LARGO — It’s Friday night at a small bar in an unassuming strip plaza, and 20 women are standing on stage learning how to line dance. Clad in their country best, they follow their high-ponytailed, Daisy Dukes-wearing instructor’s lead. A shuffle here. A turn there. Their feet zigzag in step with their dance partners.
Earlier this year, The Lady’s Room couldn’t gather this kind of crowd. Back in April, the Largo lesbian bar narrowly made it past the one-year mark. Now, thanks to a viral video, new business tactics and old-fashioned word of mouth, more people are frequenting the spot.
According to The Lesbian Bar Project, a group that tracks lesbian bars nationwide, The Lady’s Room is the only one in Florida — and one of just 30 or so nationwide. The next closest one? More than 400 miles away in Atlanta.
Sure, there are gay bars much closer, but lesbian bars are different, says The Lesbian Bar Project, because of their “prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders, including women (regardless if they are cis or trans), non-binary folks and trans men.”
Running one of the few remaining lesbian bars isn’t easy — just ask owner Vicki Gibson. Every day brings a new onslaught of challenges. She opened the bar in April 2022 because she felt the area needed a women’s bar, specifically one where queer women were centered, but was met with low traffic and financial difficulties.
”It’s been an uphill battle,” she said.
Before hosts of the “Cruising” podcast, which visits lesbian bars around the nation, stopped by in April and filmed a TikTok video, Gibson said she was “$38,000 in the hole.” The attention that immediately followed the visit led to $40,000 raised for the bar through GoFundMe and an uptick in support. But a few weeks after, she said, the donations dried up.
Without a consistent flow of patrons, it’s difficult to recoup losses. And that’s not even accounting for unexpected hardships: One day it’s a busted circuit breaker, and the next it’s a refrigerator full of spoiled food.
Gibson was explaining all this on a recent evening while working behind the bar, and a customer slid her some cash.
“Sorry to hear you’re still struggling,” said Dunedin resident Shannon Harris. It was her first time there.
Gibson, a 59-year-old St. Petersburg native, grew up going to bars like the one she eventually opened. She went from a patron, to a regular, to joining the bar and restaurant industry and staying in it, even after she left the state to work somewhere else. When she came back, she tried to return to the places she grew up in but found they had all shut down.
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“When I came back to Florida in 2015, that’s all I saw,” she said. “We needed a women’s bar.”
Gibson was determined to fill that gap, but it was difficult. She said people she sought advice from were skeptical of the Largo location because it was in a strip mall with a Black barber and beauty shop, as well as a soul food restaurant. To Gibson, though, the place was perfect: easy to get to from Tampa and right in the middle of Pinellas County. It’s accessible, which is exactly what she wanted.
Finding a location turned out to be the easy part. Her longtime bank wouldn’t grant her a loan. She thinks it’s because she receives disability benefits. Instead, she put everything she had into buying the bar. She sold the properties she’d accumulated during her years out of state and maxed out her credit cards. When the bar was finally secured, she felt she could make it the place she always wanted it to be.
The bar has been in a state of transition since it opened, she said. In the hopes of achieving longevity, Gibson brought in new staff members who have suggested everything from redoing the menu to establishing a larger social media presence. The biggest addition, though, has been crafting a regular schedule of events, like queer line dancing lessons and a trivia night based on the popular Netflix reality show “The Ultimatum: Queer Love.”
Regular patron and Clearwater resident Nora Gupton isn’t surprised by the additions.
“A gay bar has to do a little bit more to stay afloat,” she said.
For the potential of success, Gibson had to forgo her dive bar vision. The bar’s old raunchy posters and decorative glasses had to go. Rainbow flags she put up early on have stayed, but she added more, like the lesbian, transgender and bisexual Pride flags, to be more inclusive.
It’s taken Gibson some time to come around to the new changes, but turnout is increasing.
At the recent line dancing event, Gupton said she’d never seen so many people in the bar. Business consultant Tina Sapia wasn’t sure line dancing would interest anyone. But later on, just before the bar closed that night, she called the evening “magical.”
River Bates, one of Gibson’s new hires, was also there that evening. Bates started as a customer.
“I was hearing what my friends were saying they would like to see in the bar,” Bates said. “And everyone was saying ‘Look, we have a lesbian bar, but there’s X, Y and Z issues with it.’”
So Bates, despite recently leaving the service industry, approached Gibson and let her know they had management experience and would be willing to help out. They were the one who pitched half of the events on the new calendar, including the dating show trivia night. Even though some of them may seem silly, Bates said, right now that kind of event is especially important to the bar’s mission.
“You have to have spaces that we know are designated safe spaces,” said Bates. “That we can go to, and gather and build community. And just have fun.”
Gibson said people in the LGBTQ+ community are afraid. State legislation surrounding trans health care, drag shows and education on gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools has gained national attention for its controversial nature. In April, LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida issued a travel advisory because of said legislation, warning of the risks to queer people and allies in the state.
Drag performers at The Lady’s Room won’t step outside without removing their outfits. There were a few days when the bar’s doors were plastered with “Jesus saves” pamphlets. Gibson has had to hire security.
Hostility doesn’t faze Gibson, but she opened The Lady’s Room to function as a refuge for people. She benefited from the community formed at gay bars in her youth and wants the same for others. The bar frequently hosts events in partnership with Project No Labels, a Tampa Bay-based nonprofit focused on unity between the LGBTQ+ community and their allies.
It’s a lesbian bar, but she said everyone’s welcome — men, straight women, anyone who is being respectful. So far, mostly everyone has been.
Many first-time patrons said they’d never been to a place that felt like the bar, where people — mostly queer women — of different generations were able to naturally find each other in conversation. This is largely what’s drawn customers like Gupton to the bar. It just feels good to be there.
How does the future look to those behind the bar? Sapia said she’s sure it’ll still be around by the end of the year, which is something she wouldn’t have thought six months ago.
Gibson, with her grit, is taking things day by day. She doesn’t know when she can be less hands-on with the bar. For now, she’s there from open to close — making wisecrack remarks to staff and slinging burgers in the kitchen.
“Everybody can quit. I’m still going to be here,” she said.