Julie Mabry knew she wanted to own a lesbian bar when she was 16, since those hangouts were her safe places growing up.
Mabry opened Pearl Bar on Washington Avenue in 2013. The laid-back lesbian bar, known for its drink specials, good food, cool music, as well as community events and drag-king nights, is now the only lesbian bar in the city, one of only two in Texas (Sue Ellen’s in Dallas is the other), and one of only 16 in the entire country.
A recent NBC news story noted that in the ’80s there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars nationwide. Gentrification and rising rents, as well as a more inclusive queer community and a lack of funding for women-owned businesses in general, have contributed to the decline.
“Certainly in Houston, we are a very accepting city,” Mabry says. “In the past ten years, there has been more acceptance of the community.”
But lesbian bars are important for the community, both historically and culturally, and losing any more could be devasting. Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s looking like a real possibility.
So far, Mabry has been doing everything possible to save Pearl. “I watch the news a lot,” she says. “I saw what was happening in Italy back in February. By March, I started wearing a mask. People would laugh at me, but I did it. We started using plastic cups and putting hand sanitizer out on the bar.”
But the handwriting was on the wall. She closed Pearl Bar one day before Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner shut down the entire city in March. She thought it would last for three weeks. It was more like three months. And even when Governor Greg Abbott briefly reopened Texas bars, she didn’t reopen.
“I didn’t want to be part of the problem,’ she admits. “I didn’t want to be the reason my staff got COVID.”
She sold T-shirts and tried selling to-go steaks, but it was tough going. She says selling drinks to go didn’t really work because her customer base was so spread out. Finally, on July 25 she started a GoFundMe pandemic campaign with a goal of $25,000. Within three days she had almost reached the full amount.
“I think this will get us to December. I think we’ll make it,” Mabry says. The 2019 Human Rights Campaign Houston Community Equality Award winner attributes the incredible response to the bar’s community commitment, and to the community now coming together to save lesbian bars.
Dayna Steele, an author and motivational speaker who ran for Congress in 2018, hosted a campaign fundraiser at Pearl that featured out singer Melissa Etheridge.
“Pearl Bar is not only a dream and a labor of love for Julie,” Steele says, “but also a community center, food and beverage therapy, and a safe space for many. It would be a big loss to Houston to lose Pearl.”
When the pandemic is over, Steele and her husband plan to hold a fundraiser at Pearl Bar for Tony’s Place, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth.
On the GoFundMe site, Mabry writes: I don’t like asking for help, but Pearl is my life. This is the last thing I wanted to do because I’m a prideful person (pun intended), but I want to make sure there is a lesbian bar open in Houston after we survive this pandemic.
Her landlord has discounted her rent for a few months, but she still has insurance, utilities, sales tax, and other expenses to pay. She and her staff have been able to get unemployment benefits, but that is running out. The community fundraising campaign is a last-ditch effort to save the beloved bar, and so far it seems to be working.
So if you want to save the last standing lesbian bar in Houston, donate some bucks and buy a T-shirt.
“It’s been tough on all of us,” Mabry says. “But the community has been awesome. I think we’ll make it.”