When Bryher Herak and a collective of four other women decided to open the Capitol Hill lesbian bar the Wildrose in 1984, they knew they wanted a space with windows. Then, most gay and lesbian bars were secretive, dark places out of necessity.
“At that time it was very closeted … it was mostly going into alleys, knowing about it word-of-mouth, because of the culture,” Herak said. “So we made a conscious decision, we would buy a place with windows, we were gonna buy a place with light, we were gonna buy a place that has a kitchen, and we are going to say we are a women’s bar.”
The formula worked. The Wildrose, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1984, turns 30 this week, celebrating with an outside tented area next to the bar, featuring DJs, burlesque dancers and a Champagne toast at midnight.
“Opening night, there was a line around the block, and it was only word-of-mouth advertising,” said Herak. “People wanted so bad to have a place like the Rose open, it was just such a naked celebration,” she said.
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Still, the windows got broken from time to time, and, said Herak, discrimination from both the police and the community happened frequently. “Every weekend and most nights there would be at least one or two situations where people would come in and just wanted to cause us a little trouble, or yell some obscenities,” she said.
But much has changed. In the time it has been open, Ellen DeGeneres came out, gay marriage passed and Seattle elected a gay mayor.
And lesbian subculture has changed, too. One of the first things current owners Martha Manning and Shelley Brothers did when they took over the Wildrose in the early aughts was remove two artists from the playlist considered sacred in lesbian lore: Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls.
“ ‘Come to My Window’ played endlessly,” said Manning. “I just wanted to get them off the jukebox immediately.”
“I think lesbians thought they had to listen to that stuff, that they had to listen to one genre of music, the singer-songwriter type of stuff,” added Brothers.
The bar’s seen its share of celebrities, including Ani DiFranco, who played a set in the backroom; Lea DeLaria, now a star of “Orange is the New Black,” visited when she was on tour with Sandra Bernhard; and the Gossip played the beer garden during a Pride celebration. (“We had the Gossip before anyone had the Gossip,” said Brothers).
When it first opened, the Rose had a much stricter women-only policy; but Manning and Brothers are more open.
“That was something that we really tried to change,” said Manning.
“We’ve been fighting discrimination all our lives,” said Brothers. “Why should we turn around and discriminate against someone else, as long as someone is acting OK?”
Indeed, one of the bars’ recent bartenders was Ben DeLaCrème (Benjamin Putnam), a star of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Nationwide, women-only bars are dwindling, for both cultural and financial reasons. Next year, when San Francisco’s sole lesbian bar, The Lexington Club, closes its doors, Wildrose will have the dubious distinction of being the only lesbian bar north of Los Angeles on the West Coast, according to Manning and Brothers.
“The trend in the country is … there’s more assimilation. There’s probably at least an illusion that we don’t need our own places so much,” said Herak. Instead, more women’s parties are popping up at men’s bars.
There are some clichés that hold true, possibly leading to lesbian bars’ struggles:
“When you cater to a female crowd, they can’t drink as much just — you know — physically,” said Brothers. And, “traditionally especially up until the last couple of years, women have made a whole lot less money than men.”
“Women tend to nest more. When they are in couples, we don’t see folks as much,” said Manning.
Though the Rose still struggles to make it in a competitive Capitol Hill real estate market (Manning and Brothers say many of their core clientele have moved off the Hill), they think the bar will be around indefinitely.
“Every bar evolves and changes over time. But I don’t see why it would need to go away,” said Brothers. “There’s always gonna be a need for a place where people can get together and feel safe, and that’s what we try to offer.”