The Last Lesbian Bar in Brooklyn

Interview with Sheila Frayne: the owner of Ginger's Bar
Produced by Taylor Cook for the Brooklyn Public Library Podcast, Borrowed
Season 3 episode 10 - February 10, 2021

Transcript: 

[Answering machine beep] 

 

[Vox Pop]

 

M: 

Ginger's is an incredibly important place to me because I think of it as
somewhere that I can go and immediately feel known by everyone there, even if
I've never met them or learned their names before  

 

N:

It was the first time I ever kissed a girl

 

D:

They were all going to Ginger’s to meet up for Pride. Which is like for sure the
gayest thing, uh, we could have done

 

N: 

Ginger herself bought us drinks!

 

D:

And there was like, so much sexual tension

 

B:

We really do miss bars, and Ginger’s, and being around other humans

Lily Ali-Oshatz: 

These lesbian bars are the queer centers, they are the pride centers, so we just can't afford to lose them.

 

M: 

It's just such an important space to be myself and know that everyone else there can relate in some form or another. And, you know, nothing wrong with a good pool table.

 

[The song Pulsars by Podington Bear begins playing softly in the background, gradually getting louder. The music is slow with electronic notes ringing then fading away. Music continues.] 

 

[Voiceover] Taylor Cook: When you walk down 5th avenue in Brooklyn, you can’t miss Ginger’s Bar with its bright blue and yellow exterior, its waving rainbow flags, and its big glass windows. It’s certainly not hiding. The interior is equally bold: a beautiful fusion of gay and Irish decor. The bathroom walls are plastered floor to ceiling in sapphic stickers, magazine covers, and posters. Music blares from the combination jukebox-photo booth as queer people dance, and play pool, and flirt with each other. 

 

Sheila Frayne:

I’m the owner of Ginger’s and my name is Sheila Frayne. So, when you walk into 

Ginger’s on any given night, to me anyhow, you would always feel a very warm feeling…You walk into the back room, you always felt a nice vibe in the pool room, women hanging around, playing pool, helping each other play pool, and then you walk into the garden. It was like, oh, this is great. 

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Ginger’s is one of the last bars of its kind. In the 1980s there were over 200 lesbian bars in the United States. Today, there are only 15. As the months pass and the pandemic rages on with no end in sight, the future of these spaces is uncertain. But Ginger’s is still holding on. 

 

[The song Pulsars swells to a final note, then fades out.] 

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Sheila opened the bar in 2000, when Park Slope was still affectionately nicknamed ‘Dyke Slope.’

 

Sheila:

In the neighborhood of 5th avenue, when I bought there, it was very very... there was a lot of lesbians. And, um, that continued for many years. And then of course, when the neighborhood changes, people get pushed out because of prices of rent. 

 

[The song Refraction by Podington Bear begins playing quietly under Sheila’s voice and continues. Refraction is low pitched and slow. Melodic notes chime then fade away very softly.]

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Sheila fixed up the bar and renamed it 

 

Sheila:  

The bar itself, Ginger’s Bar, had been a bar for like 150 years probably. And you know it was kind of very dark and boarded up, so when I bought it I just opened it all up, opened up the tin ceiling, the original, and opened up the back garden, and spruced it up somewhat. But when I bought it, then I changed it to Ginger’s bar. And in England when you're gay sometimes you say ginger for gay and I have red hair. So there you go.

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: On the eve of its 20th anniversary Ginger’s was forced to close as New York went into lockdown. 

 

Sheila: 

2020 has been a complete disaster all across the board. And I mean, personal, family, business, friends, people dying.. Just… just sadness, non-stop. I want it to be over. Of course,you know, we put in for the PPP loan, and we never got that small business loan, or whatever they were giving out when the first came out, you know? But anyhow, I'm sure some people benefited from it, which was good. But we didn't. You know, until we get a vaccine, and it's safe for everybody. There's no point in trying to... beat a dead horse because it’s not going to work, you know? It was a great place. And hopefully we'll be able to open it back up again.

 

Taylor:  

Yes, fingers crossed

 

Sheila: 

Fingers crossed

 

Taylor: 

Ginger’s is absolutely my favorite bar

 

Sheila: 

Aw. It’s my favorite too

 

*Both laughing*

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Ginger’s means a lot to me. It’s where I have my birthday party every year, where I went with my girlfriend on the night we started dating, where I like to dance with my friends. Ginger’s, and the few other surviving lesbian bars have long been some of the only spaces where lesbians and other queer and trans people can connect, hook up, meet each other, and build community in safety, without having to worry about the harassment we often face in straight bars. 

 

Sheila:

And I just always felt a nice vibe community, and I always try to keep it. And every single week for the day I opened for 20 years, I always saged it. And I always put good energy and hope to keep everybody safe, just a little thing, I would do a ritual every few days.  

 

[The song Refraction by Podington Bear continues in the background.]

 

Sheila:

And um, It was like a community center really because we went through like 9/11 together. We survived Sandy, we, you know… Anytime there was a horrible crisis, this is where people came to meet, you know.

