Alyssa “Big Al” Zinola was on the bus to the Hamptons, and chatting up her new friends sitting in the back. They asked your basic summer-camp-level icebreakers: “Where do you live in the city?” “What made you move here?” Then came the more prying, but maybe obvious question: “How long have you been out?”
This was not the Hampton Jitney, or even your average party bus; stocked with alcohol and flashing lights, the bus (one of two) was on the way to East Hampton for the first-ever beach party hosted by ELLIS Presents—an invite-only event for, in the words of their Instagram, “the curious, fluid, interesting, and interested women of NYC.”
Zinola, a 29-year-old event coordinator, has been out 10 years, and found herself stuck in the same routine when living in both New York and Los Angeles: walk into a bar, find your group of friends, and become “too busy peacocking to get fully involved in a community that’s right in front of you.”
But the bus to the ELLIS Beach Bash found Zinola easily chatting up other queer women, while others danced and sang along with classic hits like “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”
“The party bus out there immediately created a sense of fun and excitement,” she said. “It also really made people engage, communicate, and get to know one another.”
Recent college graduates Jane Goldstein, 24, Blaire Preiss, Kelsey Hunter, and Sage Fuchs, all 23, first thought up ELLIS in January, when the New York and New Jersey natives moved back to the city and realized that, besides each other, they had virtually no network of queer women. Though home to a recently estimated 756,000 people who identify as L.G.B.T.Q., New York has few designated public spaces for queer women, especially after the shuttering of lesbian bars like The Dalloway and Meow Mix. Writing in her April New York Times essay titled “I Want My Lesbian Bars Back,” Krista Burton argued, “What we’re losing are places that young, shy, queer kids in new cities can go to, knowing they’ll be surrounded, maybe for the first time, by people like them.”
Lesbians aren’t the only people looking for a space of their own; “safe spaces” have become buzzwords on college campuses across the country in the midst of the “build that wall!” Trump era, and gay bars in small towns remain a haven for L.G.B.T.Q. people lucky enough to have them. But if The Wing can create a club for its own self-selected group of upwardly mobile New York women, why shouldn’t a queer version exist, too?
Goldstein and Preiss, a couple who met on the dating app Hinge, and Hunter and Fuchs, also a couple, wanted to create a space for women that didn’t involve yelling over one another in a crowded bar. There are regular queer nights, at Brooklyn venues like The Woods and Union Pool. But with all respect to these parties, Goldstein told Vanity Fair that the group wanted to create so much more than a party; they wanted to create an upscale “experience,” something more like “the Soho House of Lesbians.”
They named their event ELLIS for activist Ruth Ellis, who died in 2001 at the age of 101, after decades of offering her home as an underground haven for L.G.B.T.Q. The friends decided to make their version of Ellis’s get-togethers by offering a special night out at a luxurious hotel or bar for New York City queer women. The pitch to venues was simple: they would host these parties on the bars’ off-nights—a Tuesday or Wednesday—and, as Preiss put it, “pack it to the gills with wonderful, smart, beautiful people.”
The parties are invite-only, but not as strict as, say, Soho House; once a woman receives an invite, she is welcome to refer a friend, who will be added to the invite and distribution list. Rather than charge a membership fee or a cover charge, ELLIS takes a cut of the bar tab at each event to stock away for its next one.
Preiss and Goldstein said that a main conversation starter at an ELLIS party is, “So, how did you hear about ELLIS?” Often, the answer is Instagram, where Preiss, who runs the account, notes that women love “sliding into the DMs” to ask more about the events.
“We only ever take people in who have heard of us or who have been recommended to us,” Preiss said. “It creates this sort of very healthy comforting environment. I belong here because I’ve been asked to be here, and I feel comfortable recommending someone else that I know would love to be here.”
Anyone who identifies as a woman, knows of, and wants to attend and ELLIS party is welcome, regardless of sexual orientation. Though ELLIS is aimed at queer women, the group doesn’t want to discriminate toward anyone who might be curious and want to meet women in the queer community. An early Instagram caption reads, “Even if you’re just testing the waters.”
“People often identify me as totally straight, which can be problematic for someone who is trying to experiment but is too nervous to be terribly bold,” said Rae Baron, a friend of Preiss’s. “At ELLIS, there’s really a feeling of comfort and community and it’s very inclusive.”
With the help of an angel investor they declined to name, the ELLIS founders planned their first event in April at swanky Manhattan hotel SIXTY SoHo’s Gordon Bar, where they offered an open bar.
“To see a room filled with such beautiful and smart women all eagerly and equally excited to meet one another proved there was a void in the N.Y.C. lesbian social life,” Fuchs wrote in an e-mail about the debut party. “That night exceeded my expectations, the room was filled, the spirit was infectious, and the feedback was positively immense. This energy has only expanded and carried into our most recent events.”
Stacy Lentz, co-owner of historic New York City gay bar Stonewall Inn, was at the ELLIS Pride party held at Up&Down, and called it one of the most impressive events she’s seen in the two decades that she’s been out.
“It was very cool to see a younger generation pick up the torch and really create a nice upper-scale event but also creating connections and bringing in different people for that,” she said. “Sometimes I bash the younger generation because they’re so busy on Instagram and other places that they’re not forming a social connection, and I think [ELLIS is] really trying to form a social connection. They were able to get an amazing crowd of fascinating women of different ages, different races all in the same room that typically you would not see at all the other parties all the other events and all the other places.”
For their expansion to the Hamptons, the ELLIS founders set their sights on the beach. They hired a caterer who would serve both food and alcohol and set up chairs and tables covered in crisp white tablecloths. They procured a special permit to host an event in the public spot, and even added a fire pit for s’mores, lined with hay-bales and white beanbags. A dancing area, complete with a D.J., sat just beyond the tables.
For the first time, the ELLIS organizers charged cover for the party—$100 that included transportation, drink, and food. A 30 percent off promo code took the price down to $70—a.k.a. an average bar tab for a night out in Manhattan.
The scene in East Hampton looked like a laid-back but upscale lesbian wedding: clean, classy, and seemingly pulled off without a major meltdown. For the most part, Preiss and Goldstein agreed, this was true, not counting the tiny beach balls they’d ordered, which turned out to be a little too tiny.
As the sun set, attendees rushed to take selfies against a classic Hamptons backdrop of white dunes and grass, where an unbelievably large home loomed in the background. It was all the usual action of a night out on the town without the stress of lines or worrying whether their ex will be inside. A few miles away, gay men were doing their annual conquering of the Fire Island beaches, but in East Hampton the shore belonged, for a few hours, to women.
“It’s similar to, like, a Fire Island vibe and so when everyone’s out of the city, it lets everyone take a breath, let their hair down,” Zinola said of her ELLIS Beach Bash experience. “There was so much more detoxing and nobody trying to look their best to walk into the bar.”
As the buses arrived back in Manhattan around 1 A.M., a much more typical after-party was assembled at the Cubbyhole, such a New York institution that Madonna and Sandra Bernhard used to go there. The bar, full of noise and TV glow, was maybe the opposite of a private Hamptons soiree . . . but the next ELLIS party isn’t so far away.
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