When owners Nikke Alleyne and Justine LaViolette finally arrived to cut the ribbon on their new “dyke bar for queers” The Bush in April, the line snaked down three blocks. It was a neighborhood welcome the pair hadn’t expected—Alleyne wore stilettos, not antipating having to bar-back all night for hundreds of people—but we shouldn’t be surprised. While the presence of gay bars has for the most part held steady over the decades, lesbian bars faced a demise through the aughts that has more recently roused an outspoken bunch of writers, artists, revivalists, and patrons-to-be. Among them is Krista Burton, who in writing her travelogue Moby Dyke, published earlier this month, went on a cross-country pilgrimage to visit the last lesbian bars standing. Just before her book launch in NYC, Burton hopped on a call with Alleyne and LaViolette to talk about raising a new generation of gaybies and the long-awaited return of lesbian cruising.
KRISTA BURTON: Okay, so who owns the bar?
NIKKE ALLEYNE: We both do.
JUSTINE LAVIOLETTE: We’ve been friends for a decade. We met on a night out and, around six years ago, we were like, “We want a dyke bar that has cocktails and a place to sit down, but can also host events.” So we slowly started working on it, and we only opened a month ago.
BURTON: Where did you meet?
ALLEYNE: Do you know The Woods? On Wednesday, their lesbian nights.
LAVIOLETTE: Yeah. We met through mutual friends after I had a failed date. We’d been friends for four or five years by the time we were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this thing existed?”
BURTON: I love that because I feel like every queer person has sat with their friends and been like, “We should open a fucking bar.” Literally nobody does it. And the fact that you guys took it from, “We should open a bar” to “We have a bar” is wild to me. What was that like?
LAVIOLETTE: It was a slow progression of beginning research and realizing we could actually figure out ways to make it happen. I think they do make it difficult to open a bar. In writing the book, you probably talked to a ton of bar owners. They make it so hard, things we hadn’t even realized. It’s hard to even convince somebody to give you a lease. It’s hard enough to find a space, but a space that will hear your concept and be okay with it? Also, most commercial lease people want you to have somebody involved who’s done this before. Because we had no experience, everyone was like, “Do you think people will actually come?” And we’re like, “Yeah, we really do.”
BURTON: They’re very thirsty. They want to come.
LAVIOLETTE: If you had all of the anecdotal evidence in my mind, you would know there’s going to be a line out the door.
BURTON: When you explained the bar concept, did you feel like you experienced any hesitation from landlords?
LAVIOLETTE: Surprisingly, yes, we did.
LAVIOLETTE: Yeah. I’d say a large portion of the property owners are a little bit more conservative.
ALLEYNE: When we first set out to do this, although we had this slogan, “A dyke bar for the queers,” we were kind of wary to say “dyke bar” because of how conservative these folks were being. But I think that’s why we feel so at home in our space, because we were like, “No, we are going to be authentically ourselves.”
BURTON: Wait, did you guys know that I was at your opening night?
LAVIOLETTE: I didn’t realize that!
BURTON: I was visiting my friends Lola and Joe. We were sitting on their couch in Brooklyn and I happened to see that you were having your opening night. It was late and we’d all gone to the beach that day, whatever that beach is you guys have that’s great and gay.
LAVIOLETTE: Jacob Riis!
BURTON: Yeah. First of all, I had never been topless on a beach in America.
LAVIOLETTE: Incredible, right? Literally life-changing.
BURTON: What a feeling. But we were disgusting and there was sand in my scalp and it was late and we were all very sun-soaked, laying around. And I was like, “Everybody has to get up.”
ALLEYNE: Going out after beach day is not an easy task, so we appreciate it.
LAVIOLETTE: The line was, holy fuck. I feel like it was two to three blocks long, possibly longer. The bar was a pinpoint in the distance and I’ve never seen a turnout like that.
ALLEYNE: How did that feel for you, going to all of the lesbian bars that still exist and coming to the opening of another one?
