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Denise Cohen has been in the lesbian bar business long enough to remember when you couldn’t take pictures inside.
The owner of Toasted Walnut, Philly’s only lesbian bar located at 13th and Walnut, she used to be the general manager of Sisters — and before that, GM of Hepburn’s. In their time, each was the city’s only lesbian night club. Snapping photos was taboo, since it might out fellow patrons to friends or families. The bars were shrouded in secrecy. They were safe spaces for queer women.
That was never the case at Toasted Walnut. By the time the bi-level neon sports tavern opened in 2016, lesbians were accepted enough in society that there was no blanket ban on photography.
Cohen’s tenure as “Queen Lesbian” of the Philly bar scene appears to be coming to an end. With the coronavirus stunting business, she can’t make rent. “Toasted Walnut was my dream,” said Cohen, who’s 56. “It’s a loss. It’s still numb.”
The shutter deepens a nationwide black hole. There are thought to be just 15 surviving lesbian bars in the United States — soon to be 14.
The pandemic is what hammered the nail into the coffin for Toasted Walnut, but it’s not Cohen’s only challenge. Her health is an ever-present danger. She started to go blind in 2019 due to her diabetes, and in November was diagnosed with uterine cancer that had already spread.
A GoFundMe page organized by Toasted Walnut staff seeks to at least alleviate Cohen’s medical bills so she doesn’t lose her home, which she already put up as collateral for a loan to keep the bar open.
“It’s a disaster right now,” said Drea Young, head bartender at Toasted Walnut, who helped create the crowdfunding page. “Now it’s at a point where she has to fight. What is she going to fight for, the bar or her life?”
Bringing hip hop and brunch to the lesbian night club scene
The first time Cohen entered an all-women’s gay bar, in 1986, it was the small Old City spot called Sneakers. A huge grin spread across her face. She was safe.
“There’s just this smile on your face like, ‘Oh my God, I’m here,'” Cohen recalled. “There’s just this happiness walking in. There’s this energy. You’re surrounded by this connection.”
It became her dream to keep lesbian night life alive in Philadelphia. She got hired as a barback when Hepburn’s opened in the Gayborhood in 1989, in the space now occupied by gay bar Tabu. Within six months, she was promoted to assistant manager, then general manager.
“There’s nothing like working within your community, nothing like being totally and completely free to be who you are,” she said.
Soon after, Sneakers and several other lesbian bars shut down. Hepburn’s lasted through 1995. That next year, Sisters opened on Chancellor Street (in the current location of Franky Bradley’s), and Cohen moved into the general manager position there.
Sisters closed in 2013, never able to recover from the 2008 recession. In general, Cohen said lesbian bars struggled to find investors, who seem to shy away over a worry they’re too “niche” to be profitable.
At the ones where she’s worked over the years, Cohen has strived to welcome everyone by serving all kinds of demographics. She thought up country, hip hop and oldies nights, and even a Sunday brunch — unusual, she said, for lesbian night clubs at the time.
Toasted Walnut bartender Young met Cohen almost two decades ago — when she got hired as a barback at Sisters at just 21 years old.
“She’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked for,” Young said. “She’s very loyal. If things aren’t OK, she makes sure to give you a break. She thinks about your heart.”
Welcome acceptance at regular bars, but loss of a community
Toasted Walnut has not welcomed customers since November, when Philadelphia shut down indoor dining for the second time. That same month, Cohen was diagnosed with uterine cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.
For once, her priority shifted away from the city’s lesbian nightlife scene to concentrate on her own health. The GoFundMe has so far raised nearly half its goal — almost $15k of the total $30,000 requested. The support has been “overwhelming,” Cohen said through tears.
Meanwhile, drinking at bars might not return for months.
Toasted Walnut’s landlords haven’t been willing to negotiate on rent for the space at 1316 Walnut St., Cohen said, which costs her nearly $11k a month. City records show the mortgage on the $1.5 million building was paid off in 2018. Billy Penn’s attempts to contact the landlord for comment have been unsuccessful.
The pandemic was only the final blow for Toasted Walnut. Growing acceptance of queer people over the years led to fewer customers for the designated “lesbian bar.”
“Times are changing,” Cohen said. “My wife and I can sit at Ruth’s Chris and have a cocktail and talk about an upcoming wedding or a trip, and people don’t blink an eye. We don’t talk in hushed tones like you would in the ’80s and ’90s.”
The euphoria of general acceptance notwithstanding, it’s still a huge loss for Philly’s lesbian community. Young said lesbian bars are an irreplaceable experience.
“For someone like me it’s like, that’s what they feel safe doing, being in a safe place that they know they can be themselves and do what they want,” Young said. “That experience in Philadelphia is gone.”
Cohen and Young visit Toasted Walnut periodically to clean it out, emptying the office and removing art from the walls. Leaving after one trip a few weeks ago, they encountered four young women hoping to come in.
“They were so excited. They were like, ‘It’s here! We found it!” Young said. “We had to tell them it’s closing. It was so sad. I’m like, wow, this is actually gone in Philadelphia right now.”