Meet the Woman Behind One of NYC’s Most Iconic Lesbian Bars
Twenty-eight-year-old Lisa Cannistraci had been working as a bartender at the original Cubbyhole, one of New York City’s oldest gay bars, on Hudson St. in the West Village for five years when she got the news that the location was closing (it later reopened on W 12th). While she planned on getting another job elsewhere, and was studying to become a psychologist at the time, her customers — she’d developed a “very big following,” she says — couldn’t imagine the neighborhood without her.
“They were begging me to re-open that old space,” she tells me over the phone, while driving upstate to Kingston, NY, for Memorial Day weekend. “I said ‘no way.’ I had no inclination or desire to own a bar.”
That was until, a couple months later, she met Minnie Rivera, “a veteran in the business,” Cannistraci says. “She changed my mind. I just liked her. I thought we’d be a good fit. Really, it was a fluke.” Twenty-eight years later and she and Rivera are still business partners.
With the help of pretty much every gay woman in the neighborhood, they built Henrietta Hudson from scratch. “Every lesbian I knew helped me do it,” Cannistraci says. “Some friends lent me their sound system, other friends painted. It was built by customers.”
They opened during pride month in 1991. Over the past two decades, despite a dramatic decrease in the number of lesbian-centric spaces in the U.S., Henrietta Hudson continues to thrive.
“It’s reached iconic status,” Cannistraci says. “People come from out of town, but we also get tons of people from New York City and the surrounding area. It’s a very busy bar.”
I ask Cannistraci what she thinks is causing lesbian bar death and why her bar has survived. “I can’t speak to that because I didn’t run those places,” she says. “They all close for a variety of reasons. I can only tell you why we’re still open. We pivot and change with the LGBTQIA+ community and its needs, and our events are a reflection of that.”
The bar hosts specialized events year-round, like a recent variety show and open mic for Trans in the Wild, a nonprofit that supports trans people in all aspects of life, from finding a job to securing housing. The bar will also host two big events at WorldPride in NYC this year, their annual Siren party — the “#1 women’s party of the year” — and a new event, Pride Soup, which is focused on inclusivity.
“We’ve always been all-inclusive, way before the more [mainstream] trans visibility you see today,” Cannistraci says. “We get a big chunk of the young queer community because it’s the place they’ve decided is for them. I guess you could call us lesbian-centric, because we encompass the whole spectrum of the community.”
Pride Soup is a good example of the bar’s commitment to celebrating that spectrum. “The more Henrietta becomes a haven for all types of people within our community, the more I wanted to create an event to reflect that,” she says. This is important during a time when some people continue to ostracize the trans community and police who is allowed to use the label “lesbian.”
Cannistraci, who identifies as gay, is against this kind of gatekeeping within the community. “How people identify and the words they use is personal to them,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a hard definition for lesbian. I think it’s how each person individually chooses to accept that word.”
This year’s pride month is especially significant to Cannistraci because it marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, as Stormé DeLarverie, the lesbian who threw the first punch and Cannistraci’s good friend, liked to call it. “She didn’t depict it as a ‘riot’,” Cannistraci says. “She said it was a rebellion. It was a movement, just like the civil rights movement.”
She and DeLarverie met in March 1985, at the original Cubbyhole when Cannistraci was 22 and just starting out as a bartender and DeLarverie was 65 and working as the bouncer. “She was the most incredible woman and had this incredible energy, a calming effect on people,” Cannistraci remembers. “Late at night, when there was nobody in the bar, she’d tell me stories, from when she was born and throughout her incredible life, up until the Stonewall rebellion.”
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A lot of people forget that the rebellion began because the Stonewall Inn that night was full of somber and irritable gays commiserating over the death of Judy Garland, whose funeral was held earlier that day. “It was very, very hot out and everybody was upset and the bar got raided,” Cannistraci says. “Everyone was just like ‘not tonight.’”
This time when the cops came in to pull their usual drop-a-bag-of-drugs-on-the-floor-and-start-making-arrests-for-no-reason trick, DeLarverie, who was there with friends, wearing her signature fitted suit, had had enough. “The cop asked her to step on [the drugs],” Cannistraci tells me. “In her strong, baritone voice, she said ‘no.’ The cop grabbed her arm and Stormé knocked him out with one punch — and it took two cops to carry that cop out.”
That night marked what many consider to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. At the time, it was illegal to be gay in New York City and the very existence of the Stonewall Inn was against the law. Funded by the Mafia, the bar didn’t have a liquor license because it was illegal to serve gay people alcohol. While these kinds of raids by the police were a regular occurrence, the patrons fighting back wasn’t.
The Stonewall rebellion sparked a national uprising, which would eventually lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage nation-wide. For all of this we can thank DeLarverie, along with other gay and trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Without their sacrifice, we wouldn’t have a pride month to celebrate.
DeLarverie continued to be a vocal advocate throughout her life and on April 24, 2014, at the age of 93, was honored alongside Edie Windsor by the Brooklyn Community Pride Center for her dedication to the LGBTQIA community. Shortly after that, her health took a turn for the worse.
“She fell very sick again,” explains Cannistraci, who petitioned to become DeLarverie’s legal guardian toward the end of her life, while she was living with dementia. Cannistraci arranged for her to stay in a nursing home and looked after her until she passed away on May 24, a month after the ceremony with Windsor. While it’s been several years since her death, Cannistraci still thinks about her every day.
“I feel her all the time,” she says, her voice breaking as she fights back tears. “She definitely holds me up.”
This year, Cannistraci’s not only celebrating the anniversary of the rebellion, but the legacy of a close friend. She, just like DeLarverie was while she was alive, is committed to serving, protecting, and representing the next generation of queer womxn.
“I don’t believe in any discrimination at all,” she says. “The criteria is if you’re polite, you can come in and stay. If you’re impolite, we’ll ask you to leave. It’s got nothing to do with how you identify.”
While the West Village might look a lot different now than it did the day of the rebellion, and the day Henrietta Hudson opened its doors a quarter century ago, (it’s full of mostly wealthy heterosexual families now), Cannistraci, who lives above the bar, still feels at home.
“I’m a staple in the neighborhood,” she says. “And if we ever had any problems, the whole fucking neighborhood would come to our rescue.”