Lesbian bar legend Elaine Romagnoli passes, queer spaces die with her


Credit: Gay City News

Gia Sparacino, Features Editor

Pieces, The Monster, Barracuda Bar, The Cock. These are all names you may have heard thrown around if you were ever planning on having a night out at some of New York City’s gay bars. Although the presence of gay bars and queer spaces as a whole has rapidly declined since the ‘80s, lesbian bars in specific have taken a major blow. Once at two hundred nationwide, only 16 lesbian bars remain open in the United States. Elaine Romagnoli, LGBTQ+ activist and founder of the first lesbian nightclub in New York City, passed away this past October at 79 in her Manhattan home. No cause of death was specified upon confirmation with her nephew, Michael Berkowitz, according to The New York Times.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Romagnoli was a quick-witted and kind activist and businesswoman who curated a unique space for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 1972, she opened Bonnie & Clyde’s, the first lesbian nightclub in New York City, a two-story venue with both a bar and restaurant, featuring an all-female staff and women-centered decor. Women who were members of the Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse often met up there after their weekly meetings for drinks, parties and art installations. 


Romagnoli threw a plethora of fundraisers in support of AIDS/HIV research and other LGBTQ+ centered activism. On top of this, she provided a safe space for queer individuals, both in and out of the closet. She was said to have worked with an array of popular names during the time such as Tom Duane (the first openly gay member of the New York State Senate), Gloria Steinem, Yoko Ono and many more. Her other two lesbian bars—Cubby Hole and Crazy Nanny’s—were conceived in the following years.


Romagnoli was respectful of all people regardless of their race or gender identity. She was declared ahead of her time by many of her peers, ensuring that the space was welcoming for both cisgender and gender non-conforming women, as well as women of color. Stormé DeLarverie, a Black butch lesbian woman who was rumored to have thrown the first punch at the Stonewall Riot in 1969, served as a bouncer for Cubby Hole in 1986. Romagnoli’s mindfulness is applaudable due to how impactful the Black transgender women community was on the Gay Rights Movement, a pivotal contribution commonly overlooked.


Romagnoli was an involved owner and entrepreneur from 1972 up until 2004 when she retired, her businesses retiring with her. Henrietta Hudson, another lesbian bar, took over Cubby Hole’s old location, and with Romagnoli’s blessing, another Cubbyhole opened in West Village on West 12th Street in 2007.


When asked about their thoughts on Romagnoli’s death and the decline of gay/lesbian bars and queer spaces, Cathryn Caldarola, a sophomore Queer Leader at the LGBTQ+ Center at the University felt “extremely saddened to hear about Romagnoli’s passing. As the acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals grow, the number of non-queer people infiltrating once strictly queer spaces grows with it.”


“In the past, gay bars were one of the only spaces LGBTQ+ people, specifically gay men, were able to relax, feel safe and mingle with fellow queer people. Now any gay bar you walk into will always have a significant amount of straight people. Not only does that convolute queer spaces, but it also discourages queer people from attending because they aren’t being offered the solely queer space they were promised. This, along with lingering homophobia still running rampant and the COVID-19 pandemic, furthers the death of queer spaces.”


“Lesbian bars are already endangered and with the death of Ramognoli, a piece of lesbian legacy and culture dies with her. It makes me sad, as a young lesbian, that I may never get to experience a lesbian bar if they keep closing. The need for the presence of queer spaces is just as important today as it was back in the 80s, and I hope more people start to realize that,” Caldarola said.


What the future holds for queer spaces is currently unknown, but in the meantime, it is essential to pay special attention to LGBTQ+ history and queer activists before our time—especially for lesbians and Black trans women. Their sacrifice and hard work allow queer individuals to have the rights and freedom they have today, as well as continue to fight for the rights they don’t already have. May Romagnoli rest in power as her legacy continues to live in the hearts she touched and the lives she’s impacted.