The Lesbian Bar of “The Lord is With You All…” by Marie Cartier


puerto rico-marie cartierWhile attending the recent National Women’s Studies Conference this past month, I had a unique and –yes—a religious experience.

I was staying with a friend who (luckily for me) owns a home in Puerto Rico. I saw more of Puerto Rico in four days then I believe many might see on a two week vacation! I saw the ocean, swam in the ocean, walked all over Old San Juan with its blue streets, gambled and danced salsa at the famous Hotel San Juan, ate amazing food (especially at my friend’s sister’s restaurant Mom and Dad’s Café) —and of course went to the conference.

And I went to an “old school” lesbian bar. A bar where women loving women gather who were diverse in age—ranging from women in their twenties to women in their fifties and sixties.

My friend said this is the best lesbian bar in Puerto Rico. I brought three friends of mine with me from the conference—wanting to share the wealth of experience that my Puerto Rican friend was allowing me to have with others.

We danced in Spanish to “Last Dance,” danced salsa, ate empanadas—I was already having a somewhat religious experience when I met the owner of the bar—Mildred.

Marie with Mildred, Photo by John Erickson

Marie with Mildred, Photo by John Erickson

I knew the bar was called Esechy’s. However, I did not yet know what that name meant to the owner who named it. When I met the owner, Mildred, she told me that she created the bar so that women would have a safe place to go.

She wanted to create not only a generally safe place for women – but apparently a place where women would know unequivocally, that they were safe on this predominantly Catholic island.

Esechy’s is an epigram for a sentence. In Spanish, the sentence would read: El Senor esta contigo hoy y siempre. E-s-e-c-h-y-s.

In English, the approximate translation of this would be “The Lord is with you (all) today and always.”

My friend knew of my recent book, Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars and Religion Before Stonewall  but did not bring me to the bar with this in mind. This is the place for lesbians to go on the island. She was as surprised as I was when we made the connection—she had not realized the significance of the epigram for me. The bar is called “Esechy’s” and it has been a hot spot for women for almost a decade, so she simply did not put the name of the bar and my book’s title together. I was truly amazed by the connection.

A lesbian bar with the name – The Lord is with you all today and always. And so named, so women could find their way to a place where they knew they were loved and that they were safe.

One of the most poignant parts of the journey I have taken with my book since it was published last January is the web of connections that are spun as I travel with these stories; holding them close and seeding them into the world. The hardcover version was published last January and at the book launch at the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Centre in California, there was a standing-room-only crowd. Several people were even turned away because there were no seats left. Before the event, I had asked several of the “informants” or women I interviewed for the book to help me “sign” books after the reading. I wanted them to share in the pride of having their stories published. At my first reading, 6 of the 102 people interviewed were on hand to help me sign books.

The ongoing story is that I have had one to two events every month since last January and at every one of these events I have had at least one person from the book show up there to sign books with me—and also often to relay personally, parts of their story that are in the book, sometimes even adding to that story. At that particular event, one of the oldest informants there –a woman who at 87—told the story of being one of the first women allowed to pour alcohol in Los Angeles—and of making dildos in the back room of the bar (The Star Room) out of mattress stuffing and electrical tape! “It was a side business,” she says.

She walked among the crowd the day of the reading and I watched her approach women who were grey haired and older, some definitely elderly, and the first thing she would say was, “Where did you go?” Meaning… which gay bar did you go to?

The Lord is with you all today and always.

My vision, when starting Baby, You Are My Religion, was that I wanted to capture the uniqueness, “sacredness” and community that filled the gay bars pre-Stonewall for the people who went there. I felt, prior to starting the book that the gay bar culture pre –Stonewall (pre 1975 or so) had been lost with the people who lived through it. The people who lived through that time knew that the gay bars were important—as community centres, as public spaces, as conduits of information and friendship—that existed nowhere else in their culture at that time. We, as a gay culture however, following this period wanted a different history to be proud of—not a “gay bar” history. But, gay bars were the only place for gay women and men prior to 1970—there was literally no other public space. So, I thought, we needed to think about the gay bar in a different way than we had thought about a bar before. One of the things I emphasize in the book is that we need to be proud of the history we have—not search for a history to be proud of.

The Lord is with you all today and always.

puerto rico- esechys 1

Marie with friends in Puerto Rico

As this blog will be published the day after Thanksgiving, let me add what I am grateful for here this year. I am infinitely grateful for the amazing gratitude I have received from the women (and men) who lived through this period—who have come forward as participants, and have come to sign books with me, brought people to readings, and have been so proud to have their stories told. For many of them, this was such a positive, yet dangerous and conflicted time. It was their “coming out” into gay and lesbian culture—coming into themselves. The book –with its emphasis on religious language—placed this culture in a lens through which it had never before been seen, especially for many of the folks who lived through the period.

