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On finding 'A Place of Our Own'

 May 29, 2024 at 3:20 PM PDT

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. Author June Thomas writes about the importance of safe spaces for queer women. Will have a conversation with her. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Connecting our communities through conversation. Last month , we talked about third places and how they can help build connection and community. We explored some of your favorites in San Diego , like The Beach , a favorite art gallery , the dog park. Those were some of what you shared with us. Well , third spaces have also been a vital way for historically marginalized groups to find connection. A new book looks into how these spaces help to build and nurture queer women over the years. Journalist June Thomas is host of the slate podcast , working , and author of A Place of Our Own Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women's Culture. June , welcome back to Midday Edition.

S2: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

S1: So glad you're here. So you start your book by explaining how your life has been defined by searching for lesbian spaces. Tell me about that search and its importance for you. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. When I came out to myself , one of the strangest or the most unexpected realizations that I had was that I was going to have a separate social life. Didn't mean I wasn't going to hang out with my straight friends , with my college friends , or my family. It just meant that if I wanted to have a , you know , a friendship circle , if I was going to find a girlfriend , frankly , I was going to have to go somewhere else. And that meant finding places where other lesbians , other queer women hung out. I think for most people , that tends , the first place you think of tends to be the bar. But in America at least , that can be tricky because the 21 and over limit or threshold kind of excludes a lot of people from that key homo social space. For me , though , the very special place where I found my community was the feminist bookstore , which was not by any means an exclusively queer space. It was a place of business. But I found friends , I found ideas , I found books that stimulated me. I found music that I liked. I found information in the news magazines that they sold. That was how I found a lot of my social scene.

S1: And in your book , you do write about bars.

S2: As I said , they're often the first base. People just realize they can go to. People know , okay , I'm queer. I guess I should go to a bar. And that's where they think they're going to find friends and community. And certainly they can be very , very happy places. The the way they appear now is very different from how they first emerged , um , in the 50s and 60s. They were very much , um , a very marginalized space. Um , most places , most states had very unclear rules. And so even people who studied the law , you know , with great strenuous ness , it just wasn't clear if it was even legal for gay people to gather together , if it was legal for bars to serve them. And so this put these bars in a kind of twilight world , and no legitimate business person was going to want to be involved with that. And so they tended to attract entities like the mafia , uh , who would run the bars ? They weren't necessarily. It wasn't because they had the love for queer people. It's just that they were willing to take that risk. They could also , you know , break other rules in those places. And so they started out not as particularly friendly places. You know , the people who went there weren't necessarily treated well and usually were treated quite poorly. Starting in the 70s , uh , women started to be more welcoming. They were actually owned , or at least run by lesbians who wanted to provide a welcoming place , a place where women would be respected. Um , and so they started to change and eventually , you know , became the places we have now , which have changed again in more recent years. We keep hearing now how the number of bars is decreasing in the United States , with a population of about 332 million people , there are currently by the sort of official number is 32 self-identified lesbian bars. That's a tiny number , but to me , that isn't really something to panic about. Clearly. You know , there are so many more places where queer women and gay people generally can socialize , can be open , can be , uh , openly , you know , affectionate with , with their partners , with their friends. So I'm not so worried about this decline in numbers. To me , it's just a matter of evolution. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.


S2: You know , again , most of these spaces are businesses. And people sometimes make decisions , uh , because of , you know , what they believe they need to do to stay in business , uh , that are disappointing. You know , one of the things that I came across , uh , was a case that happened in New York City was a complaint to the city Human Rights division that was really pointing out how women of color were not treated well by many lesbian bars. They had to show more forms of ID in order to get in. The dress code was applied differently to women of color , especially if they were coming as a group. Uh , you know , if they if women of color went with a bunch of white women , there were more likely to get into the bar than if they were , uh , you know , a whole group of , for example , black women. And that was really kind of disappointing for me to see. But also it is part of our history. Um , you know , I think we sometimes think that our communities , whatever they are , are , you know , we love them. We , we , we want to think well , of them , but sometimes they're just as disappointing as , you know , the larger community that we live in , they repeat the same flaws , uh , and problems. Uh , it's not utopia , sadly. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.

S1: Well , I want to talk about the third spaces that are not just indoors. I mean , a lot of them , yes , are outdoors. So tell me about the importance of the softball field , for example. Yes.

S2: Yes. The softball field. Um , so I was an immigrant to the United States. Um , I grew up in Britain. And then when I went to live in the States , I was working actually in a feminist bookstore , which was kind of maybe my most , you know , the place where I felt most comfortable. But one day , a whole group of women just ran in. It was raining really hard. They all ran in. They were all wearing the same t shirt. I couldn't understand what the heck was going on. That was my introduction to softball and how central it is to lesbian life in America. Any place where there are lesbians , if they , you know , can at least get if there are enough of them to form a team , they will. Uh , and that has been the case. Um , actually , since , you know , the middle of the 20th century , it it continues today. I'll be in a more evolved form. But the great thing about the softball field is that it is outdoors. You know , that you don't have to be on the edge of town and late at night you can be in the sun , you can be in a park , you can be taking exercise. You also don't have to be in a bookstore. You know , talking. You know , talking about ideas isn't what everyone wants to do. Um , and I was so happy to discover that in the 70s , um , women , uh , especially , for example , in Atlanta , there was an organization called Alpha , which was the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance. And they were a very political group that , you know , the women who started the organization had very political backgrounds , but they wanted to expand their membership. They wanted to reach out to women who were coming out , who who weren't necessarily involved in politics. And so they started a softball team. And that softball team , you know , was out there was in the directly , uh , games it was in the parks of Atlanta. And when they went out , you know , the start of the game , when they announced the teams , they said , this is the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance , the Alpha Omegas. And that was hugely important. This was 1974 and 1975. They would call out queer cheers , as they call them , things like two bits , four bits , six bits of dollar , all for the queers. Stand up and holler , you know , they were yelling these things in public. They weren't ashamed. And it was a really amazing kind of role model that they were providing for just lots of people. They were expanding the geography of what people thought of as lesbian space. But there were also just , you know , being examples of a new kind of woman. It was hugely important and a lot of that importance and the role of , of sports and of being visible where people still happens in parks all across America all summer long.

