"The Wildrose got its start in the early 1980s, when a collective of five women began scouting locations for a new lesbian bar. They wanted to open a women's bar that was light, served good food, and was a place where women would feel comfortable bringing friends and family, straight and gay. They settled on the location of the Sundance Tavern, a sports bar frequented by Seattle University students on the corner of 11th Avenue and East Pike Street. 'Nothing much was happening in the Pike/Pine corridor at the time,' says Bryher Herak, one of the five women in the collective, 'but it felt right to be on Capitol Hill. That's where most of the men's bars were, and we all fell in love with the Sundance's location.' And at a time when most of the city's gay bars were unmarked and hidden away, the bar had big windows that looked out on a main street."—Dani Cone, The Stranger, 2002
THE EARLY DAYS
BIANCA BROOKMAN, OWNER OF ARIA SALON: I had a girlfriend at the time (in the '80s) with a mohawk. We were punk rock; we would come up to the Hill all the time. I think I wasn't 21 yet, but I did get a fake ID, and the first thing we did is hit as many of the lesbian bars as we could. It was exciting and scary all at the same time. Not scary in the sense of wanting to run away or anything, but new, and a little underground, and edgier back then. These were the days when mullets were really popular.
TARI MCKENZIE, 56, RETIRED: Back in the day, you could not bring a man in that bar. They were very rabid about it. And it did not matter if they were gay or not.
BIANCA BROOKMAN: It wasn't as accepting for men. And I hung out with quite a few gay men back then. And also, it was hard for me to fit in a little bit because I think women were really seriously political about not dressing for men, and I wore heels, kind of looked like a slut. Back in the day, there would be bull dykes, butch, or femme. And oftentimes femme women—apparently that's sort of what I fit into, even though that's not how I saw myself—would date butch women. But I've always been attracted to girls more like myself. It's definitely better now, and there's a bunch of different pronouns now, and a bunch of different ways to fit in.
MINTY LONGEARTH, 45, COMMUNITY OUTREACH SPECIALIST: Everybody kept talking about, "Go to the Wildrose!" And I walked in, and it was super friendly but cool. I remember that it was the first time I saw white women in the same space with women of color just having a good time and hanging out. That wasn't familiar to me in Southern California, where I moved from. I loved every bit of it: every sip of water, every flirtation across the room, every time you would catch somebody's eye. Everything felt all new and like: "This is Seattle. I'm surprised this is Seattle."
MONISHA HARRELL, 42, BOARD CHAIR OF EQUAL RIGHTS WASHINGTON: The legend of the Wildrose was really huge, and the first time I walked in, I was surprised at the legend. They usher you from the interior room to the outside beer garden, and it's summertime in Seattle. And there's this huge ice sculpture that people are doing shots off of. I'm pretty sure it was something raunchy. I think it was breasts. The combination of alcohol and dehydration and exes and futures all in one location... It was fantastic and nobody was shy about taking shots. And wall-to-wall women. I have no idea where all of those people go when it's not Pride weekend.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IN THE LESBIAN WORLD
MONISHA HARRELL: It was like this miraculous game of dodgeball when you walked in, where it was like, oh, we can't go over there because so-and-so's ex is over there. And oh, I'm kind of interested in her over there. We should go over that way. But no, her ex is over there, we can't. It's like finding the right spot to stand that somebody's ex isn't in. We started out there, a tight group, a crew that's hanging. And then all of a sudden, people get a couple drinks in them and they start to stray from the pack a bit.
There was so much interpersonal dynamic in there at one time: the history of past relationships, the potential of new relationships developing there. It's fascinating because you don't actually know who someone may go home with that day. At the start of the day, there might be exes who hate each other. But by the end of the day, they've gotten back together, and it's been 45 minutes, and you haven't seen them. And you just assume, I think they left together. But without cell phones at that period, you had to wait until the next morning to find out.
