Every week like clockwork, there is a changing of the guard at the Hershee Bar. Longtime patron Dex Basnight arrives around 4:00 and lovingly changes the attire of Miss HB, the mannequin that has greeted everyone who has come through the front door for nearly 20 years. Miss HB is so popular that several years ago she had to be chained to her perch as rowdy bar-goers kept trying to take her home.
This October, Miss HB’s chain will be removed forever. She, the bar staff, and Hershee regulars will say goodbye to their home of over 35 years when the bar closes for good.
The Hershee Bar is a survivor—an old school unpretentious gay bar. It has survived the massive shifts in LGBTQ social interactions that have been the death knell for many gay and lesbian bars worldwide. Ironically, the pending closure of Hershee is not due to that but to urban gentrification.
In April, shortly after a raucous 35th anniversary party, Hershee Bar owners Anette Stone and Billy Tyndall released the news that the Hershee Bar building’s owners had accepted a purchase offer from the City of Norfolk. All tenants must be out by October 31.
The purchase is part of a long-range plan to redevelop the Five Points neighborhood, and the lots and buildings will be razed for a parking lot. Bartender Burt McManus, who has served drinks at the Hershee Bar for 34 years, put it succinctly: “The city is trading a community for a parking lot.”
When it opened in March 1983, Hershee quickly became a community center and safe space for the area’s lesbian community. It was an inauspicious beginning. On opening night, the bar was raided by the Norfolk police and Virginia ABC agents.
Shortly afterwards, Stone installed a siren over the dance floor that was activated with the flip of a switch when the police were spotted outside. The signal warned patrons to stop touching or dancing close, which was considered grounds for arrest or, at the least, harassment.
The siren still hangs from the rafters inside the club, a constant reminder of those not-so-distant days of fear and persecution.
Since then, Stone has fought continuing challenges and harassment from area churches, neighbors, and the City to not only remain open and viable, but thrive. In fact, the club has expanded twice in recent years while other bars were shuttered.
From the beginning, Hershee has been central to the lesbian community, but Stone has always welcomed everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum. She has an innate need to support everyone in the community, from giving drag queens a performance space to providing holiday meals for those who have no place to go.
“It was very important to us to have a presence with our people,” she said. “The foundation for everything we do here is always the love we feel for our community. Period.”
A Norfolk native and graduate of Norview High School, Stone walked past what would become the Hershee Bar on her way to and from school. In a prescient moment, she told her friends that she would eventually own a bar there. Since then, Stone has owned seven bars and restaurants in Norfolk, including Nutty Buddy’s in Wards Corner and The Green Onion in Ghent.
“I love the energy of entertaining and making people feel at home,” she said, “If I wasn’t sitting in my own bar, I’d be sitting in someone else’s.”
For her, though, the Hershee Bar has always been her first love and the rock of her life. The same goes for her loyal and longtime staff and regular patrons. It is a home away from home for many, and Stone and her staff have a unique way of welcoming them and making them feel at ease.
For many, Hershee was the first gay bar they ever had the nerve to walk into. Stone and her staff helped foster friendships, encourage people to come out, and brokered many long-term relationships.
Becca Ostman, a local who grew up in the shadow of Hershee, said, “Right down to the brick and mortar itself, it was a fortress of protection for young, lost lesbians trying to figure out what it all meant.”
Over the years, Hershee has transcended it’s moniker as a lesbian bar and become a welcoming place for the entire LGBTQ community. In recent years, even the often-invisible transgender community has found a safe home at Hershee.
“On some nights, a majority of our patrons identify as trans, and we employ three trans staff members” said Stone. “My kids are hurt, especially our young transgender kids. Where else will they go? Who will hire these kids?”
Since the news of the closing broke, Stone has been inundated with questions about her and the bar’s future. She reveals that she has been scouting new locations for the bar–with little help from the city.
According to Stone, if she finds a new location, her current liquor license and permits will not be grandfathered by the City, and she will have to begin a lengthy permitting approval process that can take months. She is also concerned for many of her staff and regulars who live nearby and lack transportation to get to a new location.
Despite the obstacles that lay ahead, Stone remains realistic about working with the City and hopeful about the future of the Hershee Bar family.
“Given my history with the City, I don’t have confidence in them, but I do believe in miracles,” she said. “Regardless of what happens, I would not trade life or anything I have done here. I am so proud of my community.”