A mainstay of Brooklyn’s lesbian nightlife, Ginger’s Bar, celebrated its 22nd anniversary on St. Patrick’s Day.
Resourceful in the face of pre-pandemic lesbian bar closures and COVID-19 — which saw many queer spaces shutter — the neighborhood bar is roaring back to life as queer women and gender-variant people thirst to gather.
Last week the queer Irish-owned bar celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, its 22nd anniversary, and the opening of its new back deck and garden area, but its re-opening has been a bumpy journey.
Ginger’s reopened for Halloween, October 28, 2021, after COVID-19 closed the bar for 19 months. Just as its doors opened, COVID-19 threw another curveball with the omicron variant. The bar briefly went dark again again for two and a half weeks in December. Ginger’s opened again two days before the New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“I’m just over the moon that we’re here,” Sheila Frayne, the bar’s founder and co-owner, told Gay City News. “It feels good. I just walk around smiling the whole time.”
Frayne, a 55-year-old queer Irish woman, opened Ginger’s Bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2000 when Park Slope was an emerging lesbihood in Brooklyn.
On the eve of its 20th anniversary, the bar shuttered its doors due to the global pandemic. There was a period when Frayne believed it might be over for the bar. Frozen during the early days of the shutdown, she didn’t know what to do in the face of a global pandemic — and then Frayne fell ill with COVID-19. Many wondered if Ginger’s Bar would become another queer institution to fall victim to the pandemic’s financial fallout.
But it wasn’t the end of the story for Ginger’s. After nearly two years of neglect, the bar got a new business partner, Brendan Donohoe, and a makeover. It was all thanks to the generosity of Frayne’s landlord — who forgave the bar’s back rent while it was closed — and Donohoe, a 38-year-old queer Irish man, who brought new energy into the bar. The bar also received financial relief provided by the government and patrons through a Go Fund Me campaign that garnered more than $24,000. The Lesbian Bar Project contributed, as well.
Frayne used the funds from the fundraising campaign to keep the bar afloat paying basic bills and financially supporting its staff as much as possible, she said.
Creating the partnership with Donohoe has been life-changing for Frayne who said he, “took the stress off me immensely.” Donohoe, a patron and a hospitality professional, became a partner in October 2021. He has given the bar a new vision while maintaining its history.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of a queer space,” Donohoe told Gay City News, but he wasn’t fully aware of the importance of maintaining a queer space like Ginger’s until he got involved.
“I have come a long way in the last five to six months to understand why it’s so important that the preservation of Ginger’s continues and to see how happy people are that it’s still standing and that it is thriving,” Donohoe said.
The bar is continuing to bring improvements as the crowds flow back in. Better ventilation are being installed and Frayne said she hopes to have more updates completed by Pride Month.
It was important to Donohoe and Frayne to not only embrace the bar’s future, but also continue honoring the building’s past. The 125-year-old bar, formerly a gay bar, was once a speakeasy named after Carrie Nation, the notorious prohibitionist known for using a hatchet to demolish barrooms.
Ginger’s continues the tradition of honoring its own history in the space. The bar was once one of many lesbian bars that opened in Park Slope in the early 2000s. Now it is the last one standing in Brooklyn.
The bar’s walls are adorned with posters of queer women’s activism and watch parties for Showtime’s lesbian drama, “L-Word,” and other memorabilia from more than two decades of being a neighborhood staple — including its Irish and Pride flags. The souvenirs of the neighborhood’s lesbian history on display create a living museum demonstrating how far queer women have come and the future.
The bar’s signature pool table in the backroom now shares the space with a new mobile stage for events and a new deck and garden out back for the community to enjoy.
That’s important because Ginger’s is only one of three lesbian bars that remain throughout New York, not counting Dyke Beer’s roving bar takeovers and Queen’s lesbian pop-up bar, Dave’s Lesbian Bar. Nationwide, 21 lesbian bars still exist throughout the US, according to The Lesbian Bar Project, including the newly opened, Nobody’s Darling in Chicago and soon to open As You Are in Washington, DC.
Donohoe also supports other lesbian spaces in New York, such as Dave’s, which Ginger’s has donated gift cards, he said.
“Queens should have its own lesbian bar and should have had one a very long time ago,” he said.
Lesbian Bar Project filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street were unable to comment for this article due to their traveling schedule.
“It’s very important to have this community space back,” Frayne said. “There are a lot more places for people to go, but it’s nice to see that they’re coming to support us also.”
To meet a new generation of queer patrons, Ginger’s is packing the calendar with events reflecting Brooklyn’s diverse queer community’s interests, adding a snack menu, and selling bar merchandise. So far, the events, such as weekly karaoke and a monthly DJ, have been a success. Donohoe stressed that the bar is emphasizing inclusion by centering events around lesbian, queer, non-binary, and trans communities.
Customers will still be able to bring in food from neighboring eateries, said Donohoe who is aiming to roll out the bar’s menu by Easter, April 17.
As Ginger’s continues to get back on its feet, the bar’s management is also toying with the idea of converting it into a café/workspace during the day.
Ginger’s Bar is located at 363 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Look for updates for events and hours on its Instagram account.