SHELLEY BROTHERS AND MARTHA MANNING TAKE OVER, 2000–2003
MARTHA MANNING: The first day, we took out the jukebox. I know there's a place for lesbian music, like Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge and all that stuff. But working here for years already, we were so over it. You're working the whole shift, somebody comes in and plays these songs, and you're like okay, great. Then they walk out, and someone else comes in. You know who had to listen to that stuff 17 times a night? We did.
SHELLEY BROTHERS: "Come to My Window" was like... [groans]
MARTHA MANNING: And ABBA. Every time "Dancing Queen" would come on, she'd shut it off. Like, "Here's your dollar, I can't..."
SHELLEY BROTHERS: I can't do it.
THE WILDROSE GAME
TARI MCKENZIE: If you want to get attention at the Rose, all you have to do is grab a woman and try to go into that single-stall bathroom. And every single time, you will get attention from the bartenders. They will yell and scream at you. I don't know if they think you're gonna do drugs or finger-bang your girlfriend. It's quite a fun thing to do on the weekend when you're bored. It's like, "Don't worry about busing your tables, but GOD DON'T LET THEM GO TO THE BATHROOM TOGETHER."
ON "BEING MEAN" TO MEN
LON ZOOK, 26, WOODWORKING STUDENT: I was talking to my friend, a gay boy, and he was like, "Do all lesbians hate men?" At that point in time, I was like, Sure, lesbians can be mean. Why are lesbians so mean? Especially to gay boys? I totally understand why a gay boy would walk in there and not be treated super well, because there are tons of bars that cater to gay men. I've totally encountered that [at gay bars for men.] I'm five-foot-three on a good day, and being at the bar and trying to order drinks, I've had male bartenders look past me and help the guy behind me. Though we're supposed to be included, LGBT siblings, you're not and it's obvious.
ON BEING TRANS OR NONBINARY IN THE LEZZIE BAR
NAT, 28: Seattle talks a good game about being an open, progressive, inclusive of all city. But ask any QTPOC if that's been their experience, and I'd bet that's an unlikely universal truth. If my choices to fully express myself without judgment, without fear of threatening someone's hetero/cis-normative mind-set are at a once-a-month dance party at a venue that's kind enough to let us use it for three hours one night OR the oldest lesbian bar where I'm constantly misgendered, where I may or may not get hit on by a drunk frat guy looking to see if his Axe body spray can turn me on, I'm going to naturally and understandably feel out of place/burdensome/unwelcome.
DANNI ASKINI, 34, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF GENDER JUSTICE LEAGUE: The first time I went to the Rose, it was Pride 2007, which was right after I moved to the city. I'd never been to a dyke bar, and I was super excited to go. I was working at Verbena, the queer women's health organization on the Hill, and my colleagues wanted to grab a drink. And I remember the bartender looked at me, thought I was underage, and said, "Let me see your ID." And then she said, "Honey, who you gay with? Which one of them?" And I said, "I don't know, I'm bi, I don't know what to say." It was really funny and awkward... I think she pegged me as a straight girl and was like: "What are you doing in our space? You look underage and you look straight. Why are you here?" I've only ever had positive experiences, and Shelley and Martha have been really great to us and really supportive of Gender Justice League. I've never felt unwelcome as a trans woman. The Rose is definitely the place I go.
LON ZOOK: It's kind of difficult sometimes to be nonbinary in a lesbian space. I'm not on hormones or anything like that, and oftentimes people assume my gender is female. It's really difficult being seen. Being in lesbian crowds, sometimes when you come out as nonbinary, you get a bit of pushback, because it's like you leave your band of sisters behind. People still think I'm female most of the time. I feel oftentimes within our own community there's this "us versus them" mentality, the masculine folks and the femme folks.
DANNI ASKINI: For trans women, it feels like a super important space to hang out with friends and not worry about being harassed by people.
