Over the past 19 years in business, Lipstick Lounge has become a Nashville institution. Last year, the bar was voted best karaoke spot and best LGBTQ bar in the city by Nashville Scene readers. And as one of just 21 remaining lesbian bars in the country, it draws visitors from far and wide.
“Hell yeah. It’s an awesome place just to be gay, do karaoke and have fun,” said Sydney DeWitt, a regular patron of the bar.
But Lipstick Lounge isn’t just a go-to spot for a fun night out. It’s a place where people go to find community, solidarity and even God.
It’s a Friday night, and the small purple bar on the corner of Woodland Street and 14th is packed. Karaoke is already going strong. Drag queens decked out in heels and glitter mill about in the crowd while waiting to perform.
Just outside, Ms. Kennedy Ann Scott is talking with a friend in a red velvet jacket while she gets ready for tonight’s show. She is one of Lipstick Lounge’s resident queens, and she’s been performing here for almost a decade.
“It is a neighborhood bar with a lot of flair. We are a bar for humans. We love everybody, we take everybody in. This is church for some people,” she said. “This is a safe haven for some people. This is a fun bar. A good time. And you’re never going to meet a stranger here.”
Here, church is singing a duet with someone you’ve never met before. It’s sharing a lighter and a round of drinks on the patio. You worship at the altar of queens like Kennedy Ann as they dance their hearts out.
And the bar’s founder, Jonda Valentine, knows all about worship.
“I am very spiritual. I truly believe in God,” said Valentine.
Tonight, Valentine is at a table on the patio, enjoying a drink and a cigarette with her wife.
She grew up the daughter of a West Virginia preacher and was just 20 years old when she moved to Nashville in the ’80s with her husband and son. Years later, they divorced, and Jonda spent a few years touring as a backup singer for country star Ronnie Milsap. But between traveling so much and coming to terms with her sexuality, she worried about losing custody of her child.
“You could lose your kids at that in that period of time, especially in the South,” she said. “And back then it wasn’t cool to be gay, or come out or anything like that.”
She moved back to Nashville and started working as an artist and art teacher. But she got lonely. So she prayed to God for an answer. Soon, a little voice appeared in the back of her mind. Open a bar. Open a bar. Open a bar.
“And I said ‘OK, God. If this is what you want me to do, then you show me a sign,’” she said.
Then it came to her in the dead of night. A passage from her grandmother’s King James Bible rang in her mind, loud and clear:
“Thou shall rise up the foundations of many generations, and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell,” Valentine recited.
“That section right there is what meant so much to me because bringing people together is what it’s all about,” she said.
Years later, you can find that very passage printed on the purple wall over the DJ booth. It’s a reminder of how Lipstick Lounge came to be and why.
Getting started was not easy, Valentine admitted.
“We didn’t know how to mix drinks, we didn’t know what we were doing. It was kind of comical,” she said.
At one point, she got so frazzled trying to keep up with drinks orders that she actually forgot to ask her customers to pay.
However, the bar survived. That’s thanks in large part to Valentine’s best friend and co-owner, Christa Suppan. Suppan had worked in food service for years and brought much-needed restaurant experience to Lipstick Lounge.
One of the first things Suppan did was redesign the space to fit her and Valentine’s needs, starting with the bar.
“I was like, ‘Jonda, come here and stand next to me.’ So we stood side by side, and I was like, ‘however wide our butts are together, that’s how wide I want it to be.’ So that’s exactly the size it is,” she laughed.
They quickly found their groove. Over the years, the bar became a reliable destination for a good time, but it also became a spot where the community pulled together during hard times.
After the Orlando Pulse shooting, the bar raised more than $10,000 in just one night. It’s a memory that still makes Suppan choke up.
“We care. We will do something to make this world just a little bit better,” she said. “Have you left the jersey better than you found it?”
Leaving things better than when you found them – that’s exactly what Suppan hopes Lipstick Lounge does for its community.
Julie Edwards has been a regular since they moved to Nashville just over three years ago. Edwards said Lipstick Lounge is their go-to place when they’re feeling alone.
“Having that rainbow flag flying place that you know you can go to find other people in your community is invaluable,” they said.
Not feeling alone – even in a bar full of strangers. After 19 years in business, that’s what makes Lipstick Lounge special.
“I can honestly say that I feel like I have. I have done more of God’s work, spreading love and helping people than I ever did in church,” said Valentine.