centring my art around butchness. This led to other projects such as the second butch zine, or the series of portraits of real life butches which I am currently working on. (the zines: https://andrealhotska.wixsite.com/portfolio/riso-printing-zines  and the portraits: https://andrealhotska.wixsite.com/portfolio/gouache-portrait-series-butch-portr)

Jeanette: You mentioned that you have made zines, gouache paintings and lino prints. Can you expand on how you decide which medium to work with and why?”

I use each of these mediums for a different purpose, so when I decide to begin a piece of art, from the beginning I already think of it in terms of the medium I will be working with. 

Butch Zine #1, 2019.

Zines are best for when I want to make several pieces of art centred around a single theme, and when I want to make art that’s accessible for many people to physically have. My preferred zine format is an A3 sheet folded into an eight page zine, which I’ve used for my two butch zines. It allows for 6 small illustrations and a big poster, which is the perfect format because in one zine I can share both my drawings as well as things that I’ve learned about lesbian history. 

Lino prints have to be made up of two colours only, and the design needs to be easy enough to carve out of a block of lino. This means that they’re best suited for simpler designs, often something like posters or graphics. I personally love the challenge of adapting a photograph or idea in my head to a black and white print. What I also really like about lino printing is that it again is quite accessible as it allows for multiple prints to be made and many different people can have original prints at home. 

Butch Zine #2,  2020.

And gouache is a clear choice when I either want to paint directly from a photograph or make something more like an illustration, when I want to paint a full scene. It allows for a lot of detail and colours, which is well suited for portraits and other more realistic paintings.

J: Is the inspiration for your drawings folks you know or are friends with?

I’ve never been lucky enough to have a lesbian community in real life, and all of my butch friends I’ve met online, usually through my art or as penpals. So it’s actually the other way around – rather than community inspiring my art, it was my art that brought me more of a community and friends. But as I’ve connected with more people online, they have definitely had an influence on my art and especially my second butch zine.

J: I notice that a lot of the positions of the butch lesbians differ, how do you decide what positions to put their bodies in, and why?

The way I decided on how to position someone in a piece of art depends a lot on whether I’m working from a fixed reference or not. 

A series of portraits of butch lesbians, 2020 – (in progress)

For example for my Butch Portraits series, I asked people to submit a short text along with photographs which I use to paint portraits of them. In that case I don’t have much choice in terms of positioning – the only things that are up to me are how to frame the portrait (i.e. how close up I paint), as well as the choice of photograph I use if someone has submitted several. I usually make my choice based on how the position and body language complements the story which the person is telling. For example one person wrote about their path to reconciling being both strong and soft, and I chose to paint them with flowers, which are typically seen as something soft and feminine. One day I’d like to work with people physically and photograph them for my paintings myself, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet. 

Butch lesbians dancing, 2020.

When I’m not working with a fixed photo reference, such as with my zines, all of the positioning is left up to me. I usually start with a quick sketch or idea. In the zines especially, I try to include a variety of different positions and settings – I want to show us as people going about our everyday lives, with friends and family and partners. Once I vaguely know what position I want, I either look for references online or take them myself with my phone and people around me. Usually I’m unable to quite match the positioning that I wanted initially or I discover something that will work even better, so the references I have available also influence the position in which people end up in my drawings. 

Self-love, 2019.

J: What is important for you to be seen and represented about butch lesbians?

For me it’s mostly the diversity of what butchness can be. I feel like even when butch lesbians are represented in media, which is already super rare, they’re usually shown as these tough physically strong people who don’t show much emotion. But we’re so much more than a stereotype – yes we are tough, but also soft and silly and shy and nerdy and loving. I want to go beyond stereotypes in my art. In my zines especially, I try to show different ways of being butch, so for example in my two zines I’ve drawn butch partners & their child, someone enjoying a book and cup of tea in bed, and butches who’ve had top surgery. That’s another thing that isn’t talked about much: not all butches are cis, many have complicated relationships with their gender, or are non-binary. All butches have their own way of being butch and I wish that was represented more.  

Andrea Lhotská is a Czechoslovakian artist and printmaker whose work centers around lesbian and particularly butch lesbian identity. Their favorite medium to work in is gouache paint, as well as lino printing. They have also self-published two riso printed zines and are currently working on a third.You can find Andrea’s work on their instagram , and purchase original lino prints and other art in their webshop.

Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Wanda Acosta

This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.

The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work. 

Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.

