Baby, You Are My Religion: Lesbian Bar Culture Pre-Stonewall

Baby, You are my Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall by Marie Cartier. Bristol, CT: Acumen Publishing, 2013, 256 pp.

Marie Cartier delves into more than just the history of gay women’s bar culture for her book, Baby, You are my Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall, published in 2013. The book is part of the academic series Gender, Theology And Spirituality edited by Lisa Isherwood, University of Winchester. Despite the academic framework of the book, the interviews and historical glimpses of early gay bar culture will appeal to a wider audience outside academic circles.

Cartier examines pre-gay liberation life for gay women through a plethora of interviews noting relevant changes in the political portrait that included the 1980s lesbian sex wars. As she describes the changing climate surrounding the acceptance or non acceptance of that ten percent of the US population (the homosexual), she marks the place just outside the social boundary which has always remained sacrosanct to gay women and out-of-bounds to others: the gay woman’s bar. “In that rarified smokey air of the illicit bar,” writes Cartier, “they [gay women] were able to claim the roles or inhabit these identities for the first, and sometimes, the only time.” The bar was a place where a gay woman could find or meet up with her lover, exchange commonalities, and celebrate or lament the relationships in her life. Here she would find the meaning she sought to fulfill her inner desires that were so taboo in the heterosexual world outside.

What did it mean to be a marginalized member of the prevalent culture? It meant to be not merely on the fringe but to have a tenuous existence without a place to be. If a person is neither inside nor outside, then she is in the margin, where she barely exists at all. When considered a marginalized person of society, the gay woman’s entry into the gay bar can only be seen as a rite of passage into “the life,” where that way of living would become sacred. In the controversial novel, The Well of Loneliness, women loving women is “natural and sacred,” protagonist Stephan Gordon, an upper class Englishwoman, says to her mother. The novel, published in 1928, had a damning reception that didn’t need to warn gay women of the dangers they faced if they revealed their homosexuality. The book was repeatedly banned and burned. The daring command the book put forth, “give us also the right to our existence,” was denied.

Anthropologist Van Gennep illustrated the idea of seeing society as a house which requires passing through a conceptually dangerous corridor to get from one room to another. The act of passing or being in the corridor was akin to being without an identity, being undefinable and being a contagion, dangerous to oneself and others. Thus, a rite of passage needed to be performed. Within the general social anthropological literature there is an entire neighborhood of theories concerning what anthropologists call pollution and the required purification rituals used to define the undefined person. I was a marginalized, undefined person when I first attempted to find a lesbian lover outside the bar. I could have been traveling through that dangerous corridor of Van Gennep’s imagining. I was too young to go inside a bar. So I went to where the women were — the YWCA in downtown San Diego in 1967.

A diverse group of women, many from different countries, stayed at the YWCA dormitories. The roomies often congregated in the large communal kitchen for chatting. On one occasion the group chose to discuss sex, a favorite topic. Various women talked about difficulties in relationships. One large woman with short black hair and 1950s style eyeglasses told how her sexual assertiveness was viewed as threatening to her boyfriends. At that point her voice dropped and she said a relationship with a woman was more successful.

I effectively silenced the room when I said, “Then why don’t you just have relationships with women instead of men?”

Later that night a note slipped under my door gave me a room number and the words, “Let’s talk.”

Thus began my first lesbian experience with Mary, who was seven years older than I. Soon the entire YWCA dormitory residents stopped talking to me. They had found out that I had moved out of my former room and was now sharing a room with Mary. We were the “lesbians.” For two weeks I wandered the hallways, laundry room and kitchen as if I were invisible. No one looked at me, talked to me, or in any way indicated that I was taking up space. Even though by the third week, I was acknowledge and greeted, I had been punished. I wasn’t welcome here but I was tolerated. My own experience had verified what life was like for a gay woman outside the gay bar.

Later I would experience what Marie Cartier called the “transformative space” of the gay bar. Even though the population inhabiting the space was not completely safe, many felt that the risk of intermittent police raids and the risk of arrest or rape was worth it. Here their hidden inner identity could be expressed and displayed with an approving audience of friends and acquaintances. “Falcon River,” writes Cartier, “was Mr. Roanoke.” She/he competed with other butches for the title of Drag King and won two years running.

For the decades before gay liberation, the dominant culture resisted accepting gay women as anything but marginal outcasts. The gay woman had to be cast as being dangerous to the point of being criminal or mentally insane. “It seems that if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others,” wrote Mary Douglas in her seminal book Purity and Danger, first published in 1966. With this concept in mind, it makes sense that police must continue to raid gay bars to reaffirm the depiction of gay women as dangerous and a threat to the order of things. Douglas writes, “Dirt, obscenity and lawlessness are as relevant symbolically to the rites of seclusion as other ritual expressions of their condition.”

