clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nourishing Queer Hospitality

How centering queer values can examine what hospitality could really mean

I met the four members of Queer Poly Chef Support Group through disparate means, but it wasn’t chef work or polyamory or even queerness that brought them together.

There’s Sera, with a background in fine dining, whose dinners in Los Angeles are the gold standard of pop-ups. There’s the fiery, wisecracking Sammy, who makes self-proclaimed “slutty” drunk food best shared with a lover. Kylie, a true earth angel, worships the soil and the sun, and it’s evident in her wildflower-topped shortbread cookies and zesty “Happa” food. And Hal, who shares how she made a grief cake for a passed-on friend with berries picked from a bush near their childhood home in Canada.

The group comes together semi-regularly to discuss how best to cobble a reasonable living out of their various kitchen jobs, side gigs, and side-side gigs. Everyone is intertwined, whether it’s through helping out at someone’s pop-up or sharing advice on where to get the cheapest and best produce or which of LA’s restaurants are currently paying the best for back-of-house work. It was love, though, that first convened the group, as well as the commitment to questioning the traditional hierarchies that can dominate our lives in both a professional and romantic context. Sammy and Kylie, both burned by polyamory, joke that they’re back on “the monogamous life,” but any thread of conversation eventually brings the group back to their shared dream of breaking down the societal structures that were never built for them to begin with — and making a better one in its place. It’s the essence of queer hospitality, when you think about it for long enough.

On a recent Tuesday, the Queer Poly Chef Support Group and I sit cross-legged around a low coffee table, sipping bubbly water while Sera whips together a comforting pesto from the dregs of her two refrigerators. Someone brings a bag of fusilli, combined with a bag of rigatoni and topped with juicy, tart cherry tomatoes. We laugh until we cry, alternating bites of pesto pasta with breathless reportage from our lives. And then we serve each other more.

In 2015, I was a barely-out gay loser working a job in a sunless basement on the campus of my alma mater. (This assessment may sound harsh, but I say it with all the love and empathy in the world for my former self.) I yearned to write about food, but didn’t feel I had connections or expertise to take a stab at it. I exhausted all the dating apps to the point where I was informed years later that my data from — a mindfulness-based dating app I signed up for in a fit of romantic desperation — was exposed to the dark web in a data breach.

2015 was also the year after John Birdsall published the seminal essay “America, Your Food Is So Gay” in Lucky Peach’s gender issue. In the essay, Birdsall ruminates on his experiences as a gay man cooking in Bay Area kitchens and how food culture for so long took cues from gay chefs without so much as waving a single rainbow flag acknowledging the origins of the movement. I didn’t know how to categorize my interest in food back then; unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t a Bon Appétit Test Kitchen obsessive or a Chopped devotee, but in Birdsall’s essay, I finally saw a place for myself — my whole self — in the food world.

In the middle of a dull day at work, I wandered over to the University of Southern California’s English department to crash professor of gender and sexuality Karen Tongson’s office hours. Tongson, like Birdsall, had begun excavating the elusive idea of queer food. I remember discussing the concept with a straight friend at the time: Does the food have to be made by a queer person to be queer? Does it have to hold some other defining queer characteristic? There’s an obsession with definition that can often feel limiting, but when I posed these questions to Tongson, she didn’t give me a cookie-cutter answer. She gave me a mind-expanding assignment to go forth and discover the meaning for myself.

Diners sit in tables in a row with portraits hanging on a wall above them
Meme’s Diner in Brooklyn, which closed in 2020.
Gary He
A colorful bar area with a sandwich board listing specials.
The bar at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, NY.
Lil’ Deb’s Oasis

While queer hospitality might feel like a recent phenomenon accompanying restaurants like Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York, and the late, great MeMe’s Diner in Brooklyn, queer food is nothing new. The queer fine dining restaurants and proudly “Sapphic” natural wine bars (like LA’s the Ruby Fruit) that my queer and trans friends and I patronize rely on a long tradition of separatism, one built on the history of taking care of one another — particularly when nobody else was particularly interested in taking care of us.

Before Brad Sears joined the Williams Institute at UCLA as founding director, a law research center on LGBTQ+ issues, he was a gay man living with HIV in Los Angeles in the ’90s. He learned of his diagnosis at a testing site, and following the news, immediately attended a support group in Silver Lake hosted by the nonprofit Being Alive LA. The group, run by HIV-positive staffers, would host dinners for positive attendees on Sundays. “Some of those people I still know today,” Sears says. “Fortunately, like me, they are still alive.” Sears describes the dinners as a portal to finding the comfort to seek more services. At the time, people were still dying and medication had just become available on a widespread basis. Today, the Being Alive site — which is just a few blocks away from the Black Cat, the site of a historic gay uprising — is an upscale date-night restaurant. (Depressingly enough, the Black Cat now shares a storefront with a Shake Shack.)

