- Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology before Stonewall by Marie Cartier
At first glance, Marie Cartier’s Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology before Stonewall seems to fill a clear void in