Riya Lerner, “Wanda Acosta, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Wanda Acosta is simply a nightlife icon. She is the creator of parties including Indulgence at Casa La Femme, No Day Like Sunday at Café Tabac, Pleasure at Bar d’O, Kitty Glitter at Liquids, Skin-Tight at Tribal Lounge, Circa at Trompe L’Oeil, YuMMY at Cafe Melville, Soho Groove at Sticky! Puta Scandalosa at Mother, Starlette Sunday at Starlight, AVA at Clubhouse and Showstopper at BLVD. She owned lesbian bars including WonderBar, Starlight and Clubhouse which were open the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her work in nightlife ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on March 24, 2018 at 2pm at Smooch Cafe in Brooklyn, NY.

Gwen Shockey: The first thing I’ll ask of you is to describe the first lesbian or queer space you were ever in and what it felt like to be there.

Wanda Acosta: The very first lesbian bar I ever went to was called Peaches & Cream. I think it was on the Upper East Side. I wasn’t really aware of my sexuality yet – I was probably nineteen years old and I was working at a photography studio as a studio assistant. There was a lesbian woman working at the studio as well who I kind of had this crush on but I wasn’t really attuned to what that all meant. I just thought she was cool. I had never really been around a woman like that before. She wasn’t a girly-girl and she wasn’t boyish – there was something different about her. She invited me out with a friend of hers that she would call her lover and I had never heard that expressed before either and it kind of made me nervous. She was going to have happy hour drinks after work at this place and she asked me to tag along because she was going to meet her friend who was also her lover. I was curious so I went. I felt super nervous and I wasn’t old enough to drink. I don’t know that I had a drink and I didn’t stay very long but it always stayed with me.

After that, maybe ten years later, I went to Henrietta Hudson.

GS: Were you out when you went to Henrietta Hudson? 

WA: Yes.

GS: Can you tell me a little bit about your coming out process?

WA: I was married to a man in my early twenties. Prior to that I had had flings with women but I never really thought anything of it. I just thought of it as another sexual experience. I got married – I was in love. It was a genuine relationship but then I met a woman on the subway! (Laughing) We would see each other every morning because we lived in the same neighborhood and we had the same schedule and we would check each other out every morning. One morning during rush hour we were facing each other holding onto the pole and we just started talking. She worked in the fashion district so we actually worked near each other. We would get on at the same stop and off at the same stop. We decided to have coffee one afternoon and it turned out that she was bisexual and I think she was engaged and I was married and we just had this affair and I got involved emotionally. Now this was different, right? I wasn’t just having sex. Everything shifted and I thought: Oh no, this is what’s been going on all these years.

I got separated and eventually divorced and saw women from then on.

GS: Once you started going to Henrietta Hudson did that become a community-building place for you? 

WA: I had other lesbian friends for sure and gay male friends but a lesbian community – no – that was the first place. It’s wild because when I think about it now, my first visit to Henrietta Hudson was with a friend who I am still very close with and the first woman I met there I am still friends with and this is almost thirty years ago. We were all dancing and she was a really fun dancer and we had mutual friends.

Back then Henrietta’s was more like a Cubbyhole in a way because it was smaller and it wasn’t all modern. I have to say that I didn’t go there a lot. I was still kind of nervous being in those spaces because coming out of a heteronormative lifestyle the spaces were different, right? So now going into the lesbian community I felt like I was going into these dungeons, you know? These dark places. Some of it was cool.

The Clit Club was amazing because it was so sex-positive and you knew you were going there to sweat and to make out. But in the other spaces I would occasionally find myself feeling depressed. At the time Henrietta’s wasn’t my comfort zone. That’s why Café Tabac started because I wanted to create a place that I was looking for, that I could feel comfortable in and it seemed like many other women were feeling the same thing.

GS: What did this ideal gathering space look like for you?

WA: It was a space where I could get dressed up, where I could go have a drink in a proper glass and not in a plastic cup, where I could be visible. It was some place that was really alive – not in a basement, not really dark or hidden. Visible was the key word for me. I had been hiding and I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wanted to be around beautiful women and I wanted to be out and open.

GS: How did this idea of visibility or emphasis on visibility affect the planning that went into Café Tabac?

WA: The funny thing is that at the time in 1993 the restaurant (Café Tabac) which was on 9th Street was in all of the gossip columns. It was this hot spot where all these celebrities would go and I kept reading about it. I went in just to fuck with them, thinking these people are never going to want to do a lesbian party there. I had been there for dinner and I thought the place was really nice. It was a two-tiered restaurant – the downstairs had seating and tables and the upstairs was a VIP area during the week. The celebrities would go up and have their exclusive space. There was a gorgeous red velvet pool table upstairs, more tables and a bar.