MARTHA'S ACCIDENT, 2008
On September 3, 2008, a runaway car came crashing into a pump at a gas station on Broadway. Martha Manning was caught in the resultant explosion and badly injured. She spent three agonizing weeks in Harborview's burn unit and received painful skin grafts. "The way the people from the bar rallied around me..." Manning says, her voice trailing off. "This accident and the resulting response from the community has made me realize how lucky I am to have even a small role in the history of the Wildrose. It has given me a family and a community that I love." —Adrian Ryan, The Stranger, 2009
TARI MCKENZIE: I have a daughter who I conceived through donor insemination with a partner. And she was always very interested in going to the places we went. So when she became old enough, I was able to take her to the Rose for a late-afternoon lunch, because they served food. And that was something that she absolutely loved. It made her feel so grown-up to come with me to the Rose, sit in the window, watch people, and be part of that experience. That was something that was a joy to do with her.
EXCERPT FROM A ONE STAR YELP REVIEW, JULY 17, 2010
STEPHEN L., LOS ANGELES: I would love to give this place a higer [sic] rating, but there is a lot of customer service work that needs to be done first.
THE GENTRIFICATION PUSH
MINTY LONGEARTH: I haven't been back since 2008, and that was more because I was further out, and, you know, [the city gentrified and] pushed brown people out. And there isn't anything like that down in the South End. There was nothing like Wildrose. And even now, after all these years, I feel this huge affinity for Wildrose. And I'm always surprised when women move into town and don't immediately go there. The feeling has changed. You've got a lot more straight people trying to see the queer thing, and that's some bullshit. Dear straight people, queer people don't go: "Let's go see straight people. Let's go to that bar, I hear it's totally straight."
DEAR STRAIGHT PEOPLE
MARTHA MANNING: If there's anybody being inappropriate to anyone else, we try to nip it in the bud. We're careful, but we address it.
SHELLEY BROTHERS: It's a challenge because we've never wanted to discriminate against anyone. Everyone has always been welcome in here. But you also don't want to see the character of the bar changing. So we have to be very on top of that.
MARTHA MANNING: We've kicked out lesbians who have complained about the straight people. If they step over a line, we kick them out.
EXCERPT FROM A TWO-STAR YELP REVIEW, MAY 22, 2013
ALLISON T., SEATTLE: What pact with the devil did the Wildrose make to allow them to be the only lesbian bar in Seattle? How is this possible? There is no well-to-do lesbian out there ready to dump some money into some crunchy Tegan & Sarah [sic] remix spinning overpriced craft cocktail clusterfuck of women's studies degrees? If only we could scare all the bros out of Montana...
NEW YEAR'S EVE, 2014
MADELINE HANHARDT, 24, ORGANIZER OF THE "GAY GIRL GANG" MEET-UPS: Right after I moved to Seattle, I had been 21 for only a few months and I was really excited to go the Wildrose's big New Year's Eve block party. It was the same year that they turned 30 years old and celebrated the anniversary of the bar. Someone pickpocketed me on the way to the bar, so I couldn't get in. But of course, this little band of queer women came to my rescue and snuck me a flute of champagne and gave me a New Year's kiss. It was hilarious and so representative of how magical our community can be and how we can really take care of one another. As a young, drunk, queer girl in the city, not knowing where I fit in, it really went a long way to have been extended an invitation into a community like that.
NAT: We ended up at the Rose on Halloween, and after some time there, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg" walks up to me and says she loves my costume. We talked, we danced, we established we were single. But after coming back from the bathroom, she was gone! I'm not going to play this out like a problematic episode of How I Met Your Mother, but I was like, if there's ever been a missed connection ad worth posting, this would be it. So that's one of my favorite memories—the day I missed out on the chance to ask out RBG.
FLYING THE FLAG
MADELINE HANDHARDT: I think of the Wildrose a lot. I compare it to family, because it's kind of like going to a family reunion.
DANNI ASKINI: It's really the center of my social nightlife. I just think about dancing with friends and doing karaoke and feeling safe. In an ever-changing Capitol Hill, it seems like a hallmark that remains in the center of my life.
MONISHA HARRELL: I talk about my first time there being two decades ago, and I think about all of the baby gays who have come after me, and the legions who came before me. I think if you are a queer in the Seattle area, the Wildrose is part of your history.