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Sheila and the staff at Ginger’s keep everyone safe

 

Shelia: 

Sometimes we get death threats, and I just felt the need the last few years, that maybe I should get a bouncer on the door weekend's because of, you know, the whole shooting in Florida and I started to feel a little unsafe, with nobody on the door, you know? And, um, you know, down through the years we’ve never really had any trouble. We never really had, you know, any violence, or... it was just… there was always a nice feeling. You know, I always open up that I want the place for, you know, it's okay for everybody to come and not be discriminated, you know, and treat each other properly. You know? So I kind of always try to keep it on that. You know, I said we're, you know, all year round we're gay, but we're straight friendly. So if you have straight friends, you can bring them and we’ll be okay with ‘em once everybody can behave and get on, you know? I just think it’s nice to be able to have a place that people can come and feel safe, ya know? And I always try to keep my prices down. I never charged on the door. I never put my prices up on gay pride. I never gouged like that because I feel that women don't make as much money as men. 

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: As lesbian bars rapidly close, circuit parties and one off lesbian nightlife events have sprung up in their place. But these sweaty late night dance parties with their cover charges and young crowds, can’t replace the stability of having a permanent space. A place to sit and talk, and meet people of all ages, and build community.

 

Sheila:

I guess it’s from where I  grew up and where I came from. You go to the pub in Ireland and you could have Joe Soap, sitting alone in the corner, who's like 90 and then we could be all dancing here. So, young people mixed with old people. Like, I could go out with my mother to the pub and have a great time because it would be young and old people, ya know? And so I'd like to provide that kind of space as well. I think that's important that we don't forget about our old people and now that I’m getting old too? Jesus. Not to say that it’s old, but I’m not in my 20s or 30s anymore and that’s for sure. *Laughter* 

 

[Blue by Podington Bear begins playing in the background]

 

Sheila:

Us, older people, we did take paths for the young people, you know what I mean? And that's why I still look at the generations before me, you know, some of the older generations that are like, wow, they really made a difference for us, so, you know, I think it's important not to let that go. 

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: This is what we lose when we lose lesbian bars. A dedicated space for queer women and trans people. A place where we are always welcome. A place that is ours. The queer community is resilient. With or without our own bars, we will always carve out spaces for ourselves, to be together, and be safe, and to celebrate...

 

[Blue swells then fades out. I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross fades in]

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: But I’m eagerly looking forward to the day I can return to Ginger’s, cue up a song on the jukebox, play a game of pool, and sip a beer in the backyard with friends and strangers.

 

Taylor:

Do you have a go to song to play on the jukebox?

 

Sheila Frayne:

You know that song, I'm Coming Out, I want the world to know. 

 

Taylor:

Oh, yes. Diana Ross! 

 

Sheila:

It's such a gay song. I mean, I've always noticed anytime that’s ever come on, whether they were young or old in there, people, were always tapping or clapping or singing, or.. Ya know

 

*Both laugh*

 

[Diana Ross gets louder, “I’m Coming out,” music gets quieter but continues in the background]

 

[Voiceover] Taylor: Thank you to Sheila Frayne, Lily Ali Oshatz, The Lesbian Bar Project team, Emily Boghossian, Virginia Marshall, and Marissa Schneiderman. To learn more about the last 15 lesbian bars in the country and how to support them, visit https://www.lesbianbarproject.com/. To stay up to date with Sheila, you can follow Ginger’s bar on Facebook or on Instagram @GingersBarBrooklyn

 

Thanks for listening!

 

[Diana Ross gets louder, “Want the world to know,”  then fades back to the background]

 

Sheila: 

And Lady Gaga course. Born This Way.

 

[Diana Ross gets louder, “I'm coming out, I have to shout that I’m coming out, I want the world to know, have to let it show I'm coming out, I’m coming out,” and the song ends, fading to silence]


 

Credits:

 

Produced and edited by Taylor Cook 

 

Thank you to Sheila Frayne, Lily Ali- Oshatz, The Lesbian Bar Project team, Emily Boghossian, Marissa Schneiderman, Virginia Marshall, and the entire 2020 Brooklyn Public Library/Union Docs Hear Me Out cohort.

 

Music: Pulsars by Podington Bear, Refraction by Podington Bear, Blue by Podington Bear, I’m Coming Out Instrumental Version by Chic, and I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross

 

Links: 

Ginger’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Gingersbar  

Ginger’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gingersbarbrooklyn/

Ginger’s Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/f/gofundmecomfsave-gingers-bar-fund

Lesbian Bar Project Website: https://www.lesbianbarproject.com/

[Image Description: The front of a closed Ginger’s bar. The front of the bar is bright blue.There is a yellow sign above the door that reads “Ginger’s Bar” in orange text. The windows are covered by steel shutters. It is a rainy day and you can see the lights on in the buildings on either side of GInger’s reflected in the black asphalt of Brooklyn’s 5th avenue giving the photo a warm glow] [Photo by Taylor Cook]

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