The energy at The Wisco is a little different one Friday a month since the Dyke Dive started monthly pop-up takeovers. It’s one of the few spaces catering to gay women in Madison.

“I wanted to create a sense of belonging and community,” says Kelli Ka’alele, who runs the pop-up.

Ka’alele began hosting the Dyke Dive in 2016 at Ideal Bar on Atwood Avenue. It moved around to several other bars, but it’s been at The Wisco since the pandemic. It’s one of several lesbian- and queer-centered pop-ups that has emerged in the absence of lesbian-specific spaces in Madison.

Though never known for its lesbian bars, over the years Madison has hosted several dedicated lesbian/feminist gathering spaces, including the long departed Lysistrata, Apple Island and C’s. The beloved mixed gay bar the Hotel Washington is also long gone and more recently, Plan B and its successor, Prism Dance Club, also closed.

Ka’alele was moved to create the Dyke Dive because her own first experience at a lesbian bar created “a deep sense of connection to the community and just feeling safe,” she says. “I think you can create that type of feeling even in some of these venues that are just hosting us for a night.” She underlines that it’s the venues’ willingness to support the community that makes Dyke Dive work.

Though numbers of people who identify as LGBTQ+ are on the rise, lesbian bars have been closing across the country. Oberlin College researcher Greggor Mattson compiled a historical database of LGBTQ+-friendly spots and found that in the late 1980s there were about 200 lesbian bars in the U.S. Now there are only a couple dozen.

Linda Lenzke, active in the Madison lesbian community since the 1970s, says financial challenges have long been a reason lesbian bars struggle to stay afloat. Lenzke, who was on the board of directors at Lysistrata bar and cafe in the late 1970s, says that while there’s clearly an audience for these establishments, they often prioritize community over profit. And LGBTQ+ people are more likely to live below the poverty line than heterosexuals, according to reports from the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute. Women, who still earn less than men, are even less likely to have disposable income to spend at bars. “Women, unfortunately, especially back [in the 1970s], did not spend as much money in a bar or restaurant as men typically did,” says Lenzke, who works as an advocate at OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center​.

At the Dyke Dive, DJ Sarah Akawa spins tracks on the dance floor. Akawa is also a resident DJ at Walker’s Pint in Milwaukee, one of the few lesbian bars left in the country, and has been curating queer events since 2014.

After moving to Madison in 2012, Akawa began dreaming up ways to make her life less boring and more queer-centered — “I was feeling like I hadn’t found my people. I would go to spaces and feel like it was just not quite where I wanted to be, that the people maybe didn’t share my values, or we just didn’t quite click,” says Akawa.

Akawa, who’d organized events since she was in high school, started throwing underground parties, some queer-centered and others not. She got her first mainstream gig co-hosting the monthly woman/queer-centric pop-up, the She Said Party, at Plan B from 2014 to 2015. The monthly series was a collaboration with Tina She of God-Des & She.

From 2014 to 2019 Akawa also hosted queer-only and open-to-all events with Joey Bee (also known as DJ Boyfrrriend) under the name Queer Pressure, usually dance parties and art galleries. Queer Pressure aimed to be welcoming to queer persons of color, avoiding dress codes and hip-hop policies that isolated persons of color.

“Women and nonbinary people, especially when they’re queer and/or trans, have a lot of frustratingly shitty experiences just trying to enjoy public space,” says Akawa. “It’s cool to do something that pushes back against that and creates a kind of, however imperfect it may be, space for us.”

In 2017, Akawa and Ka’alele debuted Hot Summer Gays, a series of dance parties to showcase queer talent in Madison, bringing together punk bands, singer/songwriters, drag performances, and DJs at the same event. It’s been one of their biggest successes yet in terms of attendance, bringing hundreds to Robinia Courtyard.

Akawa hopes someday to create a multi-use space in Madison, similar to the old Apple Island venue or the queer-owned arts and performance space the Cactus Club in Milwaukee.

Also part of the scene is Madison native Kat Kosmaule, who created the Lesbian Pop-Up Bar, also known as LPub, in 2015.

“I had been talking with some friends and we noticed there wasn’t a place for women to meet each other,” Kosmaule says. “There was a lot of online dating, but not a lot of places just to share space.”

Kosmaule contacted a few bars with the idea of hosting a night dedicated to lesbians. After Gib’s showed interest, she made a Facebook page. The first event was a success, with both floors of Gib’s full.

“It felt magical,” says Kosmaule. “Several folks told me later that they met people and even after LPub closed, they carried on the night.” LPub has continued to host monthly events at area bars.

“Femme people, including queer and lesbian women, are often told to take up less space in society, or share their space with everyone,” Kosmaule says. “It requires intention to create a space specifically for femme people and queer and lesbian women.” 

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