Jillian's and Wall Street Night Club
Wall Street Night Club: “Go out and stay out!”
Jill McDonald founded not one, but two lesbian bars in Columbus. The first was called Jillian’s, which opened in 1985, and the second was called Wall Street Night Club, which opened in 1987. Jill made the decision to open these bars because, at that time, there were no places in Columbus for lesbians to go. Not only was the inclusion of woman-oriented spaces important, but there was also a lack of women-owned bars and businesses in general. She explains that some men’s bars, such as Herby’s, did not want lesbians in their space. Not only that, but they only wanted specific women to enter. Bars were being policed and surveilled to the point that many bars only admitted women if they had a dress on. These dress code policies were not only transphobic and homophobic, but they also perpetuated and incentivized gendered stereotypes. This male gaze was employed at the entrance of various Columbus men’s bars. There was also the constant threat of the police being called on lesbians or “male impersonators,” so the desire to find a space to unwind after work, make friends, and build community was much needed in Columbus at the time.
But queer nightlife in the 1980s was very different than it is now—U.S. society was even less welcoming to LGBTQIA+ communities back then than now. Women who came out as lesbian or even genderqueer could lose their jobs or even their families if anyone found out. So, these bars offered refuge for many. While queer life was still relegated to an inferior “other” at this time, these bars offered people relief and a safe space. These public, woman-first spaces offered a private second life for queer people to express themselves until society became more open-minded and accepting.
The Ohio State University (OSU) community has long been a part of the queer nightlife scene in Columbus. An article from the Lantern published in 1972 documents the harassment many lesbians faced even on campus. Sue Vasbinder explains that she “faced a barrage of ridicule” for simply holding her partner’s hand in public on campus. Lesbian bar spaces offered a private arena to do something as simple as holding a hand—being able to express PDA anywhere is a privilege only heterosexual people have. Vasbinder also mentions that in 1972 there were 4 “homosexual bars,” as they were once called. But only one of those bars was specifically for women; this bar often housed radical lesbian discussions and activism planning. In another Lantern article written in 2002 mentions that firefighters and policemen were extremely homophobic. Apparently, firefighters shouted “dykes” and other slurs at an unnamed lesbian bar when passing by, prompting BRAVO (the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization) to give anti-homophobia lessons to police and other public servants. These two OSU stories show just how important these spaces were and illustrate the intensity of the violence and harassment lesbians faced (and still face). Lesbian and queer women were at risk, in both academic and off-campus spaces, so it makes sense why so many of these locations were underground and undocumented. Many students, like Vasbinder, must have benefited greatly from spaces like Wall Street and Jillian’s.
Jill McDonald noted that while many men’s bars were exclusionary, lesbian bars set themselves apart by being inclusive. While these spaces were created to be woman-first, or even lesbian-first, in mind, they attempted to hold safe spaces for all. Or at least that was Jill’s mission. She explained that after experiencing discrimination and unwelcomeness in other spaces, she wanted to offer a place for all to feel comfortable. She told us that she always had the philosophy that everyone is welcome at her bar, as long as they respected everyone.
We were intrigued by other lesbian spaces in Columbus at the time, which are not well-documented, and were hoping Jill could provide some insights. According to a Columbus Alive article, Columbus had 30 to 40 lesbian bars throughout history—depending on who you ask. However, only a handful are searchable on the internet. While Jill was responsible for the creation of two women-first spaces, she also mentioned the bars such as “Mels,” which used to be in the German Village, as well as Summit Station, or “Jack.” Through research, we discovered that Summit Station is now the, very popular, Union Cafe. It is still open, but it is no longer a lesbian bar; it is a gay-friendly bar. Luckily, it is still open, but many lesbian bars, while inclusive, are often forced to market broadly to appeal to a larger audience in order to stay afloat. With this in mind, Jill exclaimed that there was no animosity between competing lesbian bars; rather, she explained, each bar was supportive of one another. There was mutual aid amongst fellow queer bars. Jill remembers an instance in which a manager (at former gay bar “The Garage”) helped her hang lights on the dance floor at Wall Street for the grand opening. Whenever one bar ran out of supplies, there would always be one other to help out when in need. This community cooperation and organization also expanded to a larger local landscape. Various fundraisers were held at Wall Street, oftentimes in cooperation with other queer bars in Columbus. In fact, Wall Street’s fundraising helped support Stonewall Columbus, which is very famous and well-known throughout Ohio.
Jill shares that each night at these bars featured a different theme. Some nights were catered to different groups, but anyone and everyone were always welcome. The bar itself was two stories and housed a DJ booth. The bar hired various local musical talents, one being Ali’s uncle Michael who used to DJ on Wednesday nights, which were popular with gay men because his music was progressive and experimental. Along with that, the crowd was very diverse. There were multiple generations of queer individuals showing up, depending on the theme of the day. Many OSU students attended parties at this club, not only as patrons but as staff members. Furthermore, Jill shared that “Sizzling Sundays” brought in local drag queen and comedy performers, while “First Friday” featured different music genres every hour. Fridays were especially popular—the bar would be so full that people could barely move. There would be so many women in attendance that local hotels would be fully booked. These iconic events also brought out celebrities, such as Jodi Foster and the B-52’s.
Despite these massive highs and successes for the queer community, as with many lesbian spaces, Wall Street Night Club closed its doors permanently in 2015. While Jill was no longer the owner of the bar when it closed, as she sold it in 2008, many were devastated to see the bar go. Lesbian bars are somewhat of a dying industry, as society seems to have lost the necessity for them. However, as Jill explains, this is extremely bitter-sweet. While many local fundraisers and GoFundMe’s are around to save local bars, as well as the help from the Lesbian Bar Project, many struggles to make ends meet. Jill explains that this might point towards society’s progression and her and many queer activists’ successes in making both public and private spaces more accessible and safer for the LGBTQ community. Being homosexual is no longer widely seen as an illicit act that needs to be hidden or separate from the rest of society. With legislation preventing discrimination against queer people, as well as the expansive local and virtual/online resources for lesbians, these spaces are dying out.
Our conversation with Jill gave us insight into the history of lesbian bars that could not be easily found through research. It offers us a rich dialogue about queer women’s communities and histories that need to be reclaimed and analyzed. So, we greatly thank Jill for contributing this knowledge so that it can be shared with OSU and the Columbus area.