Since I’ve become an active participant in the movement to save Norfolk’s Hershee Bar (HB’s) in April, I’ve heard at several council meetings and around town that we had valid points but perhaps we aren’t presenting them in the “right way.” This has made me stop and reflect about the message we are projecting, the ways we’ve succeeded in publicizing, and the ways we’ve failed.
First, I’d like to address the message itself. I think what has been made abundantly clear is that we, as patrons of this bar, would like to see the City Council reverse its decision to demolish it due to a nebulous, unwritten future development plan. The points that are not abundantly clear are these
- HB’s is the oldest LGBT bar in Virginia. We believe it to be the oldest on the East Coast, but research in this area is quite difficult. At the ripe old age of 35 years old, (roughly 189 years old in gay bar years), it comes just 15 years shy of being declared a historical landmark in Virginia. A gay bar being 50 years old in Virginia is not really even a legal possibility.
- When HB’s opened in 1983, there were active laws in Virginia that made the sale of alcohol illegal to gay people. One Virginia code enacted in 1934 stated that a bar’s license could be revoked if it became “a meeting place and rendezvous for users of narcotics, drunks, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers or habitual law violators.” The law was frequently enforced in the late 60s prior to Stonewall and continued throughout the 70s and 80s and stood until 1991! How brave our early bar owners were to risk their businesses and reputations just to give us shelter. Annette Stone ran HB’s for eight years knowing that it might cause her professional harm in order to give us a safe space to be ourselves.
- The word “rendezvous” in the ABC code is too broad and doesn’t;t accurately describe the importance of these spaces. Gay bars have historically been used as much more than local watering holes. They were used as community centers. For a group of people that on average have more strained family ties, they were a place to go to choose your own family. For a group that felt ostracized by their church and religion, they were a place to find your own version of spirituality and your place in the universe. For those of us that felt oppressed by anti-LGBT laws, HB’s was a place to rally with like minds and create ideas and develop strategies to overturn homophobic laws and improve our way of life. And we did.
- Our current “free to be LGBT” culture in Virginia was built inside the walls of HB’s and inside the other Hampton Roads LGBT bars that have gone before her. I can think of roughly two dozen gay bars in Hampton Roads without too much strain. Places such as Shirley’s, The Garage, The Late Show, Charlotte’s Web, Offshore Drilling Company, Charades and The Cue shaped what LGBT is in Tidewater. Without these refuges, I would not be the person I am today. None of us would.
In short, Norfolk only has one chance to get this right. 35 years of culture and history is a lot to throw away. It can never be undone. Here’s how we’re trying to achieve that goal:
- We have had representation at every city hall meeting since April when we learned of the closure. Our endeavors at City Hall have gotten airplay on all three major local network TV stations, we’ve been covered by local and national magazines, newspapers and blogs.
- Let week, Marie Cartier, a well-respected and renowned scholar and theologian who literally wrote the book on women and gay bars in the era before Stonewall era, came to see HB’s and to share her wonderful thoughts at two different events.
- A postcard campaign has gotten hundreds of thoughts and signatures from local people that want to see the Hershee Bar saved.
- City Hall is still not hearing the historical importance of this decision. We have been met with little more than a wall of silence week after week.
- We have, in my opinion, an unspoken problem with class/caste system in our LGBT politics in Hampton Roads. Many of the people in the area (and in HBs) are working class and didn’t come from wealth. There are lots of single moms there that have struggled to find their way after coming to terms with their gay truths. Some have financial struggles due to the combination of facts that women nationally make less than 79 cents to a man’s dollar on average. In Virginia LGBT people earn less than straight workers. As such, the average HB patron does not have the same “connections” that someone coming from another level of privilege may have.
- This word, privilege, has a little bit of a negative connotation, so I want to make sure I clarify: privilege on its own is not a bad thing. Having privilege is fine. However, having privilege without recognizing that you have it and that you are also a part of a community that does not have it is not fine. If you want to steer your boat in the boat parade at Hampton Roads Pride and wave at attendees on the shore, that is fine. But please remember that there are people on the shore waving at you that had to hitch a ride to Town Point Park because their tired old used car couldn’t make it one more day, or they simply do not have a car. Those people on the shore appreciate you in your boats raising the visibility of LGBT persons in Hampton Roads. But, I do wish more was done here to make sure that we are all in the same figurative boat! Our ongoing fight as LGBT people is too big and too important to be divided in this way.
- Despite our best efforts, we are not being represented at our City Hall meetings by all of Hampton Roads’ LGBT community. Council meeting attendees speaking and showing up on behalf of Hershee Bar have been with some exception the demographic that often frequents HBs. However, this issue is certainly something that is greater than that demographic. We are struggling to make this community understand that THIS is the time to come together–all ages, all genders, all races. This is not mine versus yours. This is when the WHOLE of US should come together to see ourselves reflected in each other in our common struggles, our common fears from the past and hopes for our futures.
A piece of Tidewater’s LGBT culture is dying and the sisters cannot do this alone.
Please come to the Last Call at Norfolk City Hall on Tuesday, October 23, 2018 at 810 Union St, 11th floor. The meeting starts at 7. Please be there by 6:45 if you would like to sign up to speak.
Barb James is a long time resident of Norfolk, a graduate of Green Run High School and is a information technology professional. She has been married to her wife Mary since 2011.