One of the last lesbian bars: The Wildrose

There are only 15 lesbian bars left in the U.S., and one of them is in Seattle. The Lesbian Bar Project is a fundraiser to support these bars as they try and survive the pandemic. The campaign runs until Thanksgiving and donations can be made on their website. Funds will be evenly distributed to the participating bars.

A brief history

The Wildrose opened on New Year’s Eve in 1984 and has welcomed people through its doors in Capitol Hill ever since. In the beginning, the bar had a strict rule of admitting only women, but current owners Shelley Brothers and Martha Manning have made efforts to change that. 

Shelley, who is originally from California but spent time working in Nevada before ending up in Seattle for a job at Boeing. She first visited The Wildrose when she moved to the city in 1992. 

“[Nevada] was pretty conservative at the time so when I moved to Seattle it was like ‘oh my God,’ Shelley said. “There was Broadway Market which was like a gay mall and there were gay bars, there were gay bookstores, there was all this stuff, and coming from Nevada it was great. It was like coming home.”

Manning moved from the east coast shortly after college. She had just come out and found the bar to be exciting and a place for her to experience queer culture for the first time. 

Eventually, she applied for a job there and another lesbian bar, she heard back from the Wildrose first. That was back in 1996/1997, Martha can’t remember. But she still thinks she has her job application somewhere in all their files.  

“I could dress the way I wanted, talk the way I wanted, be affectionate the way I wanted. It was a place to be ourselves and it didn’t feel like it was all that many places, certainly not at that level,” Martha said. 

In 2000, Martha bought the bar with two of her co-workers. A couple of years later one of them sold her stake to Shelley. And eventually in 2005 Shelley and Martha bought out the last person’s share of the bar. 

Shelley Brothers has been part owner of The Wildrose since 2002.

The pandemic

When I went to the bar last Saturday, the place was empty. It was a bit jarring to see a bar completely devoid of people on a Saturday night, even if it’s the new normal. 

After chatting with Shelley for a bit and taking photos, I looked at my phone and saw a push notification from The Seattle Times. Indoor dining would be banned for the next four weeks, along with other restrictions, to try and squelch the rising COVID-19 numbers. 

Shelley tells me that The Wildrose has been doing more takeout recently, offering both bar food and to-go cocktails. She fears that, without more assistance from the local or federal government, a number of bars and venues won’t make it. The Wildrose is a part of Keep Music Live WA

“We count on our live music, that’s what’s been our backbone is doing shows — drag shows and burlesque shows,” Shelley said. “Until that can return, we really need help.” 

Framed photos of Pride celebrations in Capitol Hill adorn the bar’s walls. Shelley estimates that Pride accounts for around 20 to 25% of their annual revenue, but this year’s festival was online only. 

To support Wildrose, you can donate to the Lesbian Bar Project, order takeout, or donate to their GoFundMe. Martha added that they have merch for sale that folks can purchase online. 

“We still need a place to call our own, and that’s what the Wildrose has always been to people,” Shelley said. “It’s been a place where they can go into and feel at home, and I think that’s important for every group of people to have.”

Memories at the Rose

Maggie B. (works for Seattle Gay News): “I first started coming here because there was an open mic. That was the main thing I did was I came to the open mic with some other folks I’ve lost track of since then. There was Zan the dyke plumber who was also a comedian…I still have pictures.”

Martha M. (co-owner of the Rose): “I met my wife there and some of my absolute best friends and people who became family. It’s been so important to me and I’ve had such incredible experiences there and relationships. Seeing everything — weddings, funerals, memorials. It is a very important place; it’s something more than just a place to me, too.

Sarah B.: “In the early 2000s, I was there with my girlfriend dancing to the wonderful DJ Lady Jane. Some gals in uniform were there and asked to take our picture so that we could be pin-up girls for the lesbian soldiers in Iraq. I remember a couple of times being there when it was so packed I could barely move, and then the Seattle Storm team would show up.”

Beth A.: “The first time I went there for a happy hour, (the bartender) was playing ’90s-era country and I was like ‘I have found my home!’ After a very enthusiastic conversation with her that first night, the bartender was kind enough to always put on ’90s-era country music just for me when I’d pop in as she was getting things set up for a busy evening.” 

Sarah O.: “My wife told me when she was a young lesbian, having just come out when everything is new and scary and uncertain, the Rose was the place that you could go to just be welcomed and safe, while the rest of the world and life feels so uncertain.”