The Rise and Fall, and Rise, of Queer Coffee Shops
From Issue 6: Mind & Body
Text by Tien Nguyen
Art by EL BOUM
Early on a Saturday this past June, Virginia Bauman, cofounder of the L.A. coffee shop Cuties, was making doughnuts. It was Dyke Day, and she’d hauled out the fryer to celebrate. The doughnuts, made with mashed potatoes, flour, and a bit of elbow grease, were based on a Mennonite recipe she borrowed from a friend; fresh out of the fryer, they were beautifully bronzed, slightly crisp on the outside and tender and fluffy on the inside. Dipped in a maple or Valencia orange glaze, or dusted with cinnamon sugar, the doughnuts were truly exceptional.
Virginia packed them, a half a dozen at a time, into those pink doughnut boxes that are as iconic to Southern California as the Hollywood sign perched on a hilltop a few miles away. Those who pre-ordered came by throughout the morning to pick up their boxes. Some lingered, noshing and nodding along as they read the Cuties Community Codes of Conduct posted in the window next to the entrance (“Queers and allies are welcome. LGBTQIA+!”; “Do not assume pronouns: ask!”). Others ducked inside the shop where baristas were busy making cortados, iced lattes, and hot teas.
In the craft-oriented, current universe of specialty coffee—where beans are carefully sourced and baristas pour perfect flat whites—Cuties, and queer-centered coffee shops like it, are thought to be rare stars. Zoom out just a little, though, and you’ll see that spaces like these have existed before. Coffee, as it turns out, has played an important role in creating queer community for a very long time.
Fifty-eight years before Cuties opened, things were brewing at Cooper’s Donuts. Cooper’s was wedged between two gay bars in a part of Downtown L.A. where an underground gay scene thrived. The 24-hour shop offered a cup of coffee and a fresh doughnut for a dime. It was a popular after-hours spot for drag queens and hustlers, many of whom were people of color.
Cooper’s was also popular with the Los Angeles Police Department, both for daytime doughnuts and as a nighttime pitstop for harassing the shop’s gay customers. This was 1959, when cops regularly raided known gay hangouts and arrested anyone perceived to be in violation of the city’s laws against cross-dressing and “masquerading.” (In response, drag queens often would wear a few articles of men’s clothing—pants, button-up men’s shirts—as a preemptive defense against a cross-dressing charge when the inevitable raid happened.) The arrested would be thrown in a nearby jail, sometimes into a wing the cops nicknamed the “Fruit Tank.”
They pelted the cops with their hot coffee, coffee cups, and doughnuts and soon an all-out riot was underway.
One evening in May of 1959, two cops rolled into Cooper’s for their usual routine. According to John Rechy, who has recounted his experience that night in a few speeches reprinted on his website, the police picked out “two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising” and walked them out. As they tried to cram everyone into the squad car, there was a brief scuffle; someone managed to escape. Inside the shop, the queens and the hustlers, having endured this scene one too many times, sensed an opportunity. They pelted the cops with their hot coffee, coffee cups, and doughnuts and soon an all-out riot was underway. In the melee, the others who were arrested also managed to escape custody; the cops were forced to retreat and call for backup. It was only after reinforcements arrived and shut down the street that any arrests were made.
Seven years later at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, the opening volley of another uprising was a cup of coffee launched at a police officer, who was also attempting to arrest a drag queen. That coffee was a common thread in these early instances of queer resistance is not surprising. With queerness criminalized, the few places where the community could publicly gather, even if clandestinely, were spots like doughnut shops and cafeterias, where people were permitted to linger, and everyone could indulge in an inexpensive foodstuff—like coffee. When espresso bars became popular with the counterculture set in the 1960s, the gay community staked out a place for themselves there, too. And as gay and lesbian activists propelled the gay rights movement forward, the community began opening its own spaces; in the 1970s, there was a spike in the number of coffeehouses owned outright by gays and lesbians.
The first issue of DYKE, A Quarterly, published in 1975, reported on one called the New York Women’s Coffeehouse. “Not long ago bars were almost the only place for Lesbians to meet publicly,” they wrote. “[Owners] Shari and Judy both felt it was absurd and sad that Lesbians would go from political meetings in which they were trying to change their lives and their environment to seedy, dimly lit bars, where they gave their money to men and the mafia.” With poetry readings, open mic nights, and folk singers, the Coffeehouse was, DYKE said, “the only place in NYC where we can consistently
see and create Lesbian culture.”
