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

March 24, 2010

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!


6 Responses to “Marie Cartier, Ph.D.: Butch/Femme Bar Culture as Religion”

  1. thanks so much, alex!!

  2. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing ms. cater too and I too am impressed and fascinated with the new light she sheds on our history in her important work. Her contribution is an act of real love and she’s big asset to community. Lucky us.

  3. Slobodan Dimitrov Says:

    Coming out of Religious Studies myself, I’d like hear more of your field research methodology.

  4. Slobodan Dimitrov Says:

    Oops! That should of been “her” field methodology.

  5. Mary Farkas Says:

    I had to add my 2 cents to the discussion, because I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Marie ‘defend’ her dissertation to a CSUN group (Sex & Gender Studies hosted by Jacob Hale, PhD and the more I wrap my head around Marie’s theory, the more it resonates as Truth. These woman, brave souls, now into their last years, who were patiently, tirelessly, lovingly interviewed by Dr.Cartier, truly could allow their Souls to Sing only in the presence of others who knew how to Sing.
    We see our Divinity in others who Recognize Us.

    This IS the very reason we have passion for our beliefs, why we go to places of Worship. We find our Divinity in the eyes and hearts of others. These women ONLY had the Bar in which to feel that spark of recognition of THEIR Divinity. Anyone woman who doesn’t see this, has not loved a woman.

    I would refer you to “The Body’s Grace” by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury:
    eldermuse (Mary Farkas)

  6. loosefemme Says:

    Speaking as a modern-day femme des lettres: yes! I felt reverence reading Ann Bannon’s description of butch-femme bar culture. Those scenes left me breathless, and I (almost) wish I lived back in the day.

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