BURTON: Oh, I was beside thrilled. And the fashions coming through that line!
LAVIOLETTE: I’m constantly floored by how hot our clientele is.
BURTON: Everyone is hot, I need to step it up.
LAVIOLETTE: One of the things we love about historic dyke bars is that they are so campy and fun. I just wanted one that has a more sexy feeling. I love when I walk into a space and it makes me feel sexy.
BURTON: I feel like y’all nailed that because going through the line was amazing.
LAVIOLETTE: Do you remember what you were wearing?
BURTON: I didn’t pack to go out and I was pissed about it. But I was wearing my cartoon character uniform, which is a black, high-waisted, very tight skirt and a funny bowling shirt from the ’50s. It’s polyester, it feels gross, but it says “dick” in cursive across the side. I love the shirt. I wear it all the time.
LAVIOLETTE: That’s so fun. Thank you so much for coming I’m from the rural Midwest, so when I was looking at your list of bars, I was like, “Oh, shit, they’re all over the country.” I’ve been to a lesbian-skewing bar in Memphis, and that felt very different from a lesbian bar in New York. What was that experience like?
BURTON: Phenomenal. I live in the Midwest, in a small town called Northfield, Minnesota, 40 minutes south of the Twin Cities. So I’m deeply comfortable with that Midwest feeling. There was this bar called Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee that was really wonderful. I feel like the more Midwestern or Southern you got, the more welcoming it felt inside the bar. People are ready to start up a conversation with a random stranger who’s taking notes, which is weird. In New York, everyone looks cooler than me all the time, and I could just feel that way because I live in a small town in Minnesota. But I didn’t worry about that in the Midwest because there’s no such thing as underdressed at the lesbian bar. Unless you’re at the Bush.
LAVIOLETTE: Well, come as you are. I go in my sweatpants.
BURTON: How often do you have to be at the bar?
LAVIOLETTE: We split off-days. We both have day jobs. Nikke does weekends and I do weekdays.
BURTON: Oh, whoa. What is your staff like?
ALLEYNE: We have an amazing staff, some that also work at other queer bars in New York. We’re really lucky in that they all feel passionate about working for The Bush.
LAVIOLETTE: This is going to sound silly because we didn’t realize that we were going to be so busy on our opening night, but at first we hired four bartenders and decided to do the bar back help ourselves thinking we wouldn’t need any.
BURTON: No bar backs?
LAVIOLETTE: I know. So we’re on our way there in our cute little outfits and platforms like, “Let’s grab a table. We’ll have a drink and wait and see if anyone comes in.” And when we got to the bar to open it, there was already a line down the street. So we ended up bar -acking all night in halter tops and platforms.
BURTON: Oh my god.
ALLEYNE: I had on very high stiletto boots and I was not happy about that.
LAVIOLETTE: Our staff grew from four to—I think we’re at 15, including more security. But I’m so interested in the book as well. What got you into in the idea of going to all the dyke bars?
BURTON: I remember feeling like I’d gotten punched when the Lexington Club in San Francisco closed in 2015. I was just bitching about it for several years and then in 2017, I wrote a piece for The New York Times called “I Want My Lesbian Bars Back.” After that, I kicked around the idea with my agent of the book about visiting all the lesbian bars, but at the time we canned it in favor of other ideas. Fast-forward five years, a lot more media attention had started surrounding all these bars closing. There was the Lesbian Bar Project, there were articles coming out like, “Hey, there’s only 22. Hey, there’s only 21…”
LAVIOLETTE: Kind of like this terrible countdown.
BURTON: Yeah. And then an editor that I had worked with at Simon & Schuster emailed my agent randomly and said, “What about a book where Krista goes to all the remaining lesbian bars?” And I was like, “Now is the time. Let’s do it.”
