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A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall.
Through a collection of interviews, analyzed within a tripartite sociological, psychological, and historical framework, Cartier examines how the gay bar became a critical place for self-discovery and self-acceptance, from the post-WWII 1940s through the 1980s, allocating a chapter to each decade. She is specifically interested in exploring how the butch-femme dynamic evolved through the decades, after the second world war, through the conservative ‘50s and the feminist ‘70s, as well as how that dynamic was figured differently through race and class.
Cartier locates the genealogical origin of the gay bar for women in 1940s America, when women, for the first time in the country’s history because of the demand placed on them to both serve in the military and at home to uphold the country’s economic infrastructure, “could disconnect from their families of origin, establish economic independence and create community.” She situates the 1950s as a decade that swung in the opposite direction, when the uptick of conservatism in America resulted in the policing and regulation of gay women’s activities, and the criminal medicalization of them as “deviants.” Or, as Lillian Faderman has said, the “fifties were the worst decade for lesbians.” The gay bar, thus, at this time, figured as a place of solace for these women who sought refuge from society and its McCarthy-like informants.
The ‘60s witnessed little changed in the bigoted violence against the gay community; however, in this decade the rise of rock music enabled for a lot of heavy petting in the bars. The emergence of feminism, and particularly lesbian feminism, in the 1970s filled the bars with activism—it also, Cartier subtly laments, irrevocably changed the landscape of lesbian culture in its castigation of the butch-femme dynamic as derivative of hetero-normative relations.
Cartier’s history of how the bar functioned as a place of community for gay women leads to the development of her philosophy of “theelogy,” a semantic blend of the Quaker objective thou, “thee” and “theology,” as a means to lend spiritual weight to the space of the gay bar. Theelogy is a concept historically specific to the mid-twentieth century gay female community, and is a spirituality practiced by these women “who entered the bar with the hope of salvation, being baptized as friend even though they were homosexual”:
These women, having been cast out of church, went to find meaning in some other space, creating a place for themselves in the gay women’s bars. A woman had to find herself first, and be baptized into her definition of self, outside of traditional religious structures…. Mid-twentieth-century gays and lesbians in the US made sense of who they were by inventing and living an unnamed theology that I name theelogy. Theelogy is not just the ability to see God in the other, the ‘you’ in ‘Baby, you are my religion.’ It is also the ability to place you, the self, as the viewer who will make that statement, and who will choose to be in community with others where the kind of statement can be spoken.
Baby, You Are My Religion is written with passion and seeks to add a more spiritual dimension to the genre of cultural histories written about the place of lesbians in the gay bar scene. The accessible prose, supplemented with a sizable list of theoretical and theological definitions, in addition to the entertaining and provocative interviews, makes for an undemanding, yet fun, read.
Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall
By Marie Cartier
Acumen Publishing Limited
Hardcover, 9781844656493, 256 pp.