Toledo lesbian bar OUTSKiRTS marks fifth anniversaryWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
Comfortable, safe and welcoming aren’t typical adjectives used to describe a bar, but Johanna and Lexi Staples hear it all the time.
“I’ve had customers say, ‘I love the bar, but it doesn’t really seem like a bar. It seems more like a community center,’” said Lexi, laughing.
The mother-daughter duo operate OUTSKiRTS, Toledo’s only lesbian bar, which recently marked five years in business.
Bar manager Torie Thorne, who worked at former Toledo lesbian bar Gilda’s before it closed, agreed patrons feel safe at OUTSKiRTS.
“You don’t feel like you’re at a club. You feel like you’re at somebody’s house or like you’re at home,” Thorne said. “Like — this has happened to me multiple times — people just set their wallet on the bar and say, ‘Can you watch that?’ Nobody would ever do that in a bar. It’s different than any other bar. Even when it was the previous bar, it wasn’t the same feeling.”
Offering a welcoming refuge for patrons is important, Johanna said.
“I want them to feel like they’ve been valued for whoever they are,” Johanna said.
“About six months after we opened there was a girl who came in and said ‘Every single time I come in here I just know I’m going to get a very genuine hug and a very genuine affectionate smile from you. I don’t get that from my own parents because they disowned me when I came out to them. It’s like I’ve got another mom to replace the one who doesn’t love me anymore.’
“We have a lot of people who are still exploring or questioning. We have a lot of people who are cross-dressers who come in and know they can dress differently than they would for work and nobody is going to look at them and point fingers.
“I want them to know that regardless of what drama they may have going on, there will be a place they can be welcomed and valued and accepted for whoever they are and whatever their position in their journey of life is.”
Growing up LGBT
Lexi had former Toledo lesbian bar Blu Jeans in mind when she approached her mom about opening OUTSKiRTS. The venue had been a refuge for Lexi as a teenager.
“We got kicked out at 9 p.m. if you were under 18, but I could go there and play darts and no one would call me a boy or question me going to the bathroom and it was just the first real safe space where I felt like I could go and be myself,” Lexi said. “It was a really, really cool bar and honestly the first place I ever felt really accepted in Toledo. That feeling is what we wanted to make sure to keep providing for the community.”
Blu Jeans closed in 2002 and Gilda’s opened in 2004, so there was a period when Toledo had no lesbian bar, Thorne said.
“We absolutely felt the void. It was just a place where people went and hung out. It’s like the closing of any bar where you hang out,” she said.
Lexi and Johanna took over the former Gilda’s on West Laskey Road in 2008, not long after Johanna’s husband and Lexi’s father, Dennis Staples, died.
“Since we were both his main caregivers, we had a lot of free time and were like, ‘What are we gonna do?’ so we said ‘Let’s buy a bar,’” Lexi said. “That was the next logical step, obviously. Since neither of us are big drinkers and neither of us have ever owned a bar before.”
The learning curve was steep, Lexi said.
“The thing that has been craziest for me to learn has been that you can’t turn it off. I’m always thinking about it,” Lexi said. “It’s also all us. If painting needs done, or a toilet needs fixed or light bulbs need changed, that’s us.”
Two years ago, they moved the business to its current location at 5038 Lewis Ave.
“It’s cool to have gotten this far in this economy, that we’ve survived this long. A lot of lesbian bars in the country are closing or having fundraisers to stay open.”
OUTSKiRTS doesn’t offer food, but its drink menu features signature shots, “rainbow yards” — a three-foot-tall glass of colored, flavored vodka — glow-in-the-dark drinks and spirits served in children’s sand pails.
The best-selling drink is the pickle shot (vodka and pickle juice with a pickle slice in it).
Regularly giving back to the community is also important to the Staples women.
“We try to do fundraisers and different events that help inside the community,” Lexi said. “We’ve done stuff for Beach House, ARC (AIDS Resource Center) Ohio, Rainbow Area Youth, Equality Toledo, Project iAm.”
