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Bailey Morgan stands in front of Mum’s the Word, the birthplace of LIPS, on Commercial Drive.

Lesbians in Vancouver create nightlife of their own

The term “U-Haul lesbian” never rang more true as sapphics move around the city without a permanent place to party.

By Phoebe Fuller and Theo van Beusekom , in Culture Feature story , on May 7, 2023

Jess Smith and Bailey Morgan started hosting lesbian nights to make more friends in Vancouver.

In a city with no lesbian bars, they figured the best way to meet other queer women was to try and bring the community to them. Their first event was at Mum’s the Word, a coffee shop on Commercial Drive the now-married couple used to manage. 

“We were noticing that it was very dead on Tuesday nights. So I suppose, being queer women on the Drive, we were like, ‘Hey, what if we do a lesbian night?’” said Morgan. 

What began with just five people playing board games in that coffee shop a year ago has grown into their event company LIPS. They now host regular events at a variety of venues for upwards of 400 attendees per month, catering to a crowd of queer women, trans and non-binary people seeking a space of their own. 

The success of LIPS showed Smith and Morgan they weren’t the only queer women in Vancouver searching for community connections. 

“You can tell there’s a need for it because [there was] such an outpour,” said Smith. “People were craving this.” 

LIPS has followed a more than decade-long tradition of pop-up events necessitated by the closure of Lick Club, Vancouver’s last lesbian bar, in 2011 after its building was sold to new owners. Since losing that space, Vancouver’s lesbian nightlife has persisted through community resilience and ingenuity—from underground warehouse parties to queer takeovers of traditionally straight spaces. 

Pop-ups offer a solution to the lack of permanent spaces for sapphic women, trans and non-binary people—a challenge the community faces in nearly every major city. According to The Lesbian Bar Project, almost 200 lesbian bars have closed since the 1980s in the U.S. alone. In Canada, Toronto’s rare lesbian-run bar Lavender Menace recently shuttered in 2022 and since losing Le Drugstore in 2013, Montreal has also yet to acquire an official lesbian haunt. 

After the closure of Lick, members of Vancouver’s queer nightlife scene created new spaces to fill the void. Events like Babes on Babes, Man Up and Hotline were all started by former DJs and employees of Lick who had to find creative ways to continue hosting parties.

Kasey Krystecki, who performs as DJ Kasey Riot, used to spin at Lick before it closed. She fondly remembers sneaking into Lick when she was 18 before eventually throwing her own parties there, including its farewell party in March 2011. “It was one of the best parties but also one of the saddest,” said Krystecki. “It was like, wow, literally losing this to gentrification, [the] worst.” 

Krystecki started Hotline in 2015—an underground techno rave that centres queer and marginalized artists—but has struggled to find a consistent space. “We’ve been switching venues over and over because it’s like one of the only ways to keep something going.” 

Despite the devastation the community felt when Lick first closed, Krystecki said the pop-up culture that has since emerged has breathed diversity and vibrancy into Vancouver’s queer nightlife. 

“In a way, hardship almost births the most amazing things,” said Krystecki. “As much as it sucks, it does kind of foster creativity.” 

Lesbian night at the Cobalt.

Making space

While Vancouver’s historic gay village around Davie Street is home to several gay bars and nightclubs, some think the neighbourhood favours one specific slice of the LGBTQ2S+ community. 

Rachel, a 24-year-old student, told The Thunderbird that Davie “is geared very much to an older crowd, mostly gay men.” Rachel’s last name is omitted to protect their privacy. 

Looking to make queer connections, Rachel instead turned to events off Davie, like LIPS. “It’s just really nice to see other queer people being happy and feeling safe. And just not feeling like you have to pretend to be someone else or be on guard all the time,” they said.

Leigh Maxwell-Smith, a 29-year-old working in digital marketing, agreed that Davie is “way more geared toward men.” Maxwell-Smith said she prefers pop-ups like LIPS to the gay-dominated bars on Davie. “Even though we’re all the same community, not seeing yourself represented as much, it’s hard. It’s really isolating,” she said. 

Creating safe and inclusive spaces for the neglected members of Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community is core to LIPS’ mission of combating that feeling of isolation. 

“Davie Street is for the guys, and we love that. That’s amazing,” said Morgan. “But we think that we can have our space too.” 

Smith and Morgan said the feedback they receive is overwhelmingly positive, with grateful community members thanking them for carving out a consistent and welcoming space for queer women, trans and non-binary people to gather. 

“Women are allowed to take up space,” said Smith. “We spent our whole lives kind of just like, hunkering down. And now it’s time that we have a space where we can just be free and take up space of our own.”

Bailey Morgan stands on Commercial Drive, Vancouver’s historically lesbian hangout.

‘A constant balancing act’

But taking up space comes with logistical challenges and financial risks—a high barrier to entry for those who put on these events.

“If we sell out, that’s great. We all made money. But if we don’t sell out, we’re still on the line to pay our artists, pay our venue, pay whatever else,” said Smith. 

Attendees also feel a financial strain. Maxwell-Smith said she has noticed ticket prices increase from around $10-15 to $25-30—a side effect of not only inflation but the pop-up model the community depends on. High costs can make these events hard to access.  

Rachel knows the feeling. “I remember being invited to events and just being like, ‘Hey, I can’t come to this.’ I’m paying for my meals this week with 30 bucks, or I’m going to this event,” they said.

But they understand that the price is necessary for the events to continue. “It’s an interesting situation where it’s like, it’s inaccessible for many, but at the same time, it wouldn’t work otherwise,” said Rachel.

Smith and Morgan try to alleviate the cost by offering a student discount and tiered ticket prices. But having made LIPS their full-time job, they still have to consider their bottom line. 

“It is a constant balancing act of making things accessible, having options, listening to people’s stories and requests, while also building something for ourselves,” said Morgan. 

Two sapphics share glitter in the bathroom of a lesbian event at the Cobalt.

The future of lesbian nightlife

Krystecki thinks a dedicated space for lesbian events would mitigate some of these challenges. 

“Ever since [Lick closed], I’ve seriously thought about opening one,” she said. “But it’s so hard and so expensive. And unless you’re rich, or you have rich investors, it’s really, really hard.”

According to Krystecki, since less money flows through nightlife spaces dedicated to women, trans and non-binary people, it’s harder to turn a profit. She said that one of the reasons Lick was able to stay open for so long was because it was part of a trio of clubs owned and operated within the Lotus Hotel. 

On top of a precarious profit model, high commercial rents, a lack of rent control on commercial spaces and looming gentrification compound to make opening a new lesbian bar in Vancouver a financially risky business venture.

“That’s why there are more lesbian nights than there are lesbian clubs,” said Krystecki. 

Smith and Morgan considered opening their own space but concluded that a strictly lesbian bar wouldn’t be financially viable. For now, pop-ups create space for lesbian nightlife that’s not only viable but flourishing.

“It really feels like sort of a resurrection of nightlife right now. I’m seeing a lot of people starting nights, a lot more clubs opening back up,” said Krystecki.

After losing its Warehouse location earlier this year, Eastside Studios has launched its new space the Birdhouse in Mount Pleasant, bringing back events like Man Up and Hot New Lesbian Party. The Cobalt, another venue for diverse queer events and home to LIPS’ biggest monthly party, reopened at the end of 2022 after a five-year closure. 

In the absence of permanent sapphic spaces, pop-ups like LIPS provide a place for queer women, trans and non-binary people to gather and connect. 

“We always like to remember why we started this. What’s the core of this? And it was a space that’s safe to make queer women friends or romantic connections,” said Morgan. “And we’ll fight for that till the end of time.”