When Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle decided to open a bar together, they didn’t expect to find themselves writing a new chapter in Chicago’s LGBTQ history. But when the pair debuted Nobody’s Darling, a lively spot in the queer-friendly Andersonville neighborhood, in May, they stepped into the midst of a vigorous national discussion about lesbian bar culture, its history of exclusion, and the central role of economics in the future of these places.
Nobody’s Darling isn’t exactly a lesbian bar: “It’s women-centered — women-forward,” says Riddle, an Alabama native who moved to Chicago 18 years ago. “Once we opened, all of a sudden we’ve been having these conversations where we’re really articulating the distinction.”
Named for “Be Nobody’s Darling,” an Alice Walker poem, the long and narrow bar has already won over Andersonville residents and drawn customers from the South and West sides. In the early evening, sunlight shines through a rainbow flag draped over the front door, illuminating the text of Walker’s ode to outcasts everywhere, reprinted in full on a back wall.
On weekends, revelers crowd around the long bar in search of playful cocktails like the fuchsia-hued Pink Kitty and the tart Darling Mule, delivered in elegant cut glassware. Energetic music from artists like Megan Thee Stallion thumps above the din of a lively crowd, but tight quarters leave little room for dancing beyond happy-to-be-here wiggles. Rows of patrons are happy indeed, wrapped in animated conversation often punctuated by boisterous laughter.
Barnes and Riddle, both Black queer women, understand why some might assume the bar is a lesbian space, but feel it’s important to make their inclusive approach clear: “We wanted to make sure that our community felt welcome. We didn’t want to exclude our trans siblings or gay men.”
Bars for lesbians and queer women in the U.S. are few and far between, with an estimate from last June at as few as 16 remaining venues nationwide. Chicago has followed a similar trajectory, signaled by the loss of community institutions like Star Gaze, which closed in 2009 after more than a decade.
That’s partly what inspired Barnes and Riddle to accept a surprising proposition from Lori Petrushkevich, owner of lesbian wine bar Joie de Vine — a spot described by many as the last lesbian bar in Chicago. When the bar, tucked on a residential street, closed during the pandemic, ownership gave Riddle the first shot at taking over the venue. A revenue auditor by day, Riddle has operated LGBTQ bar pop-ups all over the city.
“I was making a lot of money for other bars and restaurants, so I wanted a space to curate events and feed my passion for cocktails,” Riddle says. “I liked that we would be able to keep this bar women-owned and queer-owned,” Barnes adds.
In opening Nobody’s Darling, the pair have also joined an even smaller club: They’ve become Chicago’s second and third Black queer bar owners, alongside Jamal Junior of Jeffery Pub, the South Shore bar that’s served the community since the mid-’60s.
Their leadership represents an important, overdue shift, says Pat McCombs, a longtime lesbian community leader in Chicago who co-founded the roving Black lesbian pop-up party Executive Sweet.
McCombs rose to public prominence in 1974 when she organized a protest outside Augie & CK’s, a lesbian bar on the city’s majority-white North Side that enforced an unofficial quota on how many Black patrons were allowed inside at a time, she says.
Chicago’s Black LGBTQ bargoers — historically concentrated on the South and West sides due to the city’s bitter legacy of segregation — have long reported racist behavior in gay and lesbian bar spaces, ranging from unduly thorough ID checks to music policies that ban hip-hop and rap to explicitly racist comments from local bar owners.
Under pressure, Augie & CK’s eventually changed its policy, but McCombs already had other ideas. “Why go to the North Side when they don’t want us over there? We were going to do our own thing,” she says. She and her friends went on to throw pop-up parties all over the city, often telling bar owners that she and her “sorority” wanted to rent out the space.
“We didn’t want them to know we were lesbians — and we’re Black — so I’d dress up in my suits with a briefcase and act like we were businesswomen wanting to have a business affair,” she says.
They brought in their own bartenders and security as an extra shield against discriminatory behavior, and even put numbers on name tags for patrons who were worried about being outed against their will. Over time, the events became more public, and McCombs even tried her hand at becoming a bar owner herself in the 1980s at a short-lived spot called Sweets in Wrigleyville, just minutes away from what was then known as Boystown.
After just nine months, however, McCombs ran into many of the same problems as other lesbian bar operators, including compounded gender- and race-based pay disparities, and balancing work with responsibilities at home that male bar owners haven’t historically shared.
“I think it’s because we’re women and have other responsibilities,” she says. “You can only do so much, especially if you’re raising children, and your income is a lot different from men.”
These days, McCombs doesn’t drink and prefers a venue with room to dance, but she’s thrilled to see customers embracing the new bar. In her view, Nobody’s Darling and its welcoming atmosphere captures the ideals of queer life in 2021: “The bar is perfect for what’s happening right now,” she says.
Economic power is key to understanding why permanent bar spaces for lesbians and queer women haven’t lasted, while roving pop-up events have thrived around Chicago since the ’70s, says Kristen Kaza, a longtime queer party producer behind monthly dance party series Slo Mo.
A business that measures success in drink sales may not provide the kind of community experience lesbians and queer women are looking for. That’s why owning a business is “such important power,” Kaza says. “It can be hard for queer women. … Loud, crowded, late-night spaces have never really been able to be sustained on a large level because it doesn’t align, I think, with a lot of the lifestyles and values and identities that patrons hold.”
Kaza says she’s seen her audience grow to include a range of community members who haven’t found a comfortable home in the white, male-dominated bar scene of Northalsted — formerly Boystown, renamed in 2020 ostensibly to promote inclusion. Kaza attributes the popularity of Slo Mo, along with other parties like Peach Presents and Party Noire, to their focus on highlighting queer artists and businesses, embracing transgender people and people of color who have been alienated from other community spaces, and a commitment to celebrating LGBTQ culture beyond the bounds of an increasingly corporate Pride Month.
“Nobody’s Darling is so powerful because it’s Black women- and queer-owned. You feel that when you walk into the space because you look around and see who’s there,” she says.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw that kind of true diversity in a space: gay men and queer women, nonbinary and trans folks, people who are Black, Brown, white, younger, older… Having that power is super important and that’s what I’m hoping to see — more spaces that are owned, occupied, and made by us.”