by Brie Roche-LIlliott and Olivia Creamer
The Functioning of West Village bar, Cubbyhole, As a Queer Space
Upon entering the poorly lit bar, nestled on a corner of the West Village between brownstones, Cubbyhole is quite obviously queer. It’s not just because of the primarily female clientele, the rainbow kites and banners hanging from the ceiling or the gender neutral bathrooms that Cubbyhole is different from a standard dive bar; it’s not so much what they’ve added to their space that queers them, but more like what they’ve subtracted from the typical bar experience. Cubbyhole is widely recognized as a gay or lesbian bar, but we sought out to identify what specific aspects of Cubbyhole distinguished it as a queer space, and how that queerness was represented in media. The official Twitter of Cubbyhole reads, “Lesbian and Gay, Straight Friendly, Neighborhood Fusion Bar, Anything Goes. Anyone Welcome.” But how exactly, does Cubbyhole support its claims? Even though Cubbyhole is a physical space, it still relies on the internet and media, both within the bar and online, to create its queer identity.
In order to get a first-hand understanding of Cubbyhole’s importance, we set out to examine Cubbyhole on two different nights over the course of approximately ten hours. Each night we were accompanied by various groups or individuals, to see how that affected our experience and how Cubbyhole might function differently depending on time, day and our own presentation. Our first night was Friday, April 25 from 8pm to 1am. We went with a group of three other college-age girls, who all present as typically feminine, and who are all straight. When we first arrived, we were some of the youngest people there, with most of the clientele resembling professional women in their early to mid 30s. By 11pm most of these women had left, and the crowd slowly evolved to a much younger, rowdier one, primarily women in their mid to late twenties. The bar was packed with people from around 9pm on, and consisted of a few older gay couples and young gay boys amidst the lesbians of a range of gender presentations. While the older couples and groups were more reserved and didn’t socialize much outside of the group they arrived with, the younger crowd was much more outgoing and interactive.
Top 40 pop hits played loudly throughout the evening, and we noticed that the crowd interacted with the music, singing along to most songs. Cubbyhole has an electronic jukebox with an unlimited vault of music, yet consistently the most played songs are Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, LMFAO and other contemporary, mainstream pop stars. This normative soundtrack seemed to go against the general aesthetic of the bar, which in other aspects is so queer. By playing so exclusively pop music, Cubbyhole became less queer than it might have otherwise, if more alternative music or music by queer artists, such as Tegan and Sara, had been playing. The crowd enjoyed the music, and indeed were responsible for playing most of it through the jukebox. As we observed the crowd, we discovered that very few people had their cell phones out, amongst both the older and younger clientele. The friends we were with usually go to bars that attract a straight clientele, and they were the first to notice a huge difference with cell phone use; at the bars they usually go to, the majority of people would be on their phones, whether texting, on social media, or taking photos, but at Cubbyhole almost no one was. Perhaps it’s due to the energetic atmosphere, but the crowd at Cubbyhole seem more interested in interaction and meeting people than Twitter updates. The 12-inch TV at the end of the bar has RuPaul’s Drag Race on without the sound, but no one was watching.
Rodriguez discusses discursive spaces, a place where people can come together to talk about issues that are relevant to them, and as a result become “sites of knowledge production” (Divas pg 5). Cubbyhole becomes a discursive space both for queers and heterosexuals as it creates linguistic codes that are unique to a queer bar and create different aspects of the environment. It is these linguistic codes that become a way the women hit on each other It is linguistic codes that allow women to make their interest in other women clear, or for gay men to enjoy drinks with their friends, or for straight women to have a good night out, without, supposedly, the hassle of being hit on by guys. The location, however, is essential to the meaning of these codes, which are not limited to language. As cubbyhole functions as a queer space, a look exchanged between two women likely has more sexual intention behind it than the same look would in a straight bar. In the same way, if a guy hits on a girl at Cubbyhole, it will not be met in the same way that it might be in a straight bar. On the first night we went, Brie was aggressively hit on by a man, who persisted even when asked to leave us alone. We continued to explain that this was a gay bar and we were queer and uninterested. He only left when a large group of women walking past us out the door saw what was happening and told him to leave. This man was not a part of the linguistic codes and rules of the space that everyone else was following, and as a result did not respect the space or the identities of the people there.
The second night we went was on Monday, April 28 from 6pm to 10pm, during the bar’s weekly Happy Hour. This time only the two of us went, and it was empty when we first arrived, a few pairs and small groups scattered around the bar. Just as in the first few hours the Friday before, we were the youngest ones there, but on the Monday the crowd did not change much. The clientele was mostly more butch-identified women chatting with the bartender. There were also a few heterosexual couples who drank in their pairs and groups in corners, and put on music like Death Cab for Cutie and John Legend. Compared to the long lines for the bathroom and squeezing our way through Friday night’s crowd, Cubbyhole seemed deserted on Monday. The tv, still on silent, was on ABC News. Overall, the space was calmer, and different expectations therefore existed. On the Monday, it would not have been appropriate to play Katy Perry and sing along, just as on the Friday, it would not have been appropriate to play John Legend and sit quietly in a corner. After a couple of hours, the lights down and the bar still quiet, the bartender announced a round of free Cosmo shots for whoever wanted one, and then went outside for a break, leaving the bar unattended, something that she never could have done on the Friday. The quiet music and serious TV was a constant reminder to the clientele that this was a different group of queer people than the group on Friday night.
Cubbyhole is easily one of New York’s most famous and popular gay/lesbian bars; people from all over the country visit it when in New York, as some sort of mecca, and the reviews online show a range of clientele and experiences. With over 200 Yelp reviews, Cubbyhole has earned 3.5 out of 5 stars and some rave reviews about everything from cheap drinks to music selection to aesthetics. Most online review sites identify Cubbyhole as a lesbian bar despite being “open to everyone,” even website GayCities says, “ladies are the belles of the ball.” But not everyone has had a positive experience at Cubbyhole. Most of the negative reviews aren’t related to the queerness of the bar or its clientele, but rather focus on the size of the bar (it’s too small.) However, there are a few that specifically address sexuality. Sasha M. says, “want to feel weak, crowded, and unimportant? Do you like being stared at by hungry lioness lesbians? Behold THE CUBBY HOLE,” implying that the space while queer, might not be so different from the typical bar pick-up experience. Mike W., a middle aged black man, who complains that for the second time in two months he was refused entry; despite their 4am closing time, Mike says, “I was completely ignored, so when I finally asked if I could have a drink, at 3:15am, I was told that the bar was closed.” Instances like this call into question whether Cubbyhole is as accepting of non-queer individuals or non-female individuals. Perhaps, even, race is a factor, as something that we noted when we went both nights was that the clientele were largely white.
The distinct differences between the two nights were obviously a result of the day of the week, but the atmosphere and acceptable linguistic and nonlinguistic codes were cemented by the music that was playing and the clientele. Cubbyhole’s online presence, both in the website maintained by it’s own website and the reviews posted by customers on other sources, shows explicitly that it is for queer people. As a non-normative space, it is necessary to make that clear online, so that it’s identity as a discursive space for queer people is apparent even before someone arrives at Cubbyhole for a night out.
 Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Divas, Atrevidas, Y Entendidas.” Sexual Cultures: New Directions from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. New York: New York UP, n.d. N. pag. Print.