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Lesbian Culture in the Triangle Bar Scene: A Survey of Lesbianism and Personal Histories

Viola and the Countess

Viola and the Countess by Frederick Richard Pickersgill

By SC Borden, 2012

Introduction

Women who participate in lesbian culture promote its inherent distinction from that of gay male culture. Both lesbians and gay males share a history of struggle throughout the twentieth century, but these struggles were vastly different in that while both were combating wider discrimination from society, lesbians were moreover combating a wrongful affiliation with gay males. One aspect of interest to investigate when comparing gay males and lesbians is that of their respective bar scenes’ cultures. It is commonly agreed that women and men, both hetero- and homosexual, want the ability to lead a fulfilling social life, but going about finding one’s place can be difficult. In the United States, lesbianism has only in the last three decades become more widely accepted, and is still facing persecution. This historicism of their strife indicates the difficulty that comes with membership in this community. An emphasis on creating a place for their community has thus become central to their empowerment. Lesbians have adopted bar culture as a way of positioning themselves in greater society. Homosexual bars are not underground institutions, much like they used to be, but rather are becoming more popular and easier to locate. Although women are not officially excluded, gay bars generally only tailor to gay males[1]. For this reason, lesbians have found a new place amongst other lesbians. Their bar scene has grown differently than their gay male counterparts’, and their culture has thus similarly diverged.

Before the lesbian bar scene can be adequately understood, it is first important to develop a basic understanding of lesbianism and the subgroups that lie within. A lesbian is a woman who engages in relationships exclusively with other women. Before the twentieth century, female “gayness” was rarely observed or acknowledged. To be “gay” meant to be a “gay man.” The mid-twentieth century marks the beginning of the lesbian movement, in which lesbians wanted to be known by something more than just “gay women.” They wanted their own separate identity, not only to distinguish themselves from gay men, but to also legitimize women’s sexual identity . The subgrouping of lesbianism began with the relationship of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward. During this time, a lesbian relationship in society was viewed as being comprised of one woman who was the “man,” and one woman who was the “woman” . They repudiated the labeling of a lesbian beyond her lesbianism and therefore cut off all ties to one woman acting like a man, and one woman promoting her femininity. In the 1970s, lesbians developed solidarity by universalizing their sexual label as only “lesbian.”[2] However, a decade later, some lesbians began to realize that they were now being grouped together with all other lesbians, as well as women who were heterosexual feminist. In attempts to specify the different subgroups of lesbianism, lesbians began using characterizations like “butch” and “femme” to define their place within lesbianism[3]. This would create a compound identity such as a “butch lesbian” or “femme lesbian”. Even though this terminology would enrage women who fought in the 1970s to create an identity of solidarity, it created a more personalized identity for women of lesbian culture.

Personal Accounts of Lesbian Bar Culture

Four different women responded to a questionnaire that aimed to gather insight on the lesbian bar culture in the Triangle area. One of the women identified with a “butch” persona, while the other identified with “femme”. According to them, their identities did not play a major role in distinguishing them within the culture, but their respective subgroups would play a role in the way they shaped their lives and how they approached others in the bar scene.

The submitted questionnaire gathered information about lesbians who currently reside in North Carolina and who interact in the lesbian bar scene. All names are to remain confidential. The first woman was once a member of the US Army, and a Military Police officer. She disclosed this information about her career past to better explain the shaping of her “butch” persona, but when asked about the lesbian bar scene, she was apprehensive. It was illegal for soldiers to be homosexual when she served from 1990-1995. When involved in the lesbian bar scene it was often discrete and private. It was not until she was out of the service that she felt comfortable being herself. Once out of the service and in college, the idea of the bar scene was much more serine, because her sexual identity was no longer private. Therein she flourished and grew through the bar scene. Her experience in the bar scene was the only account out of the other respondents which had any negativity. Lesbian bars in the late 1990s were often small, hole-in-the-wall type establishments with no outdoor access and blacked out windows. Today, that is no longer the case. Although this woman was never persecuted during her time in the bar scene, she understood the danger of being involved and was very cognizant of it.

This sort of experience of apprehension and hesitance in the lesbian bar scene was common among another group of lesbians in Buffalo, NY in the 1940s-1960s. In their bar scene, they commonly faced confrontations that had a tendency to become violent. But they stood strong to their sexuality and beliefs and never allowed it to break their spirit[4]. Yet, different generational experiences have shown that as we approach the 21st century, violence against lesbians appears to be dwindling, though not inexistent.

Two other women who responded to questionnaires reported similar answers to one another, stating that they were always welcome at lesbian bars and never felt the need to hide themselves or their identities. The fourth woman, although feeling welcomed at the lesbian bars, chose to hide her identity because of her professional status. She was the only respondent who does not use her real name while in the bar scene. She even reported that she wishes there were a more upscale establishment that catered to lesbians in the Triangle area.

A push for a differentiation of bar scenes within lesbianism is fairly common. As illustrated in Esther Newton'sJust one of the Boys: Lesbians in Cherry Grove, a woman who once vacationed in Cherry Grove had a similar plight in the 1960s to that of the fourth woman interviewed. The mixture of vacationing professional lesbians and local lesbians was one that was deterring to women who were looking for relationships. Professional woman wanted Cherry Grove to be a place where they could vacation and meet women of the same professional status, yet, with the mixture of classes, this seldom happened[5].

This Day in Age

Today in the Triangle Area, there are no operating lesbian bars. When lesbian bars were still open, all of which were located in Durham, no woman reported ever participating in, or seeing, any confrontation from persons within or outside of the bar scene. It would be beneficial for the growth of the North Carolina lesbian bar culture to expand and create places that are lesbian friendly, or lesbian-specific. Charlotte, on the other hand, has a thriving lesbian bar scene which includes numerous lesbian-specific bars. With Charlotte being an area comparable in size to that of the Triangle, more lesbian bars should be created. Lesbians have come a long way in creating their identities and facilitating their own separate bar culture from that of gay men, but with more gay male bars being established instead of lesbian bars, it is slightly discouraging to lesbians who are looking to go out and meet other lesbians. Yet, even without bars in the Triangle, lesbians have still found ways to express themselves, and thrive.

References

  1. LAMBDA, March (1984), 4.
  2. Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified-Woman” (1970).
  3. Lisa Duggan, “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 18:4 (Summer 1993): 794
  4. Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940-1960,” Feminist Studies 12:1 (Spring 1986): 7-26
  5. Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940-1960,” Feminist Studies 12:1 (Spring 1986): 7-26