Marie Cartier, Ph.D.: Butch/Femme Bar Culture as Religion

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I had the pleasure to participate in Marie Cartier’s oral defense of her Women’s Studies in Religion dissertation, “Baby you are my religion…The Emergence of ‘Theeology’ In Pre-Stonewall Butch Femme Bar Culture and Community.” To look closely and affirmatively at bar culture from the 1950s to 1975, Cartier conducted nearly 100 ethnographies of women whose love of women was definitive for their identities as “Butch,” “Femme,” or “Gay” (also less so “Kiki,” “Lesbian,” and “Androgynous”) before there was a LGBT movement, “coming out,” lesbian feminism, or any other public space to speak of. Receiving her degree in Religion from CGU, Cartier works to establish the bar as “a sacred community for many of its participants as it was “the only place,” a phrase used by many of my informants, to describe the bars as the place than many of them could have any community at all in the contested period when homosexuals were still considered mentally ill.”

In her defense, Cartier was pleased to note the power behind her radical claiming for herself and this community of the political discourses of religion for looking at a community that had been otherwise understood as one of a priori sinners, outcasts, and as profane. While I know little about Religion Studies, I was greatly moved by the voices and aims of this project (Marie’s and her interviewees), and was compelled, in particular, by Cartier’s claim that Gay and Lesbian Liberation began well before Stonewall (in these sacred spaces of self and community), as well as noting at the same time that for many of her contributors, Stonewall did not happen at all, and lesbian feminism was what radically changed bar culture as the site for their identity and community building. She writes:

“The butch femme years were more than a pre-political or even political ground for the breeding of lesbian feminist movement to come, or the gay rights movement and its Stonewall uprising. Indeed, I propose that there was something sacred, something religiousn, in the community building and protection that took place within bar culture, and that this culture deserves thay type of re-framing–baby you are my religion.” Cartier is quick to nuance the raced, classed, and generational nature of her findings, as we hear these differences of knowledge and experience in the diverse voices of her informants. Thus, Cartier also provides us with an unmatched archive, from which other scholars, historians, and activists will be able to understand the complexity of this period of queer history. Congratulations!

Filed under: feminist, media archive Tagged: butch/femme, marie cartier