In Search of Lady Bears: The Challenges of Dyke Dating in Southern Cities

Preface by Bianca: When Rashaun sent me this piece, I initially thought it was just about challenges related to lesbian dating, but after reading it, I realized that this essay is just as much as what it’s like to participate in the gay scene in the South, and how divergent her experiences are from my life inside my  Northern urban queer bubble.

Last October I visited Phoenix, AZ for a conference and was taken to a Country lesbian bar by Kenna King. I have participated in LGBTQI scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Chicago in my 32 years, and each region has its own distinct “queer culture.” My expectations, vocabulary, and so forth have been informed by these experiences. But in Phoenix, I unwittingly committed a faux pas by telling a local: “I’m not actually a dyke, but I am queer identified.” The girl I was speaking to appeared baffled and replied “of course you’re not a dyke, you’re wearing lipstick and a dress!” In Chicago and San Francisco, “lesbian” is kind of a passé expression, and “dyke,” while a historically politicized reclaimed slur, means pretty much any woman who loves women. In Phoenix, “dyke” has connotations of a rough, masculine, working class lesbian, and I clearly didn’t fit the bill in this woman’s eyes.

Likewise, I found Rashaun’s consistent use of the term “queer” to describe all kinds of gay women within this piece somewhat disorienting. In Chicago, “queer” is a highly politicized umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of identities outside of the heteronormative and homonormative worlds. Queer does not automatically mean gay or lesbian to me.

I asked Rashaun about her take on “queer,” as she uses it in her piece, and she replied:

I use ‘queer’ because that’s how I personally identify, and also because I believe it is an all-emcompassing word that can be used to address all variations of women dating/having sex with other women. ‘Queer’ as in queer sex. And yeah you’re right – down here it’s more of a way glbtq people describe themselves, with “fag” being the offensive term.

Hence, Rashaun’s definition of “Queer” is not exactly the same as mine, but it’s no less valid. On a similar note, I think that while her experiences participating in LGBTQI communities in the South is dramatically different that my experiences in the various Metropolitan areas I’ve lived in, it’s given me a fresh insight to how very different queer communities are in different parts of the US. Rashaun says:

The south is still dealing with issues that larger cities have already sorted out… Gay bars were still getting raided in ’99 and 2000.  Hitting people up for IDs, making folks wipe off their makeup to make sure their face matched the ID, searching for drugs (though plenty were present, but still – not cool) shit like that.  I would imagine that sort of thing would be pretty rare by then in a place like Miami or LA.

It’s really interesting to see the difference between queer life in middle America as opposed to how it is in big places. I mean we have gay families and trans people and genderqueer types, but we also have ex-gay camps and university professors who get fired for sucking dick in the the Ole Miss bathrooms at (age) 60 (true story). And we also have clueless queers like myself who are still searching at 30 for our niche in a ridiculously binary world…


I came bursting out of the closet at 18 and immediately took to the gay bars of Memphis, Tennessee, where there was Amnesia and Backstreet and The Jungle and J-Wag’s, the latter having been the oldest gay bar in Tennessee until it closed a few years ago.  I loved the sign for J-Wag’s – a man lying on the ground in a jock strap, legs spread for easy access.  These were all small town gay bars in the purest sense of the word – drag queens were more glamorous than artsy (more Mariah than Grace Jones) and gloryholes were standard if you wanted any clientele.

The only lesbian bar that I knew of at the time was the Madison Flame, and it was right down from Lorenz, another popular midtown gay bar.  Most days there were more men than women at the Flame, but I always got excited when I pulled up and saw a row of 3 or 4 motorcycles parked in the lot.  There was this one little gang of outlying chubby, leather-clad dykes who’d post up in the corner, drinking Bud Light even though the trendy dyke beer at the time was Rolling Rock.  But these weren’t trendy dykes.  These ladies had windblown hair and outrageous facial tans from cross-country rides. They didn’t really talk to anyone else.

Most of the other girls at the bar were like myself – college-aged, showered, shaved, and perfume-scented – but these mamas made me want to get motor oil all over me.  I thought of squeezing chunky thighs and hugging a squishy midsection, smiling into a face with bushy eyebrows.  The beauty of a pair of sagging tits. They were the closest thing I ever found to the queer female equivalent of a gay male “bear” (an expression used to describe a subculture of big, hairy, hyper-masculine gay men). Why didn’t we have a lady bear scene in Memphis?  Was it just a big-city thing that small towns miss out on?  If we had lady bears, I’d be the premier cub*.

The Pumping Station

In my mostly small-town experience of gay culture, it’s hard not to notice how much more “organized” and delineated gay male culture is than lesbian culture.  The menz get their twinks, gym bunnies, leather men, bears, cubs, wolves, otters, BD/SM culture …and all of these different subsets have their own bars and social clubs!  Memphis has Tsarus, a motorcycle/Levi/leather club that was founded in 1977 and even hosts an annual retreat near the Shiloh battlefield.  A River City cub seeking a daddy bear can just head out to the Pumping Station and, if all goes well, he’ll have a fuzzy chest to sleep on that night. Perhaps it’s a good thing that small town lesbians haven’t ever felt the need to break ourselves out into different “genres” of queerness in the same way that gay men do, but what ends up happening is that we all get lumped together in the same bar. This happens with the full knowledge that we don’t all wanna bang each other.

