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The Brass Strap Wants to Bring a New Kind of Queer Bar to the Twin Cities

Inside the plan to open Minneapolis's first co-operatively owned queer bar.

four people stand smiling next to the pinball machines in the basement of Cafetto
From left: Victoria Leonard, Maddy Flisk, Nat Ollila, and CJ Jennings
Em Cassel

Just about every group of friends has the conversation at some point: We should open a bar. That’s at least doubly true for those in the service industry. And for queer folks, who have so few available public spaces to gather and dance and celebrate? Multiply by a factor of 10.

One group of local friends and longtime service industry workers—Maddy Flisk, Nat Ollila, Victoria Leonard, and CJ Jennings—find themselves having the discussion with increasing frequency.

“There’s a short list of gay bars and events and places that throw pop ups,” Flisk tells Racket. “But there’s nowhere that like—we’re service industry people. On a Tuesday night, there’s nowhere to go and be around our people.”

Even the queer bars that do exist can feel exclusive, or capital-g Gay, as in, not for femmes and they/thems. Some of the spaces feel… not entirely with the times.

“We don’t really go to a lot of the current options for gay bars,” Jennings explains. “We’ve had really bad experiences, or we don’t feel safe, we don’t feel welcome. We get the: The dykes walk in the door, and then all of the gay boys are like ‘…ugh, OK.’”

Flisk, Ollila, Leonard, and Jennings think the local queer community deserves a bar that’s truly by and for the queer community, not just a subset of it. And this is how idea for The Brass Strap—which would be the only cooperatively owned lesbian/queer bar in the Twin Cities—came to be.

“Having a cooperatively owned business, especially for our community, is the only way that it’s going to work,” Jennings says. Their crew has had too many bad experiences at gay bars, and “We never want anyone to feel that way in our space… but we all make mistakes and we all have blind spots.”

With a cooperative model, where supporters have literally bought into the cause, members will ideally be involved in making The Brass Strap the best it can be, offering feedback and suggestions its four co-founders are more than happy to incorporate. (“We also just hate bosses,” Jennings adds. Your friends at Racket can relate!)

The eventual goal is to have a physical bar, the kind of third place that’s so rare for the community locally. The founders have their eyes on a few spaces on the West Bank, but realistically estimate they won’t go brick ‘n’ mortar until around 2025. That’s why they’re starting with pop-up events. (Keep an eye on their social pages for updates on those.)

Outlets including the New York Times have recently written about the possibility of a “post-lockdown comeback” for lesbian bars; last year, the Washington Post wrote about a “new generation” of queer bars that are more inclusive than their predecessors. The team behind the Brass Strap visited lesbian and queer bars around the country on a recent road trip, some of which have opened in the last year or two.

“I would say there is kind of a resurgence like more queer people are like, ‘I want this physical space,’” Flisk says. “It’s a space you opt in to, and you’re respected in a way that people outside of the community don’t really understand.”

While The Brass Strap will primarily be a queer/lesbian bar, its four co-founders want to make sure everyone feels safe here, especially those who might not feel safe in other spaces: women, folks who’ve had bad experiences at other local bars, people with disabilities both visible and invisible. “Anyone who wants to feel part of the community is more than welcome,” Leonard says.

And though it’ll be a cooperative, all will be welcome to come dance and drink—like how Fair State Brewing Cooperative has members but opens its doors to all.

Their ideas to make the eventual bar as inclusive as possible include adding a daytime sober café, which they’ve heard from many people (already, incorporating cooperative feedback!) would be another valuable, rare resource. And the “big, big, big dream,” Jennings says, is to be able to provide housing for queer people above the bar—but that’s a longterm plan.

For now, the best way to keep up with The Brass Strap is on Instagram, where you can find info about upcoming pop-ups along with the link to their GoFundMe

It’s also the best place to share your feedback and ideas for The Brass Strap. Says Leonard: “We’d like people to know that this is a very collective dream for us. It’s important for us that the community reaches out to us if they want to help, if there’s creatives that want to get involved—this is a group activity,” she laughs.