One afternoon I was just walking around the East Village and I kept thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it. I decided to just go in and ask them. I had only done one party before at a restaurant in SoHo called Casa La Femme. It was a small Moroccan restaurant. We only had two Sundays there because in the end I didn’t feel like it was a safe space. So, I go into Café Tabac and lied a little bit and told them I did these events and that they were lesbian parties with beautiful women. I thought it would be great to do something there because I loved the space. Tim, the day manager, asked me what kind of crowd I thought I could bring in. I told him I could pack it and he said the only day they had available was Sunday since it was their slowest night. He said that the owner would never go for it but that he would ask him. I gave him my information and he called back to tell me the owner would let me try it, that he wouldn’t pay me but wanted to see what I could do. He asked me to do the first one the following Sunday which only gave me four days to prepare. 

Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have social media – it was all word of mouth. I went through my friends’ phone books, handed out flyers at other clubs and the first Sunday was great. It was busy, the women were amazing, everyone thought it was really hot. We did it and we were there for about three years after.

GS: What was it like to find spaces for the other parties you threw over the years and eventually the bars that you opened [Starlight, WonderBar and Clubhouse]?

WA: At the time there were lots of spaces available. Tabac was on Sundays and it was so popular that we actually needed an overflow spot. We started another party at a different bar on Mondays called Bar d’O. Whereas Sundays was this very glam and chic, Mondays we had more R&B and Hip Hop. It was also sexy but it was dark, smooth grooves – that party was a lot of fun too (laughing). We had go-go dancers. Queen Latifah used to come – all these celebrities would go there and kind of hide out. That was Mondays!

I had a lot of parties at different places at that time. There were tons of spaces that were open to having queer parties then. There were a lot of parties that were fun and busy!

GS:  What was the crowd like at the parties you threw? Was it usually mostly women?

WA: Tabac was very mixed actually but predominantly women. There were a lot of gay men, straight couples, occasional straight guys but we did have a bouncer and we did try to keep the space safe. My other events were pretty much women. Guys were welcome at most of the parties but at Starlight men had to be accompanied by a woman. During the week a lot of men would come to Starlight so we would try to have Sundays be primarily for women.

GS: That seems to be happening at Cubby now too. I’ve noticed it tipping a bit towards more men on certain nights.

WA: That happens and sometimes it was really frustrating for me because the men had so many places and they still do! Let us have one night. Go to the Cock or something. You know the Clit Club was strictly women. They had a no men policy. The men would stay away. Sometimes you’d get a fool at the door who would say he was going to sue and that it was discrimination. I went to the Clit Club a lot. I loved that place. It was sweaty. There was great music. When you walked in it literally felt like a sauna because it would be so packed. It was humid from all of the dancing bodies and it was topless – you would take your top off and everyone was in bras. Julie Tolentino who was running the show there. She would always have some kind of performance. There were go-go dancers on the bar. She had all different types of dancers: androgynous, super high femme – all mixed. The performances were edgy, sometimes fetish, sometimes like: Ooo – did they just do that? The stage was on the main floor and then you would go down to the basement and they had television screens with lesbian porn on and couches and then upstairs in the back there was another little area that was chill where you could make out.

GS: I’m curious to hear more about the relationship between the lesbian chic aesthetic and Sundays at Café Tabac. Do you feel as though Tabac really influenced the style? 

WA: It was sort of serendipitous that our events happened around the same time when lesbian women started to feel more empowered and ok being out and to want to look a certain way and not fit the stereotypes that were there previously. There was a lot of media attention around KD Lang and Sarah Bernhard and Ellen Degeneres. I think that definitely the media jumped on the fact that there were so many beautiful women in the space that they hadn’t seen before. Everyone thought lesbians only wore flannel shirts and combat boots, right? In interviewing women for the film we are making about Tabac they pretty much all said the same thing, that when they walked into that room they felt so empowered and beautiful just by being surrounded by that energy and that the next week they could dress up, walk in there and own it! It was really beautiful to watch. I didn’t know what to expect. I just created the space. Sharee [Nash] who was my partner at the time, was a deejay. We set the tone of the space with our own attire and with the music.

GS: Can you describe one of your favorite outfits that you wore to Sundays at Café Tabac?

WA: Every week I would try to wear something fun and different but I do remember that I’d taken a trip to Italy and I bought this beautiful, kind of burnt orange, pin-striped suit which I used to like to wear with a sheer, femme, sexy shirt with heels. We all dressed up – we would wear heels and lipstick and makeup and then the next week maybe a wife-beater and torn jeans. It was really fun though, the dress-up was really fun.

GS: It sounds like it would have felt quite liberating to be in a space like this where you could play with gender presentation, explore androgyny, high femininity and mess with the binary in this way. Did you find that to be the case?

WA: Not only were the women doing this but the men too! We had guys coming in there in outfits – in a sarong one week and the next week gym-wear. There was so much playfulness and I’m so sorry that we didn’t take more photographs and that nobody filmed it. I have about thirty polaroids because I used to carry a polaroid camera around and take pictures but that’s all I have.