Some queer ladies only wanna bang other queer ladies that are in impeccable physical condition.  Some butches will only date straight-passing femmes.  Some femmes will only date other femmes.  Some not-so-out youngsters (as well as totally-over-it older ladies) are looking for purely casual encounters.  Some queer ladies are like teenage boys who require smartphones, mall clothes, and bright-ass sneakers on their partners.  Some hippie queer girls only want other hippies who fart jasmine and have huge bushes.  Some of us just want 15 minutes of fun in a dark corner or a bathroom stall, the dyke equivalent of a gloryhole.

Queer women are just as diverse as queer men, but my social scene didn’t necessarily reflect that (and please remember that this is coming from my small-town perspective).  Maybe in LA there are motorcycle dyke bars and femme-only nights at the Velvet Snatch or whatever that burlesque bar is called, but in 1999 Memphis I was basically stuck with the Flame, which was mostly full of gay guys whenever I was there.  I had to swim through the seas of twinks and perfumed softball dykes from the University of Memphis in the hopes that the greasy mama of my dreams would be outside getting the contraband out of her crank shaft before the cops raided the place (as the Memphis PD was fond of doing back then).

The way gay men have managed to make their social scene more granular is impressive, even though it goes against modern ideals of everyone living/loving/being together as one unified community.  On the other hand,  it also makes dating and cruising much less complicated in the gay milieu.  People are able to go into sex-positive environments and get what they’re looking for.  If you wanted a muscleman in short-shorts, you went to Amnesia.  If you wanted that same guy but with a coke problem, you went to Backstreet.  If you wanted that same guy with the coke problem to blow you anonymously, you went to J-Wag’s.  If you wanted a mean and hairy daddy to stand on your chest, you went to Pipeline.

The existence of these niches means there’s likely something for everyone in the world of gay hookups.  A gay man doesn’t have to feel like a slob if he’s overweight because he knows that there are men out who are attracted to him (though they may not necessarily be the same men he’s attracted to).  A thin, hairy man doesn’t have to feel unattractive for the same reason.

As a queer woman, however, I always found myself second-guessing my worth and attractiveness in my community, and mainly because I had an impossible time identifying potential partners.   I know that it would have been easier for me if I could have just gone to the motorcycle mama dyke bar. But the queer ladies of Memphis didn’t have a motorcycle dyke bar – or any bar at this point, to the best of my knowledge.  In 1999 we just had the Madison Flame, but if you weren’t a pretty college girl wearing makeup under her baseball cap, then you were pretty much left to your own devices.  Literally.

The internet has pretty much solved the hookup problem for the small-town queer kid, as it has solved many problems for gays who have issues with being closeted or isolated from other gays.  You would have thought that being in small towns would naturally lend toward more “cruisey” behavior on the part of queer ladies, but as far as I know there aren’t any dyke gloryholes in Athens, GA.  Still, the modern lady cub is in much better hands than I was in 1999 – she can just go online to any number of dating sites out there, describe herself, describe her preferences, and wait for a like-minded person to find her.  I wish there was a term that we could use to describe ourself.  If the menz are bears, then what are we?  Pandas?  Orcas?  Narwhals?  I like “Narwhals” best because they grow giant spiral spikes out of their heads, sort of like mother nature’s strap-on.

The internet might be the solution, but bar culture is such a staple of queer life to me.  I always want there to be bars, adult theatres, parks, parking lots, rest stops, bandana codes, gloryholes in restrooms, you name it, but I wish that queer women were a bigger part of that.  I don’t think that queers should have to mimick the way hetero people date, and as time passes I think we’re seeing an increasing willingness to assimilate into mainstream culture, and that makes me a  bit uncomfortable.  I want gayness to always be on the fringes, for our culture (not our lifestyle) to be something truly unique, and for real – because wouldn’t it be awesome to finally have a dyke motorcycle bar in Memphis, Tennessee?

*Cub – a younger (or younger looking) version of a bear, typically but not always with a smaller frame. The term is sometimes used to imply the passive partner in a relationship.Can be hairy or hairless.”

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  1. Uhm…. so this is kind of random, but I hope it’s ok to comment here since you do use your real name and photo on the site.

    I found this site via Bianca, who’s a new friend of mine. I was skimming around and saw your name, and thought “Gee that name sounds familiar.” Saw your photo and thought “She looks familiar, too!” And now I find that we both went to college in good ole MIssissippi.

    I’m commenting to ask if I’m crazy or if there’s some chance we might have met in person years ago. I went to MSU and was the president of their GLBF association for a while. We used to go to Rumors in Tupelo all the time, and we occasionally went to other clubs around the state. This was back in like 2000 or so. Your name and face seem so familiar and it’s driving me nuts because I don’t know if I actually ever met you or heard your name back when I still lived down there, or what.

    • I remember meeting the gay peeps from MSU, yes! I was in the GLBA at Ole Miss and we partied quite hardy. You’re gonna have to give me some hints as to who you are, because to be honest – my early twenties are pretty much a blur. Email me! rash.ellis AT gmail DOT com.

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