The importance of the bar was that it acted as signifier, it named the unnamed. The gay women’s bar wasn’t simply a place to drink. It meant more than simply a place to meet friends, meet lovers or share details of a secret life. “If the bar did not exist, there was no physical space where you existed as a queer person,” writes Cartier. The gay women’s personal identity required a place to take physical shape and to occupy that space. Without that space, she was invisible as she might think of herself to be outside of the bar. Even more than being invisible, she might think of herself as only half alive. Many times I felt half alive and isolated. Only by returning to the bar could I restore my sense of being alive and whole.

The restorative power of the bar, however, didn’t always restore. One time I actually experienced one of its inhabitants turning against me, causing me to feel so unwelcome that I left. Breaking bar code of conduct whether understood or even misunderstood was evident in an incident that happened to me when I went to a well-known gay women’s bar in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1973 seeking solace.

It was too early in the afternoon for the bar crowd to arrive. I was one of only three customers. Then two men and a woman came in and headed for the pool table. The dateless guy spotted me sitting alone at the bar and invited me to join them for a game of pool. I was a lousy pool player, never liking the game enough to know how to play. But I was lonely. So I joined them. The drinks flowed. After a while I found myself sitting at the bar with the pool player guy. He leaned over and kissed me. I pulled back and said in my drunken stupor, “Don’t you realize that I am an overt lesbian?”

He just looked at me. Then I heard a woman’s voice from across the bar say, “Hold on while I look up ‘overt’ in the dictionary.”

I slid off my bar stool and took a seat next to the speaker. “Can I buy you a drink?” I asked. She replied, “I wouldn’t accept a drink from you if you were the last woman on earth.”

I may have been drunk but I knew rejection when I heard it and I’d just been delivered one wallop of one. I slid off the stool, grabbed my drink and headed out the back to where a small garden patio was. I walked past the benches and sat on the ground. I sat in the soil and the meaning wasn’t lost to me. I suppose I’d hoped that someone might come out to console me. But no one came. After a while I finished my beer, walked back into the bar, and without stopping or looking anywhere but forward, I left the bar by the front door. As I recall this memory, I want to add “and never went back.”

But I can’t add “and never went back,” because bad experiences never really contaminated the “only place.” There was no other place, which Cartier makes blatantly clear over and over in her book. I would go back if not the next night, then the night after that. I’m not sure what brought out the lesbian’s acerbic words to me. Perhaps she felt that I was only “posing” as a lesbian since I was sitting next to a man. Taboo and pollution worked both ways.

The bar culture had unspoken social rules of conduct and what can be considered taboo behavior. One such taboo was to say hello to a person you’d met in the bar when you were in the “outside” world. “No one,” writes Cartier, “wanted to out a person one had met in a gay bar by acknowledging them outside of it.” This place specific rule could not be violated. To do so was to risk being ostracized. Even though this rule existed throughout the 1950s and 60s before the gay rights movement of later years relaxed such action, occasionally it reared its ugly head. I felt that whiplash when I unexpectedly broke this taboo.

In 2012, I worked as a librarian with the County of Los Angeles Public Library. I was not in the closet but not everyone knew I was a lesbian and fewer still even cared. After all, the social air was hardly repressive. One of my female colleagues had even been officially married to her female lover. But I broke an old taboo. I went to one of our mandated quarterly meetings dressed a bit more appropriately for a lesbian bar than a meeting. I’d never done this before. I saw it as kind of an inside joke since the meeting before I’d been dressed so formally, so femme in a lovely long skirt. At this meeting I wore black pants with zippers, black work type boots, a black turtleneck, and a black jacket with metal style closure buttons. I knew I’d gone too far when my lesbian colleagues made it clear by moving away from me that they would not sit with me. Their rejection confused and stunned me. Later at the lunch break I sought out non gay colleagues and my old boss who readily welcomed me to their group. The difference? Being straight these women didn’t recognize my attire as “gay bar” attire but simply as a bit more akin to punk fashion and without the taboo stigma of “I know you from the bar.”

The historical period Cartier looks at dates from 1940 to 1975 with some continued observations in the 1980s of gay women and their relationship to the gay women’s bar. For her book she conducted over one hundred interviews to cover these dates. Her beginning chapter establishes her position of interpreting the gay women’s bar as the “only place” and posits its possible role as Church. The book is then divided into three parts: the Interviews, the theological history and contexts, and lastly, the nature of theology and her proposed “theelogy.”

Although I have not commented on the theological scholarship of the book and the legitimacy of her claim that the gay bar is Church, her arguments are sound and carry weight. By applying liberation theology and recent process theology and using deviant historiography, Cartier makes a solid case for the gay bar’s reemergence as Church. In her concluding chapter Cartier writes, “We, as a queer culture, deserve to celebrate and take pride in gay women’s bar culture, which is our lineage, our members, and our accomplishments–our historical place.” After all is said and done, “Baby, You are my religion.”

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