Back in the 1980s when Patty Witte was realizing her sexuality, it wasn’t a safe time to be out.
But when she did come out a few years ago, at age 53, Witte, a retired physician born and raised in Madison, went looking for community in her hometown.
She found it in the Lesbian Pop Up Bar, or LPUB, a monthly pop-up bar for lesbians, other queer people and allies. Witte attended one of the pop-up events around two years ago and has been going ever since.
“I can go up to and talk to just absolutely any of these people and get into a lovely conversation,” Witte says.
At first, Witte was nervous about what people would think of her, especially because she came out later in life. However, everyone at the event was welcoming and made her feel comfortable.
“I love how Lesbian Pop Up Bar is so open and inclusive,” Witte says. “I feel welcome. It’s inspiring.”
At one point, Wisconsin was home to a handful of lesbian bars. Today, there is just one in Wisconsin, located in Milwaukee.
Queer people across the state have noticed the lack of lesbian bars, and they are addressing the gap with lesbian pop-up events. The pop-up bars offer a unique opportunity for queer and transgender Wisconsinites to come together, enjoy a night out and build a community that can be hard to find.
“We don’t have to justify claiming space,” says Timothea Stinnett, one of the organizers behind Sappho’s Secret, another lesbian pop-up event in Madison. “We’re lesbians. We want to hang out with lesbians. And if we have to create it to do it, that’s what we’ll do.”
The decline of lesbian bars
The decline of lesbian bars in Wisconsin reflects a larger national trend. In the 1980s, there were around 200 across the country, but now there are fewer than 30.
“I definitely have noticed the void of lesbian bars,” Witte says. “When I came out, it was like, ‘Well, where do I go hang out?’”
Witte is not the only one looking for community and a place to socialize with other queer people, however.
Colleen Coogan moved to Madison from Wyoming in July. But before she made the decision to move, she visited the city and sought out queer spaces. She had never been to a queer bar before.
“I really was lacking in queer community in Wyoming,” Coogan says about the lack of single queer community where she lived.
Like Witte, Coogan came out later in life.
“I came out only four years ago while I was in Wyoming, so I was really craving queer culture and connection,” Coogan says.
While visiting Madison, Coogan attended the pop-up bar for the first time.
“It was a healing experience after the lack of community I had experienced in Wyoming,” she says.
Coogan described the group of women she met at her first event as “everything you’d hope for” when moving to a completely new city.
Attendance at the Madison Lesbian Pop Up Bar events has grown over the last year since it was taken over by three new organizers: Alissa Gauger, Jen Smith and Heather Long.
When Kat Kosmaule, the original organizer, announced she would no longer be running the events, wives Gauger and Smith were ready to step in. Gauger remembers when she and Smith read Kosmaule’s Facebook post in their shared home office.
“We both spun our chairs around and looked at each other,” Gauger says. “We were like, ‘We have to do something.’”
Gauger, Smith and Long wasted no time setting up a meeting with Kosmaule to discuss their shared vision to provide a safe space for queer women of all ages and backgrounds in Madison.
“We think it is vital that we continue to carry the torch and carry on with this very important community resource for queer women and allies,” Gauger says, adding that she wants to ensure there is space to form a community and socialize.
Filling the void
Lesbian Pop Up Bar is not the only lesbian pop-up event in Madison working to fill the void. Friends Stinnett, Siobhan Jackson and Hayley Snell created Sappho’s Secret, a sapphic event hosted at late-night bars across Madison most months.
Before Sappho’s Secret was Sappho’s Secret, it was Sappho’s Warehouse, and before they had a venue, Stinnett and Jackson hosted a backyard event called “Backyardigays.” Prior to creating their own events, Snell says they felt there were so few spaces they could go to feel “safe and comfortable and welcome.”
Sappho’s Secret is working to create the space lesbians are lacking in Madison and beyond.
“Everything we do is directed toward lesbians,” Stinnett says. “We do this for lesbians because we do not often have spaces that are explicitly for us.”
Going out isn’t considered a necessity by most people.
“But it’s so freeing to have a space for yourself that you can feel comfortable to let loose and be yourself in,” Snell says.
Having a safe space to party is not only freeing but essential for community building, Snell says.
In the 1990s, Hotel Washington in Madison was a hub for the LGBTQIA community. The venue was home to many businesses that supported and celebrated the community, including New Bar and Rod’s, a gay bar. Hotel Washington burned down in 1996, devastating the Madison queer community.
Before starting to run pop-up events, Gauger regularly attended Women’s Night at New Bar before the hotel burned down.
“We planned our lives around [Women’s Night],” Gauger says. “It was a very sacred thing for us.”
When Gauger went to Women’s Night, she not only had a great time with her community but felt safe.
“When we lost Hotel Washington in a fire, and it wasn’t rebuilt, that was a real loss to the Madison community,” she says. “There has not been a bar to replace it … that really takes up that important space the New Bar [did].”
Hotel Washington was never rebuilt, and a brick-and-mortar lesbian bar has yet to open in Madison. However, Lesbian Pop Up Bar organizers feel the pop-up bar is a modern solution. The nature of the pop-up event gives them flexibility to move to different locations and reach different people, Gauger says. It also provides safety because it is under the radar.
The trio has been steadily hosting at least one event per month since December 2022. Over the summer they had one bonus event a month, which was helpful to discover what members wanted.
Lesbian Pop Up Bar has worked with many businesses over the past year. Bars have reached out to them, new bars have opened and members have requested specific venues. When working with a new bar, organizers have a long, thorough conversation with the owners about what they need: a safe space that is adequately staffed for a big crowd.
When looking for venues, safety is also a priority for the Sappho’s Secret organizers, especially as the event gains popularity.
“No matter how it grows, whatever we end up expanding to will be specifically to provide safety, security and joy to lesbian communities,” Jackson says.
The organizers of both Lesbian Pop Up Bar and Sappho’s Secret say they draw people from across the Midwest. People travel from Janesville and Milwaukee, and Minnesota and Iowa to attend Sappho’s Secret.
Many Lesbian Pop Up Bar attendees show up once and end up coming back again and again.
“A lot of women plan their lives around these events,” Gauger says.
In September, Lesbian Pop Up Bar and Sappho’s Secret each hosted an event on the same night and at the same bar. The event space, the Cardinal Bar, booked the events on the same night because they thought the crowds would overlap, Snell says.
“It is wonderful people have more choices than ever, and they’re all a little different than the next,” Gauger says.
Some other pop-up events may be better for a crowd that wants to stay out late and dance, Gauger says, while Lesbian Pop Up Bar is better for sitting down, talking and connecting in a different way.
“There’s space for all of us,” she says.
Even though the events only take place once a month, they have a lasting impact. People come up to Gauger at events and tell her stories that give her the chills.
“I’m getting goosebumps right now,” Gauger says while sharing that pop-up members have met friends, lovers and life partners. “These are vital events in our community that are helping form important connections for women that probably wouldn’t otherwise happen.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misspelled the name of a source. The correct spelling is Timothea Stinnett.