The style and the clothes were really important at that time and you really saw the shift then to a new way of presenting as a queer woman. There were so many identifiers and codes prior for lesbians that I felt were a bit restrictive. There had always been the haircut, the swagger, that t-shirt thing – the wife-beater – and then the tattoos and piercings started happening and of course now it’s back and totally intense.

GS: Do you think this almost opening-up of style and code has affected younger generations of queer women?

WA: I think it allowed people to feel like they didn’t have to fit into any kind of mold, that they could self-identify and not have some outside source labeling you. Women felt they could be themselves in whichever way was comfortable and not have to be part of this contrived code. I did get the combat boots when I was first coming out (laughing). When I came out I was like: I’m a dyke! I cut my hair off, I wore the boots, and it was fun for a bit but it wasn’t the only thing that I was or am. I’m so many things. I never wanted to confine myself to a certain look because it was known to be queer.

GS: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experience running both bars and weekly/monthly parties. Did you find that it was a different experience for women, especially in terms of community-making, to go to bars versus parties?

WA: As a bar-owner and an event promoter I think the difference is perhaps in the economics? The economic situation in this city is quite prohibitive. I give it to Henrietta and Lisa (Cannistraci) that they’ve been able to keep that space for all of these years because the changes in rent and in the social fabric of this city is astonishing! When I had my parties gay people all lived in the city and they could easily walk to the parties and then as things gentrified and prices went up the crowds dispersed and now you have women who are coming from Brooklyn and the Bronx so that dilutes the number of people coming to your events. If you have a seven-day-a-week situation it’s not easy to keep the momentum up and to keep a crowd coming night after night. It’s probably why Cubby and Henrietta have to let some guys in. When you have a weekly event, you can be a little more creative with it, you can entice the crowd into getting more exciting to come and they know what to expect and it’s this one-time thing so they have to go because they might not be able to make it next week.

GS: Why do think there is such a disparity between lesbians and queer women showing up to support lesbian bars versus gay men who have so many spaces still in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea?

WA: I think it’s economics again sadly. Men get paid more, gay men don’t have families necessarily although things are changing now. For me it’s always been the economics and of course there is always the sexuality of it. The guys really want to hook up. Girls want to hook up too of course but guys have always been so out there. Now there’s Grindr too and I actually wonder how gay men’s bars are doing and whether they’re as many as there used to be. I have some gay male friends who say they don’t go to bars anymore because hookups just come right to their doors when they use the apps.

GS: I remember not even eight years ago seeing so much more sex going on in the bathrooms at lesbian bars. People were a lot more physical with each other. I still see women making out once in a while but I wonder if it’s become harder to initiate a hook up in person now that it’s all happening online.

WA: I’m fascinated with this too because I saw a shift at my parties once the phones were so in your face. I saw the interactions change and it was really interesting. At some of the earlier parties at Café Tabac if you told your friend you were going to meet at the party you really had to plan to meet there. There was no room for texting or backing out and if you did back out you had to go to a phone booth, leave a message on their answering machine and then the person had to check their answering machine! I started noticing women not knowing how to engage with each other. You’re standing at a bar and there are people around and you’re on your phone, not really making an effort to talk and I could see that they’re all single and they want to talk but they’re too shy so they’re on the phone. Or they walk in, it’s not as crowded as they want it to be, they text their friends not to come and then nobody comes. It was really fascinating. It affected our attendance levels a little. Right before I stopped the last party at Starlight in 2008 or so I saw a difference. People were impatient, handing the deejay their iPods and requesting songs, always on their phones. Then it wasn’t really that much fun for me anymore because I felt like people weren’t really so present.

GS: Is there one moment that stands out to you from your years of throwing parties as particularly meaningful or poignant?

WA: Oh girl. There were a lot. Do you know that this one moment always comes back to me though because it really made me feel like I was doing the right thing? It was at Tabac on one of the early nights and an African-American woman came up the stairs and I was standing there – I would always host and make sure I was welcoming – so I said hello, how are you, what’s your name and she said she heard that there was a lesbian party here tonight and asked me which part of the restaurant was ours. She was looking to see into what part of the space we had been shoved. I said, “The whole restaurant is yours! The whole restaurant is for the party tonight.” She was shocked and asked me if I was serious. So, I was like: Wow! We have to get out of those dungeons man! She came every single week and we are still friends. I was like: Wow… Yeah! We’re out, we’re out. That’s always something that stayed with me.

There were a lot of funny stories too of finding underwear in the back room and the celebrities that would swing through. There are a lot of stories.

