Monday, July 25, 2011


Katherine Hepburn in "Sylvia Scarlett" (1935)

Location: 1320 Chancellor Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Opened: ?

Closed: Late 1995

In her book Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire (2003), author Amy Villarejo relates the following tale:

In college and the years just after, I frequented a lesbian bar called Hepburn's. Named obviously after Katherine, the bar was decorated with production-still enlargements of Hepburn's face. Teeny pads of lavender paper, with a discrete Hepburn's across the top, sat in old-fashioned glasses alongside miniature pencils, ready for the exchange of phone numbers and note-taking. (On reflection it appears that I did more of the latter than the former.) On one of those pads, about ten years ago, I wrote "Sylvia Scarlett. Why lesbian?"

Most of the photographs in that bar featured Hepburn in her famous cross-dressing role in the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett, directed by the gay and extraordinary George Cukor. With hair slicked back and shirt collar framing her young patrician face, Hepburn's image as a dashing boy clearly excited a lesbian reading, set lesbian somehow reverberating. Hepburn's--the bar--borrowed the image and also those excitations, that indeterminate allure, for its own.

Unfortunately, Kim Brittingham's recollections of her first experience at Hepburn's are far less nostalgic:

In my early 20s, I went to a lesbian nightclub called Hepburn's in Philadelphia with some gay friends. Despite growing up in a house full of self-righteous bigots, I retained a socially liberal core. Like pancakes in a Teflon pan, my parents' lessons had a tendency to smack the surface and slide right off again. So it wasn't that strange to find me in a gay club. I rather enjoyed looking. And to my utter fascination, there were quite a few women there who didn't look like lumberjacks. How could my mother have missed this?

A female ambled over to us. She was what you'd call "butch." She thrust her face close into mine, scowling. "Are you gay?" she demanded.

I immediately felt foolish. The fact is, I didn't know what I was. I dated guys because it was easier, but I felt like I could potentially be ... well, anything. I was flesh and nerves and thoughts and emotions and electrical impulses. And in that moment, all of it was caught off-guard.

"I ... I don't know," I stammered.
Sisters exterior
She shook her head and cackled.

She looked at my lesbian companion and said: "Certain people just have no business being here, ya know what I mean?"

To my dismay, my lesbian friend nodded.

After Hepburn's closed in late 1995, Sisters (another lesbian bar) opened at Hepburn's former location in June 1996. Apparently Sisters is still in business--and Philadelphia's only lesbian bar.  

However, even as late as 2007, Hepburn's still conjured up fond memories by former patrons. As Nicole R. mused, "Back in the day, Sisters used to be Hepburn's.  I really liked that name a lot better.  It lent it this air of class, of old movies and glamor."

Other former lesbian bars in Philadelphia (from the 1970s to the 90s) include Sneakers, Rusty's, Upstairs, PBL, and Rainbow's.

Photo: Katherine Hepburn in "Sylvia Scarlett" (1935). Exterior of Sisters.


  1. Even worse news. Sisters just announced today that they will be closing. Now there is official no space in Philadelphia for queer womyn.


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