OUTSKiRTS opens at 6 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is closed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, but plans to add Sunday hours the weekend after Toledo Pride.
“Our building is more of a glow bar/show bar,” Lexi said. “It’s very black lighty.”
Wednesday is karaoke night. Friday is amateur drag night. Starting in September, the first Friday of every month will be a “boy’s night out,” Lexi said.
OUTSKiRTS attracts a diverse crowd — and yes, men, too.
“We have a lot of people who ask, ‘Are boys allowed?’” Lexi said. “That’s from straight guys, gay guys. Guys are always asking.”
The bar also draws straight patrons, Lexi said.
“When we first opened, we were predominantly, I mean really, really heavily predeominantly lesbian,” Lexi said.
“Now we have a huge mix. A lot of straight people come and hang out and feel completely comfortable and it’s not a weird thing to do. They love the drag and they love the music and it’s just a safe place for everybody now. I think it’s a really cool thing for the times we’re living in.”
Toledo native Bonnie Leavens, who serves as karaoke jockey at OUTSKiRTS on Wednesday nights, has been a KJ at various lesbian bars since the early 1990s.
“The acceptance level is much greater than it used to be,” she said. “I see a huge difference.”
Toledo had at least three lesbian bars in the early 1990s, Leavens said. Some of the bars closed after their owners died. Others had owners who wanted to do other things.
“I think they had plenty of business. The bars were doing well, all of them,” Leavens said.
“The owners wanted to move on, wanted to get out and move on to something else.”
Leavens recalled her first visit to a lesbian bar, shortly after breaking up with a longtime girlfriend in the early 1990s.
“I knew I had to get out in the world, but I didn’t know there were gay bars in Toledo to tell the truth,” Leavens said. “It was shocking to me to know there were so many gay people in Toledo to be honest. I didn’t know anyone else.”
She called a gay and lesbian hotline, where the operator told her about the now-closed Seahorse bar.
“It was close to where I lived, near the Woodville Mall,” Leavens said. “I went there three times, but couldn’t force myself in because I had so many imaginations about what went on in a gay bar.
“I finally worked up the nerve and realized it was just normal people sitting around having a drink. The owner took me under her wing and made me feel comfortable. From then on, I started meeting people.”
Many lesbian bars are folding because of growing societal acceptance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Lexi said.
“There is a huge change in the amount of acceptance in the greater community, especially toward females, so woman are often more able to go out and feel comfortable in a setting that’s not predominantly gay,” Lexi said. “That makes it so lesbian bars don’t have the niche they used to. You don’t feel like you have to go to only this one place. And it used to feel like that. Fifteen years ago it absolutely felt like that.
“I think we’ll see more and more lesbian bars go out as that continues to change. And that’s exactly what should happen. It’s not necessarily a good thing as a business owner, but I think gay bars will always be around, but I think as we see these changes, we see different customers.”
The next closest lesbian bar is Stilettos in Inkster, Mich., just outside Detroit, Lexi said.
“We really do have a pretty decent history of lesbian bars inside of this community,” Lexi said. “Blu Jeans ran for quite a while, then Gilda’s was a really cool bar. And we’re the next one.”
Lexi and Johanna celebrated five years in business with a party last month.
“Being the only one of something for a marginalized group of people is an honorable thing to do,” Johanna said. “There are people who would otherwise be unserved. That’s a heady responsibility, but I also think it’s an awesome thing to do.”
Leavens said she’s proud of the milestone.
“I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a bar [in Toledo] specifically for lesbians,” Leavens said. “I’m very happy [OUTSKiRTS] survived and didn’t have to close down because of the economic situation in Toledo. I’m sure it’s been a struggle for them. I’m very proud of what Lexi and her mother have done, keeping it open, keeping the faith. I think it would be a sad day in Toledo to not have a place for lesbians to call their own.”
For more information, visit “OUTSKiRTS Toledo” on Facebook.