The Lord is with you all today and always.

If we look at this culture through the lens of a possible sacrality—we begin to see how important it was to the women and men who created it, kept it alive and lived it as they shaped their identity and the culture from which the identity of “gay pride” and the contemporary gay and lesbian civil rights movement would blossom. With this book, I established the ground for the gay bars pre-Stonewall as the claiming of public space for gay and lesbian people. This claiming of public space allowed the fermentation of community, civil rights organizing, and community connection that would become the movements that would establish social change such as gay marriage rights in future decades.

May Esechy’s do this work for its inhabitants in Puerto Rico.

The hope of my work was also that we, as a culture, would see that for that the folks who lived through this period- with their dreams and wishes, fears and courage- that they had to live “the life,” the gay life pre-Stonewall; a period of our history when police raids, beatings, rape, unlawful arrest, and detention were not uncommon. The hope was that our current culture would see that their very living of this life bordered, for them, on the religious. Just as the name of Mildred’s bar proclaims a hope—a hope that women would feel safe enough to own their bodies, their sexual choice and their life. It is a hope that “takes back the night,” when they enter her bar. She named her bar with that hope– that women would come to her beacon of safety, of friendship and love—and feel blessed by community. This bar is, for them, a community that they can find in few other spaces on the island.

Eschey's

Eschey’s

Esechy’s- The Lord is with you all today and always.

The pre-Stonewall LGBT folks carved out essential breathing spaces that existed between a rock and a hard place, allowing LGBT culture to birth a future. If not for this courage and fortitude to persevere in creating community, we would not have the culture that we enjoy today as LGBT people. That’s a fact—it’s history/herstory. I want this additional way of looking at the history/herstory of LGBT people to become part of the canon—part of how we view our history—that the gay bar culture was essential. And it is something we have the right to be proud of. I want contemporary gay women’s bars that serve this function as well; to also have this kind of gaze placed on them—for these remaining spaces are precious.

Gay bars were an alternative church space to gay and lesbian people pre-Stonewall. And in places like Puerto Rico today, they still are those alternative churches.

The Lord is with you all today and always.

In short– gay people were considered mentally ill by the profession until 1973; they were considered sinners in every minor and major religion; they were considered the nation’s highest security risk (more gays and lesbians were let go from their jobs during the McCarthy era than Communists). Sinners, psychos and perverts—this was their lot. The gay bar provided the space for humanity, friendship, sometimes love, and community connection. This was the only place available for that. As such, it provided and became an alternative church space for people exiled from all other spaces….and for many, it still does.

It is with profound gratitude this Thanksgiving season that I walked into a bar that lives the very title of the work I carried on for twelve years. Thank you, Mildred. Thank you, Esechy’s.

The Lord is with you all today and always.

May it be so.

 

Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

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Categories: Herstory, LGBTQ, Sacred Space

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20 replies

  1. Very moving, thanks Marie. What a tribute that name is to your intuition or vice versa.

    Of course I think you mean that gay people were not welcome in every major and minor patriarchal religion. Some of the women in the bar may originally pre-conquest or pre-slavery have come from traditions that did not consider gay people to be sinners. And those religions may not have worshipped “the Lord” a dominator God. But that is another book. Happy thanks-giving.

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    • THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT OF MY WORK, CAROL!
      YES– OF COURSE I DO MEAN ACCEPTANCE BY PATRIARICHAL RELIGIONS (MAJOR AND MINOR)…BUT YES, EXACTLY– THAT IS ANOTHER BOOK! (AND IT WOULD BE VERY INTERESTING TO SEE WHERE SOME PEOPLE’S ORIGINAL,HISTORICAL STATUS AS “HOLY” OR “NON-SINNNER’ SHIFTED TO THAT OF SINNER…)

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  2. Look, I’m sorry, but I think I’m missing something here. Maybe because I’m pagan, Godessian, something like that; but I cannot for the life of me understand why free women would want to aknowledge a ‘Lord.’ Surely the recognition of a ‘Lord’ is the foundation of patriarchy.

    I have no doubt that the Lord is around for all kinds of people, and a light and a support and a guide for them.

    But as a free woman I recognise no greater than the Holy Queen of Heaven herself, who abides with me this day and all the days and nights of my life.

    Blessing, June

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    • June, I agree with your objection to “Lord,” but even Holy Queen of Heaven is too much “on high” for me. On this Earth, as in the heavens, Mother Nature does just fine, her presence always here and now “with us all” and with all species (even with an amoeba, who can dispute it?), and without the need for courtly titles.

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      • I too find Matriarch titles as inadequate as Patriarchal ones, and both ways of speaking of that energy of creative love that births and sustains all that is, are for me, images of hierarchies. I do think we struggle for words that express new understandings and sometimes use older words while giving them different meanings within ourselves. Perhaps this is a good subject for another book?!