The existence of Being Alive LA, and other organizations that supported Sears, like Project Angel Food and God’s Love We Deliver, speak to a separatist movement in queer food that laid the seeds for the queer hospitality movement we are seeing today. Back then, “you would be worried about going to a healthcare provider or an organization that serves the public and being identified as HIV-positive. You knew if you went [to Being Alive LA], everyone there was HIV-positive... and if people became more comfortable, they might start accessing other services,” Sears says. “But it was a key point of connection and really an important place for community.”

Sears’s organization, the Williams Institute, publishes dire but unsurprising data about food scarcity in the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ youth, seniors, and those who are trans people of color are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. The data also points to a hallmark of the queer hospitality movement: a desire to protect those who are vulnerable in the community through mutual aid, sliding scale prices, or other ethical considerations that often accompany the serving of queer food.

This tradition of separatism goes back even further in queer food history. In Alex Ketchum’s book, Ingredients for a Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses, she tracks the existence of feminist restaurants — another early seed for the queer food movement — from 1972 to today. It’s worth noting, contrasting the hallmarks of today’s vanguard, that many of these early efforts were owned by and served primarily white and cisgender women due to financial and access issues, like the fact that women couldn’t access credit in their names until 1974. I ask Ketchum about early entanglement of the separatist movement with segregation within its own ranks. Ketchum points out that this history is often flattened and simplified. “We see a lot more of an emphasis on racial diversity, gender diversity, and diversity of sexual orientation [today],” she says, “but I also don’t want to act as if there weren’t those debates, conversations, and moves towards inclusion in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Trans people of color are, and have been, the lights of queer food and hospitality. Ketchum points out a formerly overlooked and meaningful moment in the queer food movement that only recently gained acknowledgment through the efforts of historian Susan Stryker: the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots, during which a group of trans women at San Francisco’s all-night restaurant, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, stood up to police after repeated harassment and violence. The event predates Stonewall, another event that does a lot of explanation for queer liberation. Today, I think particularly of Cellphone of Gay4U who introduced the concept of “trans POC eat for free” and Kat Williams of the Gro House who donates groceries to Black LGBTQ+ people in need. Our movement is so much more powerful when all members of our community have the access and resources to succeed.

Even at its earliest conception, queer food did more than just feed. It gave back in some way. It nourished. And that tradition of hospitality was baked in.

Any contemporary conversation about queer food has to take into account the gay, lesbian, or queer bar. These spaces don’t always exist as brick-and-mortars — not yet, anyway — but rather as pop-up markets, clothing swaps, and rock band showcases, all staged to help raise funds for a less short-lived operation. Dave’s Lesbian Bar and Val’s Lesbian Bar, of Queens, New York, and Philadelphia, respectively, are two such bars. While the myriad events they hold can be challenging to coordinate, their lack of permanency can also engender a unique kind of freedom.

Dave Dausch of Dave’s Lesbian Bar is trying to distance themself from traditional workings of the restaurant industry in order to create a space centering liberation and social justice — two things the industry isn’t exactly aligned with. “I don’t know why these are the set of rules that we are left with from men from 400 years ago, but here we are,” says Dausch, who has a day job in a cheese shop. “I have been taken advantage of and exploited for my labor in this industry for a really long time. And I just refuse for that to be the foundation of what we are building.”

Both Dave’s and Val’s have embraced crowdfunding with ticketed events to establish a nest egg and show to venues a proof of concept. For Val’s founders, Julia Golda Harris and Clover Gilfor, this is a step to “earn the trust” of the community they aim to serve. (After all, trust in the queer community is neither easily earned nor dispensable, as was evidenced by news of Queer Appalachia siphoning mutual aid funds in 2020 and the more recent, somewhat spectacular flameout of Hot Donna’s lesbian bar in LA.)

Dausch believes a cooperative business model — rather than a collective profit-sharing model — is a solution for some of the pitfalls the community has witnessed. They are taking classes at Astoria Worker Project to bolster their knowledge in the hopes of running Dave’s as a co-op if and when they find a permanent space. In Spain, Dausch says, one in six businesses are co-ops, whereas in America, the number is more like one in 400.