LAVIOLETTE: It’s so interesting that there’s this giant surge of new lesbian bars right now. There was a panic when all of these historical bars were shutting down. There was Shakedown, the documentary, and “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar.” We needed to make sure these don’t go away. As things have reopened after the pandemic, everybody’s ready to go. It’s like pew, pew, pew, pew! All these lesbian bars are popping up and it’s so exciting. And as silly as this sounds, I think a lot of the lesbian bar closings were a result of the early 2000s push for heteronormativity [in order to] get rights. But since gay marriage was legalized, there’s been this pushback of queerness reentering the scene in a really cool way where we get to be really gay again.
BURTON: We’re just like you, but actually… psych!
LAVIOLETTE: After doing all this research, why do you think there was this contraction and explosion?
BURTON: There are so many reasons. Part of it is that, I don’t know how old y’all are, but I’m 40 and for a while the word lesbian fell out of use, which hurt the lesbian bar business. Because people are like, “I’m queer, I don’t identify as a lesbian no matter where I fall on the spectrum. Maybe this isn’t my bar.” So if you identified as a lesbian bar, people started to have questions about who’s allowed in the space. But I don’t know for sure.
ALLEYNE: That makes sense. As a they/them that has never identified as a lesbian, it was really important to say, “We’re a dyke space for the queers.” Because how else do you essentially say, “We’re not for cis gay men and we’re not for heterosexuals, but we’re for everyone else.” Allies are welcome and we’re happy to have them as guests, but this space is first and foremost for us.
BURTON: Totally. We don’t really have language yet for what’s going on in the queer community that’s possible to describe quickly.
LAVIOLETTE: Exactly. We can write a paragraph, but we need to just be able to say it quickly. That’s actually also how we ended up getting our name. Before we even knew we were going to be in Bushwick, we loved that queer bars historically have had names that are euphemisms, that are fun and silly. And we didn’t want to name it The Pink Pussy or something like that. We landed on the Bush because most people can grow a bush. It doesn’t exclude. It includes a grand swath of our community. Also, we love bushes.
BURTON: thought the name was really clever.
ALLEYNE: But post-getting the name, we were like, “Okay, we have to open in Bushwick.” It’s a huge play on words, but that was certainly not the first intention.
BURTON: In doing research for the book, I kept coming across some amazingly filthy names, for gay bars in particular. I found one called The White Swallow.
LAVIOLETTE: What else do we have?
BURTON: There’s one in Milwaukee near Walker’s Pint called Fluid. I just think that’s such a gross name. No offense, Fluid, if you ever read this, but wow.
LAVIOLETTE: I want it to be one step grosser.
BURTON: I’m trying to think of others, but there’s Ramrod. Oh, the Jackhammer. That’s a classic, but always a good one.
LAVIOLETTE: I love how gay bars historically had to be discreet and without windows, but we’ll call ourselves the Ramrod. It’s absurd.
BURTON: That’s how it is with your name, too. It’s a lovely play on words.
LAVIOLETTE: All of the bar vendors are old New York men and when you tell them the name and they ask you what it is, you can just see them blush and get uncomfortable.
BURTON: Have either of you seen anything outrageous happen at the bar already? I’ve heard some very interesting stories from bar owners.
LAVIOLETTE: Well, you were there at opening night, right? With the Toiletgate?
BURTON: Oh, I didn’t see the toilet incident.
ALLEYNE: Someone broke our toilet. We just assumed that they were fucking on the toilet. Because the sewer isn’t backed up, the tank was physically broken.
BURTON: Good god. Whoever that was, are you out there? Are you okay?
ALLEYNE: Show yourself! You’ll get a T-shirt or something for it.
BURTON: Did you order an indestructible toilet after?
ALLEYNE: We put up a temporary sign that said, “No fucking on the toilets or sinks.”
BURTON: Oh, I love that.
LAVIOLETTE: I know a lot of people have met at the Bush already, which is really fun to see. Part of the fantasy was to create a place where people can go and cruise on a Wednesday and know there’s going to be someone else there that is kind of on your level. So it’s really cute seeing that happen in real life, not just the hookup connections, but people doing projects together or asking us if they can do an event. That part feels particularly surreal and special, that there’s a whole whole city of people that hopefully will be able to meet here.