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      • again- “courtly titles” maybe a response to how I translated it– certainly those women going so far against the grain of catholic teaching are willing to part with courtly titles and acknowledge a higher power– if they choose to call that “god” or “lord” that doesn’t diminish the free choice and anatomy it takes to be women loving women in a predominantly catholic space.

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    • june- to be fair to the women of Puerto Rico I am translating “el senor” as “lord”– I could just as easily said “god” …this is part of the problem with translation. however,that said– “free women” are free– exactly, free to be different than you or me- free to be themselves.

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      • I completely agree with you here Marie. When I initially read this comment from June I was slightly offended because of the essentialization that these “free women would want to acknowledge a ‘Lord.” I feel that just because they acknowledge a “Lord,” doesn’t automatically make it male and even if they do identify it that way, because they are “free” we have to acknowledge that they have the power to do so!

        Although it isn’t stated in this blog, I was with Marie at this bar and I spoke with some of the women and I not only got the idea that when they referred to a “lord” they were speaking in a general tone that “The Lord (i.e., the divine) is always with me.” I got the impression that they were saying that a spiritual power is always present with them no matter what society or culture says about their sexuality and even in the space of the gay bar, the “Lord” is always with them.

        Great post Marie! :) So glad I could be there with you during this special time in Puerto Rico.

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  3. PS But the article is about this wonderful place where people found community when they were persecuted for being who they are. Whatever we name the One we call “god” prople who provide such sacred space are doing “Her, His, or It’s” work.

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  4. That’s cool, so: Holy Queen of Heaven and of Earth and of all that is upon the Earth, or in the Waters below, or the Sky above etc etc etc.

    I don’t want or need a male deity. I have no hostility or prejudice towards those who do, but there’s plenty of people honouring Him, and He doesn’t need my vote as well. (He’s bound to be standing for office somewhere). My problem is with free women giving Him their devotion. And no, I don’t think it’s all interchangeable – She, He, It. I am made in the image of my Beloved Mother, and it is to Her that I owe my fidelity. What’s wrong with women having their own Deity? And honouring Her above all others? (Yes, more than the ‘Lord’, exalting her above the ‘Lord’) If it was good enough for women in the ancient world, its good enough for me too. Why are free women even discussing this?

    Apart from which, a feminised spirituality needs to look very carefully at the way it uses language. I don’t hear anyone claiming that we might as well say ‘Father Nature’. Sounds peculiar, doesn’t it ? That’s because ‘Father Nature’ wouldn’t mean the same thing at all. And ‘Lord’ doesn’t mean, cannot mean, the same as ‘female deity’.

    If we honour Goddess through our devotion, we honour ourselves This is the whole of the law, sisters. The whole of the law.

    June

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    • free women are discussing what they are free to discuss– and other free women are choosing to live in a way that represents freedom to them. feminism and religion does not mean that women will only love a female deity…feminism is the radical notion that women are people. people have free choice– and some of that free choice may be to honor a catholic god, rather than goddess

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  5. ps as to ‘courtly titles, these are only a problem when we use them for human beings who then get ideas above their station. What is wrong with giving our beloved Goddess the most beautiful, resonant, poetical, titles we can imagine ? Rose Without Thorn; Morning Star; Cedar of Lebanon; Star of the Sea; Throne of Wisdom; and so on and so on . How better to imagine Her, to greet Her ?

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  6. Thank you, Marie, for sharing your travels, stories and sweet connections to your work, your life and that of your many informants.

    It is a wonderful delight, this sycronicity, that is revealing itself as we move forward, follow our passions and doing our work. It is so exciting to see the beautiful miracles illuminate our path as our journey continues.

    I could restate the details from your writing, or the shared past of people and places that we, you, the community of family and friends have, but no need. You have done it will such depth, precision and beauty that I am grateful and supportive.

    I really enjoyed the way your wrote this peace (yes that is how I meant to spell it). I am brought back to a center, focus and joy.

    I love it! I now know of another place where I could go and feel safe, loved and excited. Of course I will enjoy the dance.

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  7. I rather like the idea of this bar in Puerto Rico being a safe place for women, in yes, a ‘male’ god’s name. This ‘male’ god would approve of lesbians and gays having a safe place to go and be in ‘his’ protection. It is right. I remember, the second to last time I was in a christian church, each time ‘He’ or ‘His’ (referring to god), would come up in a hymn, under my breath, I’d sing ‘She’ or Hers’. It felt so good and a very benign satisfaction came over me. And I believe it was possible, in such a very patriarchal environment, to have such a feeling, was because there’s general approval of the Female’s Place and an overall Love for All that lives.

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