The founding ethos of both Dave’s and Val’s is simple: love. (Val’s is short for Valentine’s, and is February 14-themed.) “Love is a huge part of this project,” says Golda Harris. “Building this together is us investing in our love and our future together. And it’s also important to us that it’s a space for other people’s love, too.”

“Love is really a big tenet of queer hospitality, right?” adds Gilfor. “Focusing on the expansiveness of all the different kinds of love and relationships you can make and how creative and unique you can be with that. Making a space that’s hospitable to that is what queer hospitality is to us.”

Love was also a founding principal of Frankie’s, a lesbian bar in Oklahoma City. While Val’s and Dave’s are working to fundraise for a brick-and-mortar space, it might surprise you to learn that the state of Oklahoma was, until recently, home to three of America’s 21 remaining lesbian bars: There is also the Yellow Brick Road Pub in Tulsa; the Secret, a Latina-focused space in Oklahoma City; and Alibi’s, which closed earlier this year. (The “21 remaining lesbian bars” figure is an ever-fluctuating one, and fickle too. How do we account for promising and community-building efforts that don’t have a brick-and-mortar?)

Oklahoma’s unlikely status as a lesbian-bar gold mine is somewhat complex. “Oklahoma’s not the place to own a bar,” says Ann Harris, who founded Frankie’s with her wife Tracey in 2017, taking over a downtown lesbian bar at the end of its lifespan to realize their dream. “We’re in the Bible Belt and it’s red. Taxes are ridiculous. And they really don’t want gay people to succeed at anything here.” Harris shares that her gender-nonconforming wife can’t even use the bathroom when they’re out to dinner. Oklahoma is also the state where Nex Benedict was beaten in a bathroom by high school girls.

I ask Harris several times: “What conditions allow for these lesbian bars to exist?” And every time she replies with the same answer: “We need them.”

Despite the fact that odds are stacked against them — like pushback from neighbors over a queer bar having a liquor license at all — I see the existence of Frankie’s as a call to action by Harris, perhaps a call that has been answered by Dave’s and Val’s. A core tenant of queer hospitality is simply to create refuge from the world. We need these bars, these sanctuaries, to exist.

Though the concept of “queer hospitality” defies simple definition, I can’t help trying to understand it through the very queer framework of somatics and embodiment. In recent years, part of moving beyond my “gay loser era” has been the connection to my body that escaped me for much of my life, and I’m curious as to how queer and trans food professionals nurture this connection in an industry that can be notoriously rough on the body and soul.

Sera, of the Queer Poly Chef Support Group, recalls that when she was working the line in fine dining, performing the same motion over and over felt like she was shutting off her brain-body connection. Before Sammy worked in the kitchen at the Ruby Fruit and ran pop-ups, they were a high school science teacher who suffered chronic back pain until they left education to carve out their own creative path in queer food.

“I like that erotic attunement of being present and collaborative on an energetic, informational level in the kitchen,” says Hal, adding: “When I’m not embodied, it shows in the work.”

Kylie agrees: “Putting your hands in everything makes the food taste better.”

In all these conversations, embodiment feels salient to me as part of queer hospitality. Queerness encourages the felt experiences of having a body and feeling love. I can see that everywhere. Hayley Yates, creator of @lesbianfoodaccount on Instagram, runs a profile where you can relish in sunlit iPhone photos of watermelon and cucumber salad, confit tomato romesco-y pasta salad with mozz balls, mustard walnuts, and basil — exactly what I want to eat right now, made extra delicious by lesbians. To Yates, queer food making is a special form of art because of the simple biological need to feed ourselves to survive.

The account started as a private space for Yates to share what she was cooking, until she and a partner started putting the things they were making on the internet; it eventually became a space for inbound requests asking if there were opportunities for private cheffing and more. Yates left her 9-to-5 job last year to pursue food full time. But, even lesbian relationships can come to an end.

“When we decided to separate it was also another beautiful natural [thing], her telling me, ‘This is your baby and this is your passion. Why don’t you go off and get after it, girl.’ Oh my god. Luckily, no custody battle. It was very beautiful and natural as lesbians tend to be.”

When I tell Yates I’m writing about queer hospitality, she draws a distinction between hospitality and cooking. “Every host can be a chef but not every chef can be a host. And I think hosting and the art of hospitality is the untapped secret sauce of a lot of the culinary industry. Cooking and hospitality are not equals, but hospitality is my passion. For me, it’s defined as knowing the people in your space enough, and knowing your space enough, to anticipate the needs of it before maybe they can anticipate themselves.”

A few weeks after I regretfully part from the Queer Poly Chefs with a full stomach and a buzzing mind, I wake up late and slightly hungover on Trans Day of Visibility. I had promised Tuck Woodstock, host of Gender Reveal podcast, that I would volunteer by sending Venmo payments to mutual aid recipients. Woodstock was waxing lyrical about TDOV in 2021 on Twitter, bringing up the questions: Who exactly is this day for? And what are the limits of visibility? Sure, visibility is important, but hasn’t it already ushered in a new era of hate for trans people? Instead of being more visible to a society that barely tolerates us (at best), why not stay inside and feast privately? Thus, Trans Day of Having a Nice Snack was born.

Woodstock likes to think of the mutual aid as “a fun little treat” for the 850+ trans individuals living in, or who recently fled, the 26 states most acutely affected by anti-trans legislation who received funds. After all, $10 in most American cities won’t cover a full meal, but Woodstock hopes that the payment could be used for something recipients wouldn’t normally buy for themselves while they’re focused — as so many trans people are forced to be — on survival and meeting basic needs.

Illustration of three figures holding up a pile of dishes.

“If someone [bought] me the most luxurious pastry from the bakery, I would be so thrilled,” Woodstock says of the ethos behind his project. “What else do we deserve? Well, we deserve everything: What are ways that we can celebrate that we’re here and give each other the gift of not just survival but abundance and frivolity?”

Woodstock’s TDOV project is the definition of queer hospitality to me; it’s spontaneous, personal, intimate and — just like the Queer Poly Chefs’ food collaborations, the organizing work that Sears and his peers did to feed HIV-positive individuals in the ’80s, and the various events that Dave’s and Val’s are putting on now to cater to new and established generations of queers — it’s borne of love.

“On our best and in our best moments trans people are striving not just for trans liberation,” Woodstock says, “but for liberation writ large.”

It’s easy to forget that trans liberation is one intertwined and in solidarity with other struggles: bodily autonomy, racial justice, reimagining economic freedom, and more. To dream is an inherently queer pastime.

In March, years after what I consider to be the end of my “gay loser era,” I had top surgery. The bright spot amid the nightmare of dealing with insurance was my meal train. I took three weeks for total rest and during that time, friends brought food to my home every single day. I feasted on a whole pizza from Shin’s, fresh beet and carrot juice, homemade vegetable curry, and the leftovers from the brownies my girlfriend had brought to the nurses at the hospital. Kylie, from the Queer Poly Chef Support Group, signed up for a day with the note, “zesty & healing Happa cuisine.” (Kylie and I share the gift of a Japanese parent.) I couldn’t wait for the delivery.

She arrived with her big dog in tow and her version of a nicoise salad bursting with the bearings of her garden: soft-boiled duck eggs, gem lettuce, wasabi dusted mochi, nasturtium capers pickled for a whole year, garlic turmeric preserved lemon dressing, all topped with wildflowers. As we lingered in my driveway talking, she grabbed a kumquat from my tree and ate it in front of me in the sunlight.

I went inside after Kylie left and immediately dove into the salad, feeling the zest in my mouth, in my chest, in my stomach. I gave thanks for the gift, feeling for a moment the presence of queer food, queer hospitality, and queer belonging, all brought to my doorstep via meal train, a lot of luck, and a little bit of kismet.

On the Tuesday before I had to return to work, I desperately wanted to linger in the last three weeks of my life in which every meal had been a gift. I lamented to my friends that “I don’t want this feeling to end,” though one of the hallmarks of being mortal is endings. Still, the comfort, love, and generosity they showed me over my recovery and throughout my life is all the nourishment I need. I know the beautiful fullness I feel after finishing Kylie’s salad is part of a long lineage of queer and trans people feeding each other as a means of saying, “You matter to me.” Whether that hospitality happens at a lesbian bar fundraiser, a nonprofit, a pop-up kitchen, a bestie’s living room, or across a mutual aid Venmo-thon, that sense of hospitality is the truest (and queerest) thing I’ve been privileged enough to know.

But I do have some small comfort in knowing queer food is the channel if ever needed — to connectedness, to nourishment. If I ever feel short on queer hospitality, I know where to go; my local lesbian bar, my gay homie’s pop-up, or just a chip-tasting session with friends. And the beautiful thing is I am lucky enough to feed my body every day.

Rax Will (he/they) is a James Beard-nominated writer living in Los Angeles. Levi Hastings is a queer illustrator and avid omnivore based in Seattle.

Queer Table

The Expansive Evolution of the Queer Cookbook


A ‘Good’ Billionaire Bought Anchor Brewing. What Happens to Its Union?


Shop ‘The Bear’ Aesthetic