Nestled on a corner brimming with a beanie-clad, bleached-hair crowd lies Bushwick’s newest lesbian-owned bar, the Bush. Sunlight filters through airy, white-walled space, striking the disco balls suspended from the soaring ceiling. Cerulean chairs are sprinkled around glossy tables.
Unlike more established lesbian bars in New York City—including Henrietta’s and Ginger’s, founded in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively—the Bush is evidently roomier.
“The historical bars are really important,” says Justine LaViolette, co-owner of the Bush. “Another thing that comes with history is that they were made in a time when the bars were small, enclosed and dark.” These intimate bars were partially a function of the existing real estate—average ceiling heights were historically lower than they are today—but also served to create private, semi-hidden spaces away from prying eyes.
Lesbian bars that are opening today, however, like the Bush and L.A.’s The Ruby Fruit, are not just bigger, but bolder.
“We’re sick of being in the dark,” LaViolette explains. “You can see the difference in queer culture in the way new spaces are designed even. It’s less about hiding.”
LaViolette and best friend Nikke Alleyne had the idea for the Bush over six years ago. It started as a joke—a pipedream, really—but as they approached their late 20s, the duo realized there was a real need for it. At the time, only three lesbian bars were operating in New York City. None were located in north Brooklyn or served cocktails. During the pandemic, queer spaces dwindled even more, as chronicled by The Lesbian Bar Project.
“At the time, nothing like this existed,” Alleyne says. “You couldn’t get both a cocktail and have a fun dance party.”
The Bush—a self-proclaimed “dyke bar for the queers”—opened its doors in April of this year. Operating a lesbian bar in 2023, however, looks different than it might have in the past.
For one, even the phrase “lesbian bar” is examined. The Bush is part of a larger movement of queer spaces embracing inclusive terminology beyond the binary labels of lesbian and gay. “It’s an expansive idea of what this kind of space is,” LaViolette says. “Like, I’m agender—I’ve never identified as a lesbian. It was really important for us to make it a space that’s for all of us.”
Still, being open to all doesn’t mean getting rid of boundaries entirely. Being inclusive, but, at the same time, exclusive enough to maintain a safe space for femme, non-binary and trans-masc folks is a bit like walking a tightrope. So far, LaViolette and Alleyne believe they’ve struck a fair balance.
“We’ve spent so much time being guests in gay male spaces,” says LaViolette. “Now it’s a space that’s ours that they can be guests in instead.”
Inclusivity also means catering to a racially diverse crowd. The Bush serves a majority Hispanic and Black neighborhood in Bushwick, whereas other lesbian bars in the city are situated in predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s the only Black-owned bar of the bunch, too.
“We make it an intentional effort to service all races, specifically Black and Brown queer folks,” Alleyne says. “That is with 100-percent intention, because there are not a lot of spaces that exist for us. And the couple of [events] that [catered to us] took place in straight spaces.”
“It’s diverse in a way that honestly I’ve never seen at other places,” she continues. “I feel so happy walking in here.”
Still, the Bush’s opening came with its fair share of challenges. “We ran into a lot of issues with spaces that weren’t okay with our concept, which seems crazy in 2023,” LaViolette notes. Reluctant parties fell into one of two categories: “People who are uncomfortable with our concept because of various religious identities—not just one, which is interesting. And also, people who were hesitant to rent to first-time borrowers.”
In a year filled with record-making anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, discrimination against queer spaces isn’t an anomaly. “Some people find us existing to be controversial, instead of just a fact,” LaViolette says.
The duo also faced bureaucratic roadblocks when it came to obtaining business loans and grants. As a result, they leaned on their community for help and took on DIY projects. Their friends came over to paint the walls; LaViolette and Alleyne offered trays of tacos and buzzy music to enjoy in between brushstrokes. Friends and friends of friends were enlisted to be bartenders.
“Our close friends were just so supportive. They continued to say, ‘If you need anything, we will help,’” Alleyne recalls. “Finally, we were like, ‘Okay, yeah. Come.’ And it feels good. They have a sense of, ‘I helped build this.’ It’s important.”
The community love extends to the menu, which was designed with help from friend and artist Syan Rose, who has a background in cocktail creation. After experimenting and hosting a friends-and-family tasting, the trio landed on their current selection of drinks, which feature tongue-in-cheek names and eccentric flavors. On the smoky end, there’s the Guest Star (a blend of mezcal, passion fruit and Aperol with a tajín rim), while on the refreshing side, there’s the Island They (a marriage of rum, hibiscus, ginger beer and mint).
In many ways, the Bush is emblematic of the modern queer experience. It’s embracing the ways queerness is evolving, built on the love of chosen family. More than anything, it’s about persisting through unprecedented obstacles.
“We dream of a world where we can go on a full bar crawl of just spaces like these,” LaViolette says.
Last Updated: June 26, 2023