There may not be many of them. But these Southern lesbian bars are still finding ways to thrive

There may not be many of them. But these Southern lesbian bars are still finding ways to thrive

North Carolina’s only known lesbian bar is tucked away somewhere on West Main Street in Durham, in one of those configurations that confuses navigation apps and results in several minutes of wide-eyed wandering.

It’s there, though, around the back of a building, behind some of the city’s buzziest restaurants. A circular sign signals the entrance across from the railroad tracks that run through Durham. Then, it’s down a flight of pitch-black stairs — perfumed by the Indian fusion restaurant above — and you’re inside a candlelit space decorated with mismatching antique furniture and local art.

Sade and Tracy Chapman croon from the speakers overhead, and owner Erin Karcher is behind the bar, chatting with two women seated on the stools in front of her. They address her by name.

“The Lion King” musical is playing at the nearby Durham Performing Arts Center, and Karcher has created a lineup of craft cocktails for the occasion: the Nala, the Sarafina and Pride Rock. A silver jar sits on the bottle shelf behind her, with a handwritten paper sign reading “Tips for Tits;” inches away hangs a palm-sized transgender flag.

Arcana is part of what has been dubbed a dying breed in the country: a lesbian-specific bar, of which there are only 33, according to The Lesbian Bar Project. While not an official tally, the Lesbian Bar Project aims to amplify and keep track of these spaces, which can register with the project. 

On a slow Wednesday evening, with just a handful of customers stopping in for a drink, Arcana is operating at a low, comfortable hum. In the back, a burlesque class is in session, and a tarot card reader wearing a rainbow face mask sits in the corner near the bar, offering her services.

Before she started doing tarot readings at Arcana, Joy Carter, who lives in neighboring Raleigh, would often make the trek out to Durham just to stop in.

“When I was here, it made me wish I could be here more, because I knew I was safe,” Carter, who identifies as queer, said. “I am both safe and comfortable on a lot of fronts, in a lot of ways that I’m not necessarily safe and comfortable in the world outside the door.”

Carter isn’t the only one who feels that way. Arcana, which opened in 2015, also hosts regular craft nights, figure drawing, and even queer bachata lessons. Their monthly “Dyke Night” dance parties attract upwards of 100 people. For one of the bar’s very first Dyke Nights last year, there was a line out the door.

“It was a sense of, not only is this wanted, but it’s been wanted for a while,” Karcher said.

See full story here.

Back to blog