City leaders, members of the queer community, old regulars and many others who have had a hard time letting go of the shuttered Lexington Club gathered at its former space at 3464 19th St. on Monday afternoon to immortalize the popular Mission dive bar with a sidewalk plaque.
Known to many as the last lesbian stronghold in the Mission, the owner announced the bar’s closure after an 18-year-run and Lexington’s bartenders served their last drinks in April, 2015.
“I feel like I was ok for a year-and-a-half and today the wound is being reopened,” said Tom Temprano, a member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and a former Lexington patron. “Seeing a space that was so inclusive and warm to so many people who didn’t find that sort of inclusion elsewhere – even in a city as gay as San Francisco – is sad.”
The plaque may offer some closure, and is a result of an 18-month process that included a GoFundMe campaign that raised close to $5,500.
Shortly after it shut down, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution recognizing the Lexington for creating a “vibrant sense of community” and for serving as a “central meeting place and organizing platform” for many of the city’s queer and Lesbian organizations.
“We are honoring not just what the Lexington meant to community of women and members of the LGBTQ community, but through remembering what this bar was, we are also acknowledging that this community remains here,” said Mission Supervisor David Campos, whose office funded the plaque’s permitting.
Former patrons, staff of Lexington Club participate in unveiling plaque honoring the shuttered iconic queer bar. pic.twitter.com/92l7UiomXz
— Mission Local (@MLNow) September 19, 2016
As an influx of wealth raised prices throughout the neighborhood, owner Lila Thirkield stuck to her “never a cover” policy when it came to charging patrons for nearly two decades.
Despite its popularity, the changes in the neighborhood began to affect the bar, said Thirkield, who cited the Mission’s changing demographics and a difficult relationship with her landlord as reasons for shutting the Lexington down last year.
Still, an outpouring of community support during Monday’s ceremony showed that steamy nights at “the Lex” are far from becoming distant memories.
Thirkield unveiled the plaque bolted into a patch of sidewalk in front of the bar’s former 19th and Lexington street entrance – the space was recently reoccupied by a swankier cocktail lounge. The idea for the Lex initially came to her as a response to a “clear need in the community for a space just for us.”
“The Mission was such a hot bed for lesbian culture – it seemed time,” said Thirkield. This perceived need became palpable as soon as the Lexington opened its doors in January 1997.
“We were packed from day one,” she said.
The Lexington became deeply rooted in the local community, which in the 90s, said Thirkield, was full of “poets, artists, musicians, club kids, politicos, punks, bike messengers and lesbian business owners” – and the then 25-year-old entrepreneur wanted to contribute to creating a space for them all.
From its beginning, the Lexington was one of the few establishments that offered a non-gender bathroom. Despite its reputation as a lesbian bar, its staff worked to foster an inclusive environment.
“Many folks in our community had changed their pronouns over time. Some of our staff grew beards,” she said. “We were not only accepting but celebrating.”
“For me, the Lex was a place where it was ok to be queer, and to be a boy,” said Amy Sueyoshi, Board Co-Chair of the GLBT Historical Society, the organization that is stewarding the plaque. “It was where I took every tourist, and where they gave you a free bottle of champagne if you held your birthday there.”
But the Lexington offered much more than wild parties. Over the years, Thirkield created a safe space for queer patrons to not only socialize, but organize.
It was at the Lexington that employees of the Lusty Lady, the now shuttered peep-show establishment, organized to form a labor union. The bar also served as a meeting place for local community advocates and hosted countless fundraisers for queer rights organizations.
“This was where we had [post] Harvey Milk Club meeting drinks,” said Temprano. “There’s a little basement where organizing and smaller meetings happened up until the end.”
Others who worked and frequented the Lexington remembered it as being one of the few bars that was “open seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
“We were open on Christmas and on Thanksgiving, even if there was only one customer at the bar. If you didn’t have a place to go, you could come here,” remembered Liz Landacre, who was a bartender at the Lexington in 2007. “For many of us, the people [at the Lexington] are chosen family.”