Why is this bar still important? (Read Part I)
For the gender queer, marginalized community who are testing the waters of gender difference by frequenting this bar, many for the first time, for the pool leagues, and yes, the college folks, but also the working class people, and the tentative younger folks, this may be “the only place.” For the democracy of a gay bar creates a conversational cauldron for marginalized people to “hear themselves into speech” to quote the theological Nelle Morton.
I am quoted in an article done by Virginia Pilot report Amy Poulter saying that “LGBTQ bars are also tasked with filling in the gaps as religious spaces, support groups and the go-to location to celebrate milestones and mourn losses. Bars like Hershee are often the only place LGBTQ people feel at ease and comfortable in their own skin.”
And I added, “And the council, they need to realize what they have before they destroy it.”
Norfolk, Virginia is home to the largest naval base in the world. I should know. My wife was stationed there in the early 80s. The military was not then, and is not now, a comfortable place for LGBTQ+ folks. It is true, and so attested to by Stone, Hershee’s owner, that military women (and men) who are LGBTQ+ frequented and still frequent the bar. Gay bars may be the only sanctuary that our nation’s gender queer service people (in all their variety) have to go to and be themselves.
If it is important to hear from marginalized communities—then you need marginalized communities to have gathering spaces. Otherwise, you are telling that community to be silent. The gathering spaces for communities—be it the Black church, the gay bar, the women’s centers, the student groups, the important local cafe—all these communities need these geographic spaces where they can gather and hear themselves into speech. Because marginalized people are not traditionally heard. They are not asked, and they are not heard. They then first need to hear each other into speech, and demand that they then be heard in the larger culture–this happens in gathering spaces like Hershee Bar.
I’m not sure what the future of this bar is. But with stories like what we are hearing every day from our current administration in terms of its unmitigated hatred of LGBTQ+ people, its inciting of violence, and its rhetoric of hate—I know for sure we need our spaces now more than ever.
Recently threats were posed to five gay bars in Nashville. Is this really the time to worry about “cleaning up” the community by dismantling solidly established public space for gay folk, like the thirty-five year old Hershee Bar?
I spoke recently with Annette Stone, the historic and proud owner of the Hershee Bar and let her know I was writing this blog. I asked her if I could quote her for this blog. She said to tell folks the following, “The world is watching.”
I hope that is true. I hope that folks reading this blog will check out the Hershee Action Coalition and see what actions they might be able to take to help save this historic place.
LGBTQ+ spaces that have been saved for posterity are few and far between. It is only recently that Matthew Shepard’s ashes found a resting place because his parents could not secure a place that they thought would not be defaced. Those ashes of that young warrior will be placed in the National Cathedral. Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998—twenty years ago, and his parents only recently felt safe depositing his ashes somewhere.
LGBQT+ communities need geography they can call their own. We are an endangered population—now maybe more than ever. And it is not enough that we have some college space, or some job spaces, or marriage rights. We need community to feel safe—as does every marginalized community that has the courage to exist in the open.
The LGBTQ+ community has lost so much. The Hershee Bar is perhaps the oldest lesbian bar ON THE ENTIRE EAST COAST that is still surviving, and as such it is one of the very last lesbian bars there is in the US, certainly one of the only ones left in the South. (For comparison, as far as I know, in California we have one “lesbian” or women’s bar left—Gossip Grill in San Diego).
I’m not sure how this is going to happen—but please stay informed and do what you can. I’m issuing a shout out to the community at large—my LGBTQ+ family in person, on-line, here in Cali, on FAR, and my new friends in Norfolk, VA.
In whatever way you can: Be a hero. Save the Hershee Bar.
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.