BURTON: Are you going to start hosting queer speed dating or stop light parties?
ALLEYNE: We actually have that planned for this month. For Pride, we’re partnering with a company that does real life speed-dating. And then we separately have singles mixers that we want to keep going. The first one we did was actually pretty successful. I saw four people come separately and leave with each other.
LAVIOLETTE: Out of all the bars you went to, is there a favorite?
BURTON: This is like being asked to name your favorite children. I had two favorites, but one of them closed and I’m furious about it. There was a bar in Mobile, Alabama called Herz. But my favorite was probably The Backdoor in Bloomington, Indiana.
BURTON: Never have I been so surprised at the shit that was popping off in Bloomington, Indiana. I’ve been out for 20 years. I’ve seen a ton of drag shows. I saw the best drag show I’ve ever seen in my life, hands down, on a Saturday night in Bloomington, Indiana. The vibe is so welcoming and creative and the owner’s so great. Just the shock of walking into a scene like that, I was not ready.
LAVIOLETTE: There’s so much room for creativity in places that are more affordable to live sometimes. In New York, obviously we have such an incredible creative culture, but it’s also a struggle to balance living under capitalism and getting your needs met while still having time to be creative.
BURTON: Bloomington is a city, but it’s not like New York. You’re not struggling just to make it. All queer and lesbian bars are, of course, in a struggle to make it. But imagine what you could do with a space the size of a warehouse that you could decorate any way you wanted, and every queer within 400 miles knows you’re there. Just the size of their back patio would make your jaw hit the floor.
LAVIOLETTE: That’s so cool. You said you’ve been out for 20 years, do you remember your first queer bar experience?
BURTON: It was the Lexington Club in San Francisco. I’d been to gay bars before, but never had I been to a lesbian bar and I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe that every person in this entire bar was probably also into women. You could make out with your girlfriend in the middle of the room. Nobody cared. And I had never experienced it before.
LAVIOLETTE: It feels really expansive and cool.
BURTON: And now you get to provide that feeling for a whole generation of new people.
ALLEYNE: We could be someone’s first time. And that is so wild.
BURTON: Listen, I saw very young gaybies in your line. I think you have been already. You’re going to be somebody’s core memory before their brains even turn into fully adult brains.
BURTON: Do you have merch?
ALLEYNE: It’s down the pipeline for sure.
LAVIOLETTE: Maybe we should have a party that has a tattoo artist and just give away branded Bush tats.
ALLEYNE: I bet so many people would take you up on that.
BURTON: And you could offer a deal like, on Wednesdays you get a free drink if you have a Bush tattoo.
LAVIOLETTE: We also do Slutty Punch every Wednesday, so it would work well. If you have a Bush tattoo at Slutty Punch Wednesday, you get a glass. You’re really helping our branding. What’s your day job, is it also gay?
BURTON: No, I’m the editor-in-chief of a magazine about plumbing.
LAVIOLETTE: What? We could have used you so many times.
BURTON: I actually don’t know that much about plumbing, I’m just a copywriter.
LAVIOLETTE: What does your book tour look like?
BURTON: I’m actually in New York and I’ve got my first event tonight at Ginger’s and I’m terribly nervous because I’ve never even been to a book launch, let alone been the focus. And then I go to Washington, D.C., back to Northfield, where I live, and then after that it’s one-offs.
LAVIOLETTE: It sounds like a marathon.
BURTON: When I was packing for these events, I packed my sluttiest clothes and when I opened my suitcase up today, I was like, “My choices are tight or see-through, sometimes both.” Very serious author…
ALLEYNE: The lezzies will appreciate it.
LAVIOLETTE: It’s summer, what are we supposed to wear?
BURTON: It’s Pride month. It’s our Christmas, our highest of holy days.