GS: That moment you described of your friend arriving at Tabac and realizing that the whole space was for her kind of perfectly describes the motivation behind this work I’m doing. Even though there is so much acceptance now and it feels like there are queer women all over the place, there is nothing like walking in somewhere and knowing that the whole space is yours.

WA: Totally. And that your tribe is there and you can be yourself. Do you feel like now with more acceptance and visibility that safe, queer spaces are necessary?

GS: Yes. Maybe more so than ever actually. I led a coming out support group for women through Identity House last spring and it was a mixture of ages from about twenty to late forties. A constant topic of conversation was how much everyone hated dating apps and how much isolation and loneliness they still felt and that Cubbyhole wasn’t enough. Meetup groups and parties are great but unless you know who to ask they are a bit hard to find.

I guess to wrap things up a little bit, what has it been like to look back at this legacy that you have created through working on the documentary about Café Tabac with Karen Song?

WA: It’s been really, really, really fascinating, emotional and intriguing to hear other voices and their optics on what that time was like for them. The interviews are centered around the event but it’s also such a broad discussion on the early ‘90s and what it meant to be a lesbian in those years leading up to today. How the early ‘90s impacted their lives. Karen and I decided to do this film because it’s been over twenty-five years since we did that event but people we would run into who we knew went there always told us that nothing ever compared to that party and we wondered why people were still remembering it in that way.

It keeps coming back to a sense of community, this real sense of community that existed for everyone on that particular night and that they needed to come back on that particular night because everyone was so open. You would walk in and there would be a stranger sitting at a table and you could go and sit at that table and you’d have an amazing conversation, you’d have dinner together, maybe you’d see them the following week and maybe they would introduce you to their friends. You would just meet so many people and you ended up becoming friends with them and they are still friends years later. There was something special that was happening there.

I think there was also something special happening in the East Village at that time. So many artists lived in the East Village. It really was a sense of community and a neighborhood. You would walk out the door and run into people you knew and it was affordable and there was this synergy of artistic energy and queerness and being out. It was also on the heels of so many men who had died from AIDS so there was this feeling of coming together and really trying to be together and help each other and push each other forward and support each other. I think we’ve lost that somehow. 

Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.
Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

Technology has shifted that idea of face-to-face support and conversation. The armchair thing is happening where folks think it’s enough to post something or to sign-off on a petition online but it’s not enough.

 Maybe you should start something with a no cell phone policy! At the time people were doing these little salons or dinner parties. Initially the idea for Tabac was that it was going to be a salon. It was a combo – a salon where you could dance, the gay boys would do the runway thing or you could tuck yourself into a corner and talk to a designer, hairdresser, artist or whatever. Since it was a Sunday night people would always ask whether anybody had jobs in this community but most of us were creatives so our hours were flexible. We had a lot of hairdressers who were off on Mondays (laughing). Anyway, it was just a really special time.

GS: Well, thank you so much Wanda. This was just amazing.

Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Sharee Nash

This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.

The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work. 

Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.

Riya Lerner, “Sharee Nash, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Sharee Nash is a writer, deejay, and co-founder of iconic parties for queer women and lesbians including Sundays at Café Tabac and Mondays at Bar d’O in the 1990s and early 2000s with fellow nightlife icon Wanda Acosta. Sharee’s extensive knowledge of and passion for music has led her around the globe in search of sounds unheard of in New York City. Her work in nightlife with Wanda ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on April 16, 2018 at 4pm at Patisserie Des Ambassades in Harlem, NY.

Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian bar or predominantly lesbian space that you ever went to?

Sharee Nash: Hm. I’d have to say it would have been Pandora’s Box. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-two. I moved to New York when I was twenty-one and I thought I’d figure it all out. I was adventurous. I had been living in Germany for a while with my family and I would just go out and find places where women gathered there. I wanted to figure out if I was a lesbian so I figured I’d just go to Pandora’s Box. It was in the West Village and I walked in, looked around, panicked and left! My idea of queer then was a sort of Anais Nin vision and I imagined I’d walk into a room full of women with long, long hair and red lipstick but when I walked into Pandora’s Box I was like: Blimey! It was just sort of typical I guess for a lesbian bar then.

I had been engaged to be married since I was eighteen and I had only ever read about queer lifestyles. It never really crossed my mind that it could be me, I was just reading literature about women and the culture so I had this fantasy in my mind about what lesbians were. I mean, the music in Pandora’s wasn’t sexy to me – it was old school pop. I was just going through a different phase music-wise. So, yeah I mean the music wasn’t romantic, the scenery wasn’t really romantic – I’m a romantic so that whole scene was a little hardcore for me. So, that was the first one! Pandora’s Box was around forever. I liked the idea of the name. I had myself all dolled up for a night out you know? But I ran straight out of there and went into another tiny bar that looked nice and seemed to be owned by a queer person. I met some guys there, some super sweet guys, and they were like, “Oh honey, don’t give up!” (Laughing) 

GS: Do you remember what you were wearing when you went out that night?

