Charkira McCall recites a poem during poetry night, where many people use the platform to express their frustrations with issues ranging from social justice and equality to past relationships, at Blush & Blu on June 9., 2021 (Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post)
When Jody Bouffard was first getting into the bar business, there were multiple lesbian-focused hotspots in town. In fact, she worked at several — mopping the dance floor at The Elle, bartending and DJing at Zu — while attending pharmacy school in the late 1990s.
Bouffard caught the hospitality bug and changed her career path, founding several lesbian bars of her own. But while others succumbed to economic forces over the years, Bouffard’s East Colfax hangout Blush & Blu, which opened in 2012, remained. Today, it is one of just 21 lesbian bars in America, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraising initiative to help save the bars that remain open.
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When these community spaces disappear, the implications go beyond simply the bar itself, said Bouffard.
“A lot of people don’t have family because they’re rejected by their family. So coming into a queer space like I have and the ones that are remaining, you find your new family there,” she said. “There’s so much more to running that bar than having 10 employees and customers coming through. These customers become family members.”
Erica Rose, co-creator of the Lesbian Bar Project, sees spaces that cater to women, non-binary and transgender people as essential. Gay bars are often designed specifically for cis, white men, she said, and when that’s also the lens through which much of LGBTQ+ culture and politics is filtered, there’s a need for concepts that offer something different.
“The majority of queer people are women, and we have often been sidelined and not taken as seriously as men,” Rose said, “so it’s important we have our space to really have intergenerational dialogue, to have power, to have community and not necessarily be at the mercy of space that isn’t designed for us.”
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That is why last year, Rose and co-creator Elina Street launched the Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraiser and documentary project to tell the stories behind these institutions. The initiative raised $117,000 in 2020, meaning each lesbian bar received more than $7,000 to help ease the impact of the pandemic, Rose said.
For Blush & Blu, it made all the difference. After Gov. Jared Polis enacted a stay-at-home order in March 2020, Bouffard cashed out her 401K and received some loans to keep the bar afloat. When Blush & Blu reopened three months later, she had reconfigured the seating to meet capacity limits and fired up the small kitchen onsite to provide patrons with food.
Then Denver experienced a November surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, prompting tighter restrictions — including a prohibition on indoor dining.
“I wasn’t expecting the second shutdown in November during holiday season and that’s when I thought, honestly, I was going to have to close my doors,” Bouffard said.
Funds from the Lesbian Bar Project literally saved her business, helping cover rent and bills while operations remained at the whim of government and state health officials. Blush & Blu emerged from the thick of the pandemic ready to bounce back. It now hosts weekly poetry slams and stand-up comedy, and with the nearby gay bars Tight End and Charlie’s plus the LGBT-focused Center on Colfax, Bouffard sees East Colfax as Denver’s burgeoning gay district.
“Queer people and gay people and everyone in the alphabet mafia need to come out right now to keep these safe spaces open,” Bouffard.
What better time than during Pride? Blush & Blu will be hosting several special events this weekend, including a broadcast of the virtual Pride Parade, as will other venues in the area. See our top picks for Pride events happening June 25-27.
Watch The Lesbian Bar Project mini-documentary:
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