KRISTA BURTON was a self-described “lesbian joke machine” with a blog called Effing Dykes when an editor at Simon & Schuster called to ask if she would like to write a book for them. The editor had just read an article in The New York Times about the dwindling number of lesbian bars in the U.S.—only a couple dozen remain—and Burton had been writing essays on lesbian subjects for the Gray Lady. She leapt at the chance. She was 39, living in a small town in Minnesota, married to a trans man named Davin, working for a company that set up seminars for authors of books about education, and weary of the first year of the pandemic isolation. When, during a FaceTime conversation with friends a year into the lockdown, the question “What did they miss most about life before Covid?” arose, Burton instantly replied: “being in a packed, sweaty dyke bar, surrounded on all sides by queers so close they’re touching me, and then to feel someone with a drink in one hand try to inch past me. You know—when the bar’s so crowded that your arms are up and held tight to your body, with all your elbows tucked in, and you can feel people jostling you from all sides!” And that’s what she set out to find (once the vaccine had been introduced).
There were four rules she made for her project: one, that she only visit self-identified lesbian bars, or bars that had historically been lesbian; two, that she visit them at least twice; three, that she try to contact the bar owners and interview them; and four, that she must approach and speak to at least two strangers in every bar. These rules weren’t as simple to follow as they sound. For instance, she confesses to being shy, and, as she points out more than once, gay people in bars are very good at looking at other gay people, but not at engaging them in conversation. And not only was she shy, she wasn’t a big drinker. Raised in a Mormon household in the Midwest, she writes: “I almost never take shots when I go out, because I cannot handle them. It takes exactly 1.5 normal drinks for me to become the kind of person who says shit like, ‘You have the most invisible pores, your skin is unreal’ to people I don’t know.” Of course, once in the bars she finds herself being asked to drink shots on the slightest pretext.
Andrew Holleran’s latest novel is The Kingdom of Sand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).