“How can Norfolk be more LGBT friendly?” was the topic of a town hall panel discussion at the Hershee Bar on Thursday, August 2, 2018. LGBT citizens and Hershee Bar supporters showed up as part of an ongoing campaign to save the bar. Earlier this year the Norfolk City Council made plans to buy the building where the Hershee Bar is located. This plan will displace the bar at the end of October this year. Hershee’s or HB’s, as the bar is known, has been an institution in the local LGBT community for over 35 years and is one of the oldest traditionally Lesbian bars in the country. The Norfolk City Council has no immediate plans for the site, and many believe that homophobia might play a role in the City Council’s decision to buy and demolish the bar.
"We are fighting the bravest fight I’ve ever seen."
Thursday’s town hall meeting at HB’s was moderated by Nicole Carry. Carry thanked folks “who took the time to show up and care.” Annette Stone, co-owner of the bar, also thanked folks for showing up at the City Council meetings and for their support. She said that she found out about the city’s deal in February and that it wasn’t communicated to her in an appropriate way. She said as she investigated the situation further that she was lied to and given the runaround. She believes that “we are fighting the bravest fight I’ve ever seen.” She went on to say of LGBT acceptance “We’ve come very far, but we have a long way to go.”
After introductions, two panelists were asked a series of questions. The two panelists were Cathleen Rhodes – founder of the Tidewater Queer History Project and instructor of Queer Studies at ODU, and Barbara James - a longtime Norfolk resident, HB’s patron, and former officer of Youth Out United (a local LGBTQ youth group that had its heyday in the 1990s). Many in the audience also commented on the questions and posed their own during the discussion.
"They just don’t seem to get it."
As to the question, “What could Norfolk do to be more LGBT friendly?” Rhodes said she “was not impressed” with the response from the Norfolk City Council. She said they “just don’t seem to get it” and that “they don’t engage well with the Queer community.” She would like to see more historical recognition of the LGBT community in Norfolk including commemorative plaques in LGBT historic locations. James also felt a recognition of history is “crucial”, but felt that the City Council needs to know that being gay in Norfolk isn’t just about downtown, but the whole community. She would like to see more signs in local businesses affirming that they are welcome to all. She is also fine with businesses posting signs where LGBT people aren’t welcome because that helps her to know where to shop and what businesses to support. James commented in her introduction that she feels there is a lot of apathy in the LGBT community in Hampton Roads and that internet connectivity has “sapped” people’s need for real life spaces and community centers. She believes real life spaces are still needed.
Another question asked was whether panelists believe the Norfolk City Council thinks hosting the annual PrideFest at Town Point Park is enough involvement with the LGBT community. Rhodes believes that they think it is enough, but that it’s only one event, one day a year that appeals to a certain crowd. She believes they are quite proud of their involvement in the PrideFest, but she doesn’t believe it is enough. Rhodes went on to say that Norfolk makes a lot of money from PrideFest, but also that it’s a festival that is apolitical. James agreed "What she said."
"We need to get more youth involved civically and not just at the party downtown."
Panelists were questioned about what they think is missing in the local LGBT community. Rhodes feels the Queer community shoulders a lot of the burden for our issues and about educating others about our concerns. She feels that more of the community should be involved in supporting the Hershee Bar. She wonders if there is less support because HB’s is a women’s bar. As for the question, she feels there is something missing in our local community, but she isn’t quite sure what it is. James was quick to point out that youth are missing from community involvement and discussions. She said we see lots of youth at Pride, but that “we need to get more youth involved civically and not just at the party downtown.”
"We need a more pointed LGBT advisory board, not just human rights."
Audience members got involved in the conversation over both how the City Council could be more LGBT friendly and what needs to happen in our local LGBT community. Some in the audience thought that a Norfolk Human Rights Commission would have offered some redress in the Hershee Bar situation. Robbin Love believes that a Human Rights Commission is not enough and that “we need a more pointed LGBT advisory board, not just human rights.” She feels a board would be better than a single liaison because not one person can speak to all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender concerns.
Nicole Carry suggested that we need more LGBT people in city government. Most city council members ran unopposed in the last election. Carry also suggested the possibility of turning the Five Points neighborhood where Hershee’s is located into a “gayborhood.”
All our local LGBT organizations are “running side-by-side” and “not crossing” or interacting with each other.
Kelly O'Clair, a first time Hershee's visitor, likened our own LGBT community to car lanes or train tracks. He said that all our local LGBT organizations are “running side-by-side” and “not crossing” or interacting with each other. He pointed to division and burned bridges in our community. He said that “we preach inclusion,” but that our own community is often the most guilty of exclusion.
As to the Hershee Bar situation itself, many pointed to the historical significance of the bar – not just locally, but statewide and even nationally. They believe we can make this more than just a local issue.
Many wanted to know where Hampton Roads Business Outreach, Hampton Roads Pride, and the LGBT Life Center were in these discussions. They also felt that men’s bars such as MJ’s Tavern should be involved, because who knows if other bars could find themselves in a similar position in the future.
"These people need to keep their egos in check."
Eric Hause of Outwire 757 suggested that “these people [in our local LGBT organizations] need to keep their egos in check” and support the community. Hause also commented that the reason he started his paper was to bring unity to the local LGBT community. This was despite the fact that last summer his paper ran a series of divisive articles and sponsored Facebook posts against one of our own LGBT community organizations and its leaders (see Hampton Roads Pride Elects New Board Members).
"Showing up can be half the battle."
Two board members from Hampton Roads Pride, David Coffman and Dr. Charles Ford, were actually in the audience listening, though neither commented publicly on behalf of the organization. Dr. Ford did speak a number of times on topics related to LGBT history. Speaking to a few HB organizers after the event, Coffman suggested that folks attend Hampton Roads Pride meetings and that there are opportunities there for folks to make their voices heard. Coffman pointed out that "showing up can be half the battle."
Moving forward, James suggested that the City of Norfolk needs to be reminded that “the LGBT community is a financial community.” The PrideFest, LGBT consumers, and even LGBT tourism bring in lots of money for the city. The Mayor of Virginia Beach has expressed interest in hosting the PrideFest there and many felt this should be considered. Folks also need to vote and to engage with their city council members.
Next steps for organizers might include pushing for a Human Rights Commission and LGBT Advisory Board; letter writing and petitions; making the City Hall Takeover events public again while making a private Facebook group for planning; and holding strategy meetings.
Folks were also challenged to bring at least five people to the next City Council meeting on August 28.
June 26, 2018 – Council Meeting -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WinPRy8UeQ0&feature=youtu.be
July 10, 2018 -- Council Meeting - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3IDBUYaL0Q
July 24, 2018 -- Council Meeting -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9kc8zYJMYo
City Council, Mamie Johnson Contact Page -- https://www.norfolk.gov/index.aspx?NID=2932