The Importance of Jolene’s

Why it matters that San Francisco once again has a lesbian bar — mostly, anyway.

In his farewell address last week, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who’s been serving in Congress since it was spelled “Congrefs,” did something that caught longtime observers by surprise. He called for protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. The same Orrin Hatch who also said he didn’t care if the president was lying about his crimes and who blithely dismissed Christine Blasey Ford’s credible claims of sexual harassment actually uttered, “Pluralism shows us a better way. It shows us that protecting religious liberty and preserving the rights of LGBTQ individuals are not mutually exclusive.”

In his defense, Hatch’s 42-year Senate career wasn’t entirely bad. He did work with Ted Kennedy on AIDS research, and, in his capacity as a Mormon songwriter, once used his connections to spring R&B producer Dallas Austin from prison in Dubai on cocaine charges. But still: the universe is changing.

Its moral arc is bending toward justice, as Martin Luther King famously put it. But the arc of queer liberation has also bent toward diffusion and displacement, and as San Francisco asphyxiates on its own prosperity, queer spaces have become fewer and fewer. In 2018, the closures were limited to The Gangway, still a horrible blow to the Tenderloin’s largely working-class queer population. Earlier this year Juanita More! took over and queened up 620 Jones in the Tendernob, so it wasn’t a total wash for one of the city’s longtime LGBTQ strongholds. We don’t know yet where The Stud, which is termed out of its longtime SoMa home, will end up — although it’s definitely going somewhere. And as of this weekend, we have Jolene’s, now open in the relatively large spot that was briefly Darger Bar and Dear Mom before that.

Jolene’s is simultaneously a lesbian bar, and not. Cofounder Jolene Linsangan throws UHaul, one of S.F.’s only big parties for women-loving women and femme-identified humans, and that will now happen every Friday. Given that San Francisco has gone without a proper lesbian bar since 2014 — we love you hard, Wild Side West, but you and your fabulous patio are grandmothered into that category — this is no small thing. And yeah, it’s been four full years since The Lexington Club closed.

Although Jolene’s has that underserved population foremost in mind, it’s more accurately described as a queer bar. That’s not simply because it’s explicitly open to everyone who falls under the LGBTQ[QIA] umbrella. It’s because the very nature of gay, lesbian, and queer spaces is changing. It has to; the underlying economics may not work out otherwise. Plus, against the background radiation of a hostile society, queer bars’ sanctuary character has actually deepened.

We have same-sex marriage nationwide, but we also have a transphobic, xenophobic alt-right, and it’s just baked into young people now that justice means everybody looking out for everybody. Bars are community spaces like never before, and maybe in a way the newly enlightened Orrin Hatch might not fully grasp. Jolene’s is a safe space, but also something of a dangerous one, since opening-night photos showing their wallpaper got them put in Facebook jail for a week (owing to the bare female nipples, also the scourge of Tumblr too).

“We’re starting slowly,” co-owner Shannon Amitin tells SF Weekly. “We’re doing Thursday and Friday evenings, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday brunch starting at 10 a.m. and going to 2 a.m. And once we dial that in and make magic happen, we’ll expand to lunch and coffee. We pay rent 24 hours a day, so why not make money?”

To that end, Jolene’s is also set to be home to the long-running queer hip-hop party Swagger Like Us (Saturday, Jan. 12). But for the most part, it’s going to be a place to get good drinks made swiftly — and they might be served in glass during happy hour then plastic as the night gets rowdy.

“This space hits all the points that anyone wants,” Linsangan says. “If you’re hungry, if you want cocktails, if you just want to hang out and play some pool.”

The Purple Vesper (Tanqueray, Treecraft Vodka, Cocchi Americano, and blue pea flower, $11) is feisty-smooth, an aperitif that’ll whet your appetite for bar bites like rosemary fries, popcorn chicken, and Impossible Burger sliders. Chef Corey Armenta, of MORE! Jones and Hecho before that, is behind all the food.

Almost perversely, Amitin’s model is a gay bar that almost nobody in San Francisco misses: Lime. It was gross, but the concept of making brunch fun remains worthy of emulating (only with, y’know, taste). As long as it welcomes lesbians, people of color, and trans and gender non-conforming people — and they welcome it right back — Jolene’s will have succeeded in the eyes of its owners. Stall doors that lock and tampon-dispensers in the restroom are only the start.

Before they opened, Amitin, Linsangan, and co-owner Ashleigh Wilson watched Last Call at Maud’s, a documentary about the famous S.F. lesbian bar that ran from 1966 to 1989. It was “fascinating,” Wilson says. Amitin found an archival photo of Maud’s all-female staff, looking confident in “men’s” clothing. They were transfixed.

“I can’t think of a more socially important project,” Amitin says of Jolene’s place in contemporary LGBTQ San Francisco. “We have no lesbian bars — but there’s also a way to evolve and preserve that at the same time.”

Maud’s is gone. The Lex is gone. Jolene’s lives.

Jolene’s, 2700 16th St., 415-913-7948 or jolenessf.com

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