SN: Probably the same thing I wore everywhere: a pair of jeans, a nice t-shirt. I think it was warm. My uniform is always a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I’m a tomboy with a bougie mother… so I’m sure I had on a very expensive pair of shoes, a handbag with a tube of lipstick and a pack of Gauloises cigarettes in it.

GS: Was the dynamic pretty butch/femme in Pandora’s Box then? 

SN: Yeah! I mean that was my first experience. I eased into it. I found you had to sort of tease through the scene because there were little pockets of different types of people. At the end of the day once I met more lipstick lesbians that became a sort of pocket or scene that I helped create. Actually, when I finally found kind of what I was looking for it was this house party in Brooklyn. This woman who I knew threw these parties for women of color and it was just hot house music and girls half naked, sweating, dancing, gyrating and I thought: Yeah! That’s more like it! It was a private party, special invite. It was called “The Children’s Hour.” So, that was a different dynamic that just felt more comfortable for me. Having a conversation with someone is fine but I like dancing and obviously I like music, I’m a deejay. So, I liked that part a lot you know? It was just different from Pandora’s Box or Henrietta Hudson, I mean there was diversity but a lot of places were just where the white girls went.

Everyone had their own agendas too. Some of the parties were private because a lot of women couldn’t come out. That was one of the things that people really liked about Café Tabac when we started throwing that party. It was upstairs and it was private. You had to know someone to get in so we had people in the limelight, in the celebrity world who couldn’t afford for it to get out that they were hanging out in dyke bars. Even then, in the ‘90s it was sort of hush, hush.

GS: What was your coming out process like?

SN: Well, I realized I wasn’t straight when I fell head over heels for one of the girls in my dorm. Like I said I was engaged to be married. I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia. I didn’t know any other lesbians then but all of my male friends were gay and my cousin is queer. I was hanging out at the gay bars near school with gay boys but I was like: I’m good, I’m heterosexual, I’ve got a man, no problem. Something really hit me though and I started really thinking about. But, man, I was 19 years old engaged to be married and it was crazy! So, I called off my engagement because I felt like I would be a ball and chain at twenty-one years old. So that was that.

Boy bars were great though! If you were the only cute girl in the room all of your drinks were paid for, you were complimented, you were fanned, they carried you around, your feet never touched the floor – they were just great. There was so much trauma in that community so there was a lot of love brought to those spaces. So, appreciated all of that and so when I finally came out it was fine. Of course, my mom’s reaction was to tell me she really wanted grandchildren and I was like: I haven’t given up my womb! I mean even if I were heterosexual I’m not sure I’d want kids because I don’t really feel that maternal thing. All together I have six aunts and for a while I was the only child because I’m the oldest. When I came out to one of my aunts she told me she understood and she told me some stories about experiences she had when she was younger. She had fun! I think a lot of people deprive themselves of experiences if they aren’t willing to understand their bodies and needs for other forms of comfort and familiarity. I mean it’s just like you will never understand the black experience if you aren’t black, you will never know what it feels like to move through the world as a black person unless you are. It’s like the experience of being a woman too it’s really different. You have to have an open mind to see yourself as something other than how people perceive you because of the color of your skin or your gender. You just have to find places with like-minded people.

I always searched for the alternative in everything anyway so at the end of the day I had the crazy fortune of meeting Wanda [Acosta]. I met her at this place in Chelsea called Lola’s. It was owned by Alexander Smalls who was just a tremendous chef and happened to be southern. They would have live music, dancing, salsa night and so my girlfriend at the time was the hostess for the restaurant. It was swanky and upscale everybody would come after work in business attire but it was straight, totally straight, I was there because my girlfriend was the hostess. My girlfriend was a model and all of her friends were models too so I would just be in there with all the pretty women. I was there one night sitting at the bar while my girlfriend worked it, having my martini and, this sounds corny, but I was reading Orlando – I’m a walking cliché! (Laughing) Wanda rolled up and asked me if the seat next to me was taken and I said no so she sat down and was looking at my book and I was wondering if she was queer too! She could have just as easily not have been!

GS: I need to start carrying lesbian literature around!

SN: (Laughing) It used to work! You can’t tell anymore because everyone’s on their iPhone or Kindle! So, Wanda and I started talking and realized we were both queer and she asked me what brought me to that bar and I told her I liked my martini in a proper glass and I don’t like peanuts on the floor! Stemming from that first meeting we started talking about creating a party for chic lesbians – a space that we wanted, that we ourselves would go to! And that’s how it started! As simple as that. We both liked to get dressed up and feel fabulous and we liked to be wooed and read poetry you know? It became about creating the space that was ideal and alternative and clearly it was! I mean, there were parties before that like Cave Canem on 1st Avenue which they just closed recently. Cave Canem was a restaurant with a little cellar that you went down into. It was a private party for queer women to go and be outrageous and unapologetic.

