I spent last weekend in Norfolk, Virginia. I was brought there by the folks at Old Dominion University; my visit was brainstormed and facilitated by y Professor Cathleen Rhodes who teaches in the Women’s Studies Department and also manages a magnificent archive of historic LGBTQ+ spaces The Tidewater Queer History Project. This project has a walking tour of significant LGBTQ+ spaces in the area, an online archive, and graduate students intensely interested in archiving the remains of past and current LGBTQ+ sites for study, and community.
I was brought to the area because I wrote the book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bas and Theology Before Stonewall. The thesis of my book is that gay bars before 1975 (pre-Stonewall) served as alternate church spaces and community centers for people exiled from all other spaces. There was literally no other public space for gay women to go in the 40s through the early 70s, as so attested to by 100+ informants that I interviewed for the book.
Back to Norfolk. Yes, I was brought to the University to do a campus talk, which I have done at other universities. What was different about this trip? I was brought specifically to also help save a lesbian bar, i.e. to help facilitate community conversation so that the community would know what they are losing if the bar is destroyed. After all, I wrote the book on lesbian bars’ importance to the community.
The Hershee Bar in Norfolk, Virginia has the historic importance of being in the same location with the same owner and same bartender for thirty five years. “It is the oldest and best known women’s bar in the area.” And, it is slated to close next week October 31st—the most significant LGBTQ+ holiday of the year (the only day historically that folks could legally cross-dress).
Annette Stone, the founder of Hershee, spoke with me in a lengthy interview intended to be archived with the Tidewater Project last week. In that interview she revealed that when the bar opened in 1983, she was not allowed to serve (nor was any bar in the area) “Indians, B-girls (prostitutes) or homosexuals.” She still has a light that rotates red from her ceiling that she would turn on when cops pulled into the parking lot. “Back in the day” she would use that light to alert patrons to stop holding hands, or being physical in any way, so that when the cops walked in no one could positively be identified as being a homosexual—and she would not be shut down, and they would not be arrested.
Also, when she first opened, for several years she faced harassment from straight men who were threatened by the presence of a lesbian bar. She, along with her patrons, fought back when these men entered the bar. The women fought with fists, and pool cues, physically fought back against angry men who wanted nothing more than to see her gay women’s bar closed.
It remains open to this day. I asked her—so, if they beat you up—did you call the police? She said no, because she was afraid of being shut down, of being called a “public nuisance” by the police. So she and her patrons fought their own battles.
Why is this historic bar closing? The Advocate, the nation’s first and largest LGBTQ+ magazine ran a story on this closure with the headline that the bar is closing “for no good reason,” and I have to agree, having spent several days last week in the community conducting public talks and private conversations. Why is this bar closing? Is there a good reason?
The reasons for the closure that were given by city officials? “To clean up the neighborhood”—arguably a bad choice of words, and one the person speaking them regretted, but those words were said. “To gentrify the neighborhood”—perhaps a sweeter way to say the former statement, but the meaning is the same. So, there you have it—for no good reason.
Although city officials assure me they want to hear from marginalized communities, they are intending to shut down the only public space for one of those communities—the lesbians and all of the gender queer folk who go to this bar.
Why is this bar still important? After all there are LGBTQ+ classes at the college, an innovative and fabulous “safe space” program at the college, a tidewater archival project—again at the college. One of the things that is hard for us always to understand is the privileging of space. For something to exist “at the college” does in no way mean that is available to the working class lesbians who frequent this bar, and who showed up en mass to the city council meeting this week that lasted well over two hours and included much of their testimony.
Stay tuned for Part II coming tomorrow!
Marie Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine.