In a city that prides itself on diversity--and a city that stands firmly for sexual liberation--we're backed by one, just one, dyke bar. This wasn't always the case. In the early 1970s, Seattle was home to the Silver Slipper, Shelley's Leg, Eastlake East, Dot, QB Underground, and Sappho's--to name just a few. Whatever the lesbian population lacked in visibility back then it more than made up for in watering holes.
The Wild Rose 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 upon a main street.
Though technically the bar was to change hands on January 1, 1986, the Sundance's owners agreed to let the women take control of the bar on New Year's Eve. So on December 31, 1985, the five women of the Wild Rose opened its doors. There was little time to prepare a grand opening, but the collective got the word out. "We didn't know how to work the cash register," remembers Herak, "we were clumsy at the beer taps, and we had a gas! Hundreds of women showed up, everyone in a marvelous, celebratory mood. It was a wonderful beginning."
From the start, the Wild Rose drew a diverse crowd. Tradeswomen, professional women, artists, leather women, musicians, radical and not-so-radical political organizations made it their home. The Wild Rose became a gathering space for the lesbian community and a focus of community organizing. Since opening, the Rose has maintained a close connection with the Lesbian Resource Center, hosting numerous benefits and fundraisers for the organization. But the business was unable to support all five people in the collective, and soon Bryher Herak was running the bar on her own. "The vision and joy of the opening night stayed with the Rose," says Herak, "and I think the community always supported the Rose, or at least the idea of the Rose, even when they weren't patronizing us."
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Karin Finn moved to Seattle in 1997 from Missoula, Montana, and she was impressed that Seattle had even one lesbian bar. Three years later, she--along with Martha Manning and Janice Oakley--bought the Wild Rose from Joann Panayiotou, the woman who bought the bar from Herak a few years earlier. "It's hard to explain because it was more feelings than words," says Finn, when asked why she wanted to own the bar.
As the only lesbian bar in town, local lesbians tend to have specific feelings about the Wild Rose--and specific complaints. If we're only going to have one lesbian bar, some women feel that it should have numerous different rooms playing various types of music and a lounge room for women who don't want to dance. Oh, and the Rose should offer other ways to interact besides your typical bar activities. (The Rose is a bar, so aren't bar-type activities the point?) As with any bar, there are occasional complaints about the service--and the clique-ishness of the clientele. Sadly, sexual preference doesn't override natural tendencies toward being snobby, outgoing, shy, or unapproachable. Despite a common sexual preference, each individual lesbian has her own taste in music, social events, décor, and activities. Could any one bar ever be big enough to cater to all of these things? Is it fair to expect the Wild Rose, a community space, to suit each person to a tee?
There are 12 steps in the AA program, seven stages of death and dying, and five steps to assemble the average piece of IKEA furniture. For those of you who are intimidated by large numbers, I offer you three easy steps toward accepting the Wild Rose: Love, Hate, and Acceptance.
Love: Affection for the Wild Rose is often taken to giddy extremes by those who are new to it--including me, when I moved back to Seattle at age 21. What's not to love about a place where you can let your guard down? Where no explanations are needed if you choose to hold hands or flirt with another person of the same sex? For newly out lesbians, the Rose offers a sense of validation. I have seen new faces at the Rose looking like they just stumbled upon the biggest and best roller coaster in the whole world--and it's a rainbow-striped roller coaster! Not only does it seem like a comfortable neighborhood bar, but there are lots of girls in there! Real, true lesbians! Welcome to your big fat honeymoon in girlyland.
Hate: You find yourself drinking too much because your whole social life revolves around this one bar. You are connecting with other dykes, but only in this setting. Soon you're burned out. Faces begin to look familiar and you wonder why you always see the same old crowd there, and you're tired of it--and guess what? That old crowd is probably thinking the same thing about you. Pretty soon the Rose doesn't feel like a lesbian mecca. You want more. You want to go outside and explore. Days, weeks, even months pass and you're nowhere near 11th and Pike.
Acceptance: Once you realize that there is a larger community out there--lesbians who live, work, and play outside of Capitol Hill--you no longer have to go to a gay bar to be gay. You go wherever you choose, convictions intact, making whatever space or bar you happen to be in dyke space. Then you're back at the Rose again, when you choose to go, when you simply want a beer or a familiar face--but not because your ego is on the line, or because you have to go to the Rose to be gay. Congrats, you've reached acceptance.
The Wild Rose has been a Seattle institution for 17 years and counting. Within its walls, patrons have found a community center, a watering hole, an ex, a future ex, or at least a good story. It is here because the lesbian community is here, because of the endurance of the original vision, and because of the allure of the not-so-original sin. So it's 3:15 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon as I write this, and pinball and happy hour demand my attention. As I take stock of the scene, I realize that although rose-colored glasses may not eliminate the glare, the view from here sure is fine.