Article in HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

GS: Where do you think this desire for different modes of presence as lesbian came from? Was it a desire to break down the butch/femme dynamic?

SN: I don’t think we’ll ever break that dynamic. Listen, I was out as a lesbian. I was published in a lesbian anthology. It was ok for me to be out because I was always an artist. You can choose not to hire me or read my writing but being out never threatened the work I chose to do. I do think for other women there was a need to keep their sexuality separate from their professional lives. I think privacy is just a value for some people. Our parties were basically that. They were private parties. Bar d’O was private. Once we opened WonderBar and Starlight everyone was welcome. Do you remember the scene in the L Word where Bette Porter comes to New York and goes to a lesbian bar? That was Starlight!

GS: It really seems like the parties you and Wanda threw and the bars you ran really allowed women to find self-worth as individuals and as a community. To be able to escape the dive bar, come together in a beautiful, thoughtful environment seemed so important.

SN: Yeah and something that was important to us was that it wasn’t always about going out every night and cruising and picking up chicks, rather being around creative people. I’m a writer – I like to talk to poets, readers of books, healers and other writers and music is my life so meeting someone who would notice what was playing rather than just standing there drinking their beer was amazing. On Sunday nights it was a huge dinner party with community tables and people would sit and hop from one table to the next – there was food, music, drinks and sexy lighting. There would be a muralist sitting next to, say, Sandra Bernhard or a drag king, gallery owner, photographer, comedian, fucking tight-rope walker sitting next to Patricia Field so we just had all these different types of people together. We had it all! The idea for us was just queer women sharing their passion for all things queer and cultured and each other as women in our different experiences…together.

GS: Could you tell me a little bit about how you began deejaying? Did it start at Sundays at Café Tabac or were you deejaying before? 

SN: Deejaying for the public was again one of those serendipitous moments (I’m a bit of an agoraphobe) I loved making compilations since I was a kid. When I got my first job as a babysitter, I used that money to buy records and turntables. So, when I moved to New York from Germany and got settled, I set up my deejay booth under my loft bed in a tiny studio apartment in the East Village. An ex introduced me to this super cool guy new to NYC from Oakland and he saw my setup and flipped through my collection of vinyl and encouraged me to basically Shine My Light! *Much Love to Disco Dave*!

I would make mixed tapes for Sundays at Café Tabac. This is how long ago it was. Every week I would make about four mixed tapes for the night. So, I ended up with a huge collection of mixed tapes. And I was actually spinning records at Bar d’O. I was doing this, then I met these women who were doing huge parties with like a thousand women on Friday nights in a warehouse space. They had three floors. They wanted everything. First floor was house music with pole dancers and strippers, the second floor was Latina, and then the top floor was a lounge where I was spinning soul and jazz and stuff. That was huge because it was one of the biggest lesbian parties at the time. I was doing some major things and then Wanda and I started Bar’d O on Monday nights. People thought we were out of our minds and that no one would show up on a Monday night. We were like: They will. You’ll see. Bar d’ O was really intimate. The idea was to add an element of burlesque…not a strip-show… a strip-tease in a triptych. Exotic dancers, drag kings, contortionists, fire-eaters!  Lots of celebrities showed up there because they knew they had anonymity. We carried on at Bar d’O for years. Another one of my favorite experiences was working with Julie Tolentino, mastermind behind the Clit Club! We all have her to thank!

GS: I feel like the role of the deejay at lesbian parties that I’ve been to is this mythic type person. Not only are you controlling the energy of the crowd in a way but you’re also there to be seen, there is such almost desire between the audience and the deejay. Did you feel that?

SN: I mean for me, there was always a frame for it. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of WonderBar but our partner John built this deejay booth, he’s a set designer. It was up on a platform in the back of the bar when you walked in. There was this huge oval almost like an eye and he created lighting so it was basically a stage. If you’re an aesthetic snob every little detail has to have some sort of connection to art or nature – you have to be able to connect the dots. Funnily enough I’m the most introverted person. I don’t like to speak publicly, I don’t like having my picture taken, if you look at me for too long I’ll run up a tree you know? There was something different for me about deejaying. It was my way of communicating. Being a part of the community, I could party with everyone but not be on the floor with everyone. We would try to make sure that the booth situation was part of it all but not in the middle. There was a lot of thought put into that. One night I was hanging out with some friends after hours and there was this guy there and one of my friends was like, “Sharee’s a deejay!” and he was like, “Oh never heard of her”…  my friend told him he had to go and “See me”! and I thought it was really interesting that she said he had to see me…because it was a visual experience. It’s a really visual experience in that the crowd is loud, that he could come in a watch me spin for hours and jam to the music. I guess I lose myself you know? When everyone’s out there dancing and I’m standing there with my cup of tea, I pull off all my clothes and I’m just like in it. (Laughs) It was so fun for me. I’d have a sort of call and response. I would kind of know what would happen like, they’re going to lose their minds in three, two, one! It’s the most amazing feeling. I stopped. I was deejaying at a wine bar up here in Harlem. It was nice because people really listened. But after a while people started requesting songs they knew and I would say: No! I’m the deejay! I’m going to play something you don’t know so you can experience something new! That was a lot of what I heard from people over the years – that they’d come hear me spin and only recognize two or three songs in a night and they loved it! It was fantastic. Total opposite today.

Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.
Cover of HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

GS: Do you think it has something to do with technology? I mean people have their phones with them all the time, they’re like, “Play this song!”

SN: It was not like that. It totally flipped. It used to be so amazing. It was global too. So much of my music came from overseas. It was nothing you would hear on the radio. Even the radio is different now. Back in the day when we were listening to the radio there was a loop, yeah, but they would loop in something new. It was a lot more soulful. There were lyrics. I do like some trap music but most sounds like they just created a dumpster fire and called it music and sold it to everybody as “trending”. I had my European collections and friends would come over from London and come with new vinyl. This whole idea of being connected globally… I mean people just don’t understand! Norwegians just killed at house music! Bringing it here was so fun and challenging. I would get so excited for certain nights when I could say like: Fresh from London, some new vinyl! The people would be so into it. It’s just a different attitude. You can’t even have an opinion about anything anymore. People are having fist fights over Beyonce and I’m like: Stay mad! Because Beyonce is doing Beyonce better than anyone else could ever do so whatever you’re mad about it’s your mad! You can’t even write a fucking post on social media without people saying it’s not politically correct.  So yeah, the whole dynamic just changed and it no longer interested me to try to share something new with people who thought they knew it all.

GS: that makes me sad you know? That lack of curiosity, that lack of wanting to learn… Do you think it’s changed the way people party now?

SN: People are either on the offensive or the defensive…like, everybody in the room is either the hostess or the deejay! Those have been my experiences. If I’m going to go out and have a good time now I go to Europe. (Laughing)

I retired this year from my job at Columbia University in the Graduate History Department. I had to hang that up – I did it for sixteen years and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’m an English teacher and that’s what I’m trained to do. So, I retired from university life and I’m writing a series of different things. I write poetry, short fiction… I guess I would describe my writing as sci-fi erotica.

GS: Does music affect your writing in any way? 

SN: Oh yeah! Just yesterday I started writing a series in response to ten songs that had an impact on my life. I usually don’t do these things because it’s hard to pick a finite number of things that have influenced me. I’m on day nine now but I was thinking should I choose hip hop, soul, house? It just so happened that I picked the first album off the top of my head, which was this acid, jazz, soul album that was really brilliant and from that I remembered that I had already started a story from a long time ago just inspired by one of the songs. The chapters ended up being based on the rhythm of a song – a lot of Sade in there. The long answer to your question is yes. I don’t know what came first, music or writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child and it’s all about rhythm.

GS: Do you still go dancing?

SN: The last time I danced was on my birthday. The first girl I fell head over heels for reconnected with me a couple years ago. I was home in St. Louis visiting with my mother and she took me out for my birthday and the DJ played “No diggity, I like the way you work it…” and it was such a great time dancing in my hometown…being older…still feeling none the bit wiser in the “Great Scheme”…but that was the extent of my dancing recently. No dancing in my bra like the good old days! No tumbling off of tables in my stilettos… I’m not kidding. I still have the scars to prove it! I’m not saying we had more fun than kids now but Wanda and I, twenty something years ago, were in our late twenties and there were a lot of people in our circle who were famous and loved to dress up and it was just a different time in New York. Really different from now. I’m older now and I just want to cheer from the sidelines…leave it to you crowd to have the fun and keep the party alive!

GS: Any juicy stories you want to close out with Sharee?

SN: How about me distracting some girl by showing her my tits while her girlfriend was sitting in a booth with another girl on her lap with her tongue down her throat! There was tons of drama! But we didn’t have it splashed all over viral social media like we have today! PrideNYC was just beautiful madness. You’d get a fresh batch of women in from out of town…lots of love and trouble-making! It could get pretty debauched!

GS: Sharee, you’re amazing. This was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing these stories with me.