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This Gay Bar Saved Me


It might not look like much, but Virginia's Hershee Bar -- threatened with closure -- has saved lives and supported a community for 35 years.

Norfolk is the second most populous city in Virginia. Due to its diverse community -- being a bustling college town and home to the world's largest naval base -- it often referred to as the historic, urban, financial, and cultural center of the Hampton Roads region.

Tucked away in the Five Points district of Norfolk, on the corner of Sewells Point Road and Bland Street, sits a building chock-full of unique history and culture. To many residents in Norfolk, it is just another neighborhood lounge called the Hershee Bar, but to the LGBT community of Hampton Roads, it has been an iconic hotspot for the last 35 years, and one of the very few lesbian establishments remaining on the East Coast. Affectionately referred to as HB's by its regulars, it has not only been offering up cocktails, 10-cent wings (now $7 steaks), great local bands, and karaoke for decades, but for me and many others, it has provided, a safe haven to the hopeless and a family to the excommunicated.

My affinity for HB's began in 1987 when I was attending my first year of college at Old Dominion University. I had met a girl who suggested we go out one night and check out the Hershee Bar. Little did I know then, that invitation would be a pivotal moment in my life. Shortly before high school had ended, I had come out to my family and peers, and did not get the warm reception I had hoped for. As it is for so many others, coming out was rough for me. Behind the doors of HB's that night, I had found a beacon of light during a very dark time in my life. I discovered quickly that the Hershee Bar was a place where women, young, old, and of all races and professions, could gather and be different together because "our troubles were all the same."

Inside I met so many lovely, accepting, and generous women. These women provided me love, comfort, and a sense of self-acceptance that I so desperately needed. One woman in particular, Annette Stone, affected me immensely. Annette was not only the successful owner of the Hershee Bar, but she was beautiful and intimidated the hell out of me.

I remember during my first encounter with Annette, I was terrified. I was a newly out, clueless 18-year-old introvert. I just knew she was going to throw me out because I appeared to be an awkward 14-year-old with a fake ID, but she didn't. She embraced me and so many others in the community. Over time, she has become quite a local celebrity. She is not your typical bar owner, but she is a mother to the motherless, a friend to the friendless, and an amazing mentor. She has fed hungry families right there in those first few booths inside HB's doors, and hired those who may have had difficulty getting gainful employment elsewhere. I have witnessed her and co-owner Bill Tyndall host countless cancer fundraisers and funeral fundraisers, and support cause after cause at HB's, and now the time has come to return the favor.

(RELATED: 42 Dead (or Dying) Gay Bars)

Months ago, I learned that on October 31 the Hershee Bar will be forced to shut its doors. The city of Norfolk is purchasing the building the Hershee Bar leases and will be razing it in an effort to revitalize the aging block. There is no solid plan for the use of the property at this time. In an effort to halt this, supporters of the Hershee Bar and I attended Norfolk's most recent City Council meeting to express our opposition and plead with council members to rethink their decision. We were quite disappointed that the councilwoman for the ward that Hershee inhabits was not present for the meeting, but we went on to tell our stories to the rest of the council. One after another -- a nurse, a professor, and a civic league president, just to name a few -- approached the podium and shared their personal stories about HB's. It was evident shortly thereafter that council had been unaware of the deep impact the Hershee Bar has had on their constituents. One council member even apologized for their incognizance. However, apologies are just not good enough right now, especially in today's political climate. What these city officials deem as progress, for the LGBT community is indeed retrogression.

The closing of gay establishments has become a recent and alarming trend across the nation. Some will counter that it is because homosexuality is now accepted more, and the need to seek out other gay friends in an underground, hushed location has become unnecessary. While I agree the LGBT community has made tremendous strides, there is still so much more work to be done. There are still those who are outcasts and unaccepted, who are shy and alone. Maybe it is the young small-town college girl who is new to the area, who has no family or friends. Where will she go to find, for possibly the first time, a group of people just like her? Just knowing that this bar exists may perhaps provide her a lifeline, the very same lifeline I received in 1987, and the lifeline I still need from time to time.

Lately, when I turn on the news and watch our current administration slowly dismantle LGBT-friendly policies, I become a mix of disheartened and terror-stricken. While things seem so uncertain for me today as a gay woman, one thing has remained a constant, and that is knowing I can pop into HB's at any time and be reassured there are still people inside who are fighters, who didn't give up, and who are willing to keep pushing on. Also inside there is a new generation that has not struggled like mine. The members of this generation are gracious and have a new perspective. They will continue to carry the torch. Inside is a community that is important and vital and is worth protection. Please help us keep the Hershee Bar open:

BARBARA JAMES is a proud lesbian, Norfolk resident, wife, mom, professional IT cube-dweller, and introverted activist.

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