Wanda Acosta
Wanda Acosta

Lesbian documentary celebrates the birthplace of Lesbian Chic

Imagine a lesbian bar so chic and glamorous that even rich and famous culture-makers— Madonna and Jean-Paul Gautier, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Queen Latifah—would climb to the top of the stairs to join the party. Did it ever exist? Once upon a time, it did. Flashback to New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when on Sunday evenings Café Tabac opened its doors to lesbians and their friends, creating the upscale, inclusive environment where the media phenomenon known as “lesbian chic” was born.

The club closed some time ago, and Manhattan lesbians have yet to see the likes of that legendary night again. But for those wanting to relive the glory days of go-getter gay girls, a new film executive produced by Wanda Acosta, the co-host with Sharee Nash of Café Tabac, documents this brief and shining moment in the history of lesbian nightlife.

Sundays at Café Tabac, which reached its Kickstarter goal last year and is now receiving its finishing touches, revisits the history of this sexy, aesthetically inclined, and totally original club night. Acosta decided to make the film because 20 years later she was still talking to friends about the night.

“We’d get together and have dinner and talk about those early days of the party and why it still really resonated with women. And the more we talked about it the more we realized it was a historic time, and we thought we really needed to tell that story and find out what was happening in the early ’90s that pushed this transformation for lesbians.”

What was happening was a desire to come out and be fabulous together as gay women and men after the turmoil and heartache of the AIDS era, and a need to embrace self-expression as a response to the buttoned-down lesbian-feminist movement that eschewed glamour and commercialism.

In the ’90s, a groundswell of “lipstick” lesbians rebelled against the “granola” separatist-feminist image of the ’70s and ’80s, and the term “lesbian chic” was coined to describe the sudden emergence of fashion-conscious gay girls who saw style not as patriarchal oppression but as a tool for empowerment.

“Women were feeling they didn’t need to adhere to those stereotypes from the old days,” says Acosta. “[Lesbian chic] was a way to own their sexuality and express it in a way that was completely different from what lesbians had done prior.” The media was quick to pick up on the trend, and lesbians (or at least lesbian imagery) were featured on the covers of mainstream magazines such as Vanity Fair (remember the Herb Ritts photo of Cindy Crawford “shaving” k.d. lang?). “It was a very very hot moment for us, feeling really special and being OK with being out there—visible and fashionable and owning it,” says Acosta. “I thought that was very transformational, and it was certainly going to trickle down into mainstream culture somehow…”

“…There was definitely The L Word before The L Word in that room on Sundays.”

Acosta saw Café Tabac as a salon—a crucible for lesbian communication and creativity. “We had all kinds of women there—creative, powerful, downtown New York women who were certainly making things and doing things. There were directors there, TV people, so it was only a matter of time before that became part of the mainstream culture, like we see with The L Word and more film-reviewss that are coming out as well.”

We all loved (and loved to hate) The L Word, but one allegation many lesbians levelled at the show was its lack of inclusivity—real or imagined. Café Tabac started because Acosta “wanted something a little more glamorous. I really wanted to get dressed up and have a proper drink and be able to meet someone or bring someone on a date. It didn’t exist. And when I started the party, there was a level of discomfort in the beginning. Women would come up and ask, ‘What section of this restaurant is for us?’—not recognizing that the whole space was for them. We were shoving ourselves in the corner or in the basement because that’s what we were used to. So the moment that everyone felt comfortable within the room, it was just incredible and wonderful to see—to be able to own it, embrace it, and enjoy self-expression.”

Far from being exclusive, Acosta wanted Café Tabac to be a celebration of the lesbian community in all its forms, a celebration of its interconnectedness. “I started it as a lesbian night, but what was interesting was that the women were so incredible that other people just wanted to be in that space—they were attracted to the energy, the beauty, the community. It was really about community. It was about coming in and feeling like you were family. Everyone was welcoming and warm and had something to say, and you could have a conversation with a stranger and leave there feeling like you’d met a new friend, which is something that I feel is lost as technology and globalization has taken place. It was pre-cell phones, pre-Internet. It was a very different way of socializing.”

But times do change, especially in New York City, which has lost many venues through the gentrification of neighbourhoods. Café Tabac closed its doors not due to a lack of lesbian patronage, but due to rising rents. Acosta organized other parties, such as Starlight Sundays, which ran for 19 years, but she didn’t want to try to mimic Café Tabac, because “it was never going to happen again. You can’t really recreate that.”

When you look at the lesbian scene in New York today, there seem to be fewer options than ever. The upscale Dalloway closed last year. What’s left? The beer-centric boîtes (the Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson), a few semi-regular girls’ nights, and a party circuit based mostly in Brooklyn. “Unfortunately, the way the economy is in New York, it’s almost prohibitive to have a lesbian space. The mentality is still that lesbians are not consistent and they don’t spend money, which I think is a myth,” says Acosta. “The younger ones do go out, but they’d rather socialize on Facebook or online, and then have meet-ups. I don’t think they go to bars as much.”

In the meantime—and until we all tire of talking to each other with our thumbs, in our virtual little worlds—watch out for Sundays at Café Tabac. The film features over 50 interviews with celebrities, including Eve Salvail, Patricia Field, Lea DeLaria, Guinevere Turner, Edie Windsor, Sandra Bernhard, and k.d. lang. Vibrant visuals using archival images, animation, and reenactments will recreate those long-lost Sunday nights where the hippest music set the mood. Meshell Ndegeocello’s original score recreates the ambience of this Sapphic salon.

“I’m so excited, I can’t wait for this to happen,” says Acosta. “It’s a long process, but it’s gotten so much support. We’re really excited to be able to tell this story.”