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. We're back after the break. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , continuing our conversation with author June Thomas , who's writing about safe spaces for queer women. Tell me about , you know , the the evolution of these spaces. Um , you know , historically , they weren't so welcoming to groups of people who were marginalized.

S2: Softball , for example , you know , you think , well , how are you going to change softball ? You're going to change the rules. But no. One of the things that's happened in recent years , as I think most people's sense of , of gender , of sexuality has expanded there. There have long been these across America , uh , softball leagues specifically for gay and lesbian people. In New York , where I used to live , it was called the Big Apple Softball League. And , you know , it's been going since the 1970s. In recent years , though , they've changed the sort of the the way that the leagues are defined. What used to be the lesbian League is now Women Plus and basically it welcomes anyone except cisgender men. And that has really expanded , uh , you know , who who is who is kind of feeling that they're going to be welcomed on the team. Um , and when I went to see them play , you know , they were just having such a great time. Um , and it really does feel like a very welcome evolution. The same is true in bars again , we've now do have fewer lesbian bars , but there are more queer spaces that are saying , if you feel like this is going to be a welcome space for you , come on in. And joy , I think we also yeah , we're just feeling like we need to be more inclusive and less spend less time excluding people. It just feels really , really positive to me.

S3: And in addition.

S1: To to building this connection and becoming more inclusive , um , you know. These spaces are often hubs for activism and social change. Tell me about that.

S2: Yeah , absolutely. I guess one of the one of the challenges , you know , when you come out or when , certainly in my case , when I came out , I just wanted to find my people and I , you know , again , I knew you could go to a bar. I didn't realize at that point that you could go to a bookstore or that you could go , you know , to a softball game. You could go to a sports event. But once you find a place where you feel welcome , you know , you tend to find other people who will tell you about other things. So , for example , at feminist bookstores , which again , were , you know , commercial enterprises that were there in the business of selling books , but so much of the time people would be calling these stores and asking for information , you know , about the town that where there were or , you know , they wanted recommendations and they ended up building these kind of binders of information about , you know , social groups , about political organizations and also references for things like doctors or attorneys. And , you know , that there were a way of finding people with other shared interests. You know , we tend not to just have one , uh , interest. It's not just books. We might also like birdwatching. And so you find people there in these spaces that then take you to other places. But finding , you know , making that first connection is so crucial. And it often also leads to political activism. You go , you know , to a bar to , you know , to relax. After a long week of work , you find out about a protest , you find out about a group , and you become involved in that. Uh , and yeah , it's it's a it's the way that we find our community is it sometimes seems strange , but going to a bookshop , going to a bar , uh , going to a softball game is how you find your community. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. Well , what.


S2: It wasn't always easy to learn about lesbian and gay and bisexual and trans history. Um , you know , the the , the , the publications where we shared the news of what was going on in , in our communities were didn't have very large distribution. Um , and it has been very difficult , especially for straight people , people not involved in the community to learn about queer history. So I hope that , um , you know , it will be informative and entertaining. But I also think that , you know , many of the same factors that are making it hard to find a bar that are making it hard to , you know , for for independent bookstores in general to stay in business or independent stores , to stay in business , the ones that affect lesbian stores also affect , you know , straight stores for , for lack of a better term , their universal experiences , unfortunately. Um , so some of the , uh , you know , the shared experiences , but also that everything that's going on is an evolution , you know , not to focus on this , uh , narrative of disappearance. Um , lesbians aren't going away. They're evolving. Lesbian spaces aren't disappearing. They're changing. Uh , and for me , again , that's a very , very positive story. So it's a positive development.

S1: I've been speaking with June Thomas , author of the new book A Place of Our Own Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women's Culture. June , thanks for joining us.

S2: Oh , thank you for having me.

S1: That's our show for today. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. Thanks for tuning in to Midday Edition. Be sure to have a great day on purpose , everyone.

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June Thomas pictured and the cover of her book "A Place of Our Own: Six Places That Shaped Queer Women's Culture"
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Author June Thomas is pictured with her book, "A Place of Our Own: Six Places That Shaped Queer Women's Culture," in this undated photo.

Third spaces help people find community, whether that's at a park or local coffee shop. They also have been a vital way for historically marginalized groups to find connection.

On Wednesday's Midday Edition show, author June Thomas talked about her book that explores how certain third spaces, like bookstores and bars, have helped build and nurture community for queer women over the years.


KPBS Midday Edition
KPBS listeners and guests open up about how they find community, entertainment and educational opportunities in San Diego's third spaces.