Similar coffee houses dotted the American landscape, all serving as significant places of gay and lesbian community-building and cultural production. It should be noted, though, which members of the community, exactly, were welcome to contribute to that production varied from place to place: many coffee houses had rules barring trans people, others were racist. Places like Enik Alley Coffeehouse in Washington, D.C., open from 1982 to 1984, and Las Hermanas Women’s Cultural Center and Coffeehouse in San Diego, open from 1974 to 1980, were especially noteworthy in that they were run by, and intended for, people of color.
Despite this initial excitement, many coffeehouses shuttered after a few short years, done in by a lack of profitability and internal conflicts. Over at the New York Women’s Coffeehouse, for instance, DYKE observed that the owners were not yet financially stable and that “the question of whether the Coffeehouse is a community service or a business is one that has been discussed from the start.” By the early 1980s, these coffee spaces dwindled to just a few listings in the various gay yellow city pages around the country, particularly in Los Angeles and New York. Nonetheless, this was a time when the federal government refused to even acknowledge the existence of HIV and groups were organizing to fight cultural and legal
battles for equality; these remaining spaces, albeit few, continued to be vital sites of community making.
It’d be a few years before the lull broke, but when it did, it did. As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, the yellow pages began to list more and more coffeehouses, with many advertising their “gourmet beans.” If you were an avid reader of Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel’s seminal comic strip celebration of dyke culture, you may have noticed that sometime in the early ’90s, Mo and the crew no longer met up at their usual spot, Café Topaz, for tofu tartar and braised kohlrabi. Instead, they were drinking espressos and Mocha Java coffee at a place called Java Jones.
“What happened to Café Topaz?” a reader aked Bechdel on the “Frivolous, Aimless Queries” section of her website. Bechdel’s reply: “Starbucks.”
Starbucks happened to Café Topaz; Starbucks happened to all of us. At the peak of the company’s growth, you could be in the downtown area of most any large city and never be more than a block or two away from a double-venti two-pump nonfat no-foam extra-hot vanilla latte. The popularity of the coffee giant, and the simmering popularity of local coffee shops that Starbucks was capitalizing on, helped bring a country-wide coffee shop mania to boil. It was characterized by a new, more polished aesthetic, and the lumpy, questionably clean coffeehouse couch became just as much a symbol of the 1990s as Xena, Warrior Princess.
After decades of community building, it’s not surprising that in tandem with this rise, there was a rise of coffee places within the gay and lesbian community—not a gay coffee shop on every corner in every city, but enough of them for New York Magazine to run a piece about the mainstreaming of gay culture headlined “We’re Here! We’re Queer! Let’s Get Coffee!” In New York, everyone was getting coffee at Big Cup, which was considered by some to be the center of gay Chelsea. Grand Rapids had Sons and Daughters, and there was Cafe Wyrd in Minneapolis. In Los Angeles, the WeHo Lounge offered coffee, condoms, and free HIV testing. And then there was Little Frida’s in West Hollywood.
Little Frida’s was a lesbian coffeehouse that attracted a diverse clientele from all over Southern California. In addition to serving some of the best iced coffee in town, it was a much needed venue for aspiring and established queer talent. Tig Notaro, who was then working there as a barista, performed her first sets at the shop’s female comic stand-up night. Ellen DeGeneres was a regular and used a studio replica of Little Frida’s in the groundbreaking coming-out episode of her television show.
Beyond offering a caffeine fix, Little Frida’s and other gay and lesbian coffee shops were also where the community went to celebrate victories, mourn losses, and demand action. The 1990s, after all, was the decade of the Defense of Marriage Act, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and significant anti-LGBTQ violence. A few years ago, Rita Boyadjian, Little Frida’s second owner, pointed out that her coffeehouse opened “before L Word and before Ellen came out.”
“It was a place where you could be gay and feel safe and meet other women,” she said. “It was just about being a safe place to be gay.”
When Little Frida’s closed in 2000, it was among a number of queer businesses—coffeehouses and bars in particular—that closed their doors. The Advocate suggested that this was in part because, at least in major cities, “the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians in society has made the ‘all-gay’ atmosphere less of a commodity.” But in the most recent generation of specialty coffee shops emphasizing high quality, direct-trade beans and drinks made by skilled baristas, there are signs that we’re starting to once again appreciate the value of an all-queer atmosphere. And in this revival the focus goes beyond just the L and G of LGBTQAI+. The Bottom Line in Detroit is a trans-owned coffeehouse. The Cafe SouthSide in Minneapolis, which closed in late 2016, had a solid six-year run as a beloved gathering spot for trans and queer folx of color. And in Dallas, REvolution Cafe, a queer-owned coffee shop, vegan restaurant, and bookstore, was recently crowdsourcing funds with the goal of opening next January.
And there is, of course, Cuties, in Los Angeles.
“We both were craving community in Los Angeles, and we did not have access to it,” says Iris Bainum-Houle, who co-founded the shop with Virginia. “If you’re not into the bar scene or the club scene, a coffee shop is an excellent alternative to that.”
“Coffee is a very accessible business for the community that we exist within,” says Virginia, echoing Iris’ sentiment. “It has a rich history of being a gathering space or a third space for different types of community.” Prior to opening Cuties, she’d co-founded Tonx, a specialty coffee subscription service that had a near-fanatical following among coffee geeks for its careful sourcing of beans and stellar roasting (the company was sold to Blue Bottle in 2014). At Cuties, Virginia is leveraging this experience to merge coffee and community.
“Most marginalized groups need more equity in the city, because you continually find that people with more money come in and buy everything in that city,” she says. “We wanted to put on the map that our specific demographic can own and operate a business that is catering to this community.”
While the space was being constructed, the two began working with the community to put on special events. Their first one was a pop-up called Queers, Coffee & Doughnuts, an opportunity to gather centered around fine coffee and Virginia’s delicious doughnuts. This was when they debuted their codes of conduct, which included institutionalizing inclusive language like asking for one’s preferred pronoun.
“It was maybe like 30 or 40 people,” Iris says, recalling that very first pop-up. “It was a surprising number and then it just felt like it just grew and grew and grew. People would start trying on pronouns. They’d be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m kind of feeling like they, so let’s go with they.’ And it would be this nice container for people to try out exploring different pronouns and exploring their identities in a very safe place.”
“If it’s not important to you to be careful with the words you use and how you use them and be aware of people’s gender and their identity and be sensitive to that, you can go literally anywhere else.”
This very safe space moved from pop-up to permanence when Cuties opened last summer in East Hollywood next to a community college in a largely working class neighborhood a stone’s throw from a subway station. Iris, who has a background in set and costume design, describes the shop as having a “femme-welcoming aesthetic”: the walls are mint green and hot pink, beams of sunshine light up the space through the skylight, the wood tables are comfortably low so anyone can wheel up without issue. The tables, by the way, can be flipped out or flipped down depending on one’s needs.
This aesthetic extends to the more intangible aspects of the shop. Strangers, friends, new friends, baristas are all quick to say hello upon entering. The menu is not short, but it’s not Starbucks-style long and complicated, either. There’s a community tab, a piggy bank where those with a few extra bucks can contribute and those who need a few extra bucks can withdraw. And then there are those Community Codes of Conduct, which make explicit the social contract embedded into the space.
“If it’s not important to you to be careful with the words you use and how you use them and be aware of people’s gender and their identity and be sensitive to that, you can go literally anywhere else,” says Iris.
“Right,” Virginia says. “If you’re uncomfortable asking for pronouns, if it’s something that feels too awkward for you to handle, we’re not the space for you.”
The Codes aren’t commandments carved in stone; they are, rather, constant works in progress. “We’re not perfect,” says Iris. “These Codes of Conduct change and fluctuate based on feedback and community needs. But setting that intention and having core tenets is super important.”
To that point, the shop hosts an array of groups and events, including sober recovery and sex worker support groups. People from Orange County have braved rush hour to attend Friday Flirt events, which are often themed (recently: Femme 4 Femme, QTBIPoC, Kinky). The shop’s digital newsletter is authored by a rotating roster of community members to broadcast a range of voices and ideas.
The shop has now been open for a little more than a year. In that time, it’s become a vital part of the community not unlike the coffee spaces of yesteryear. And Virginia and Iris want to do so much more: they want to stay open longer, host more events, support other queer groups, and strengthen their own economic viability. To that end, they’ve set up a Patreon to crowdsource the funds. “One of the amazing things about queerness is the networks that we make on the margins,” says Iris, “and how we can, through collective effort and desire and pooling of resources, make lots of things possible.”
A collective effort, a desire, a pooling of resources: this sums up the history of queer coffee spaces pretty well. And if you follow this history, from past ad hoc spaces like Cooper’s Donuts to Cuties today, you might realize you’re looking through a window into a larger history of the broader struggle for equality. Indeed, the form and popularity of these spaces have long reflected what was going on outside their four walls, serving different functions depending on the community’s needs at the time. They’ve been places of refuge, sites of cultural production, bases of activism. They’ve provided much-needed antidotes to heteronormative society. And, of course, through it all, they’ve offered fresh cups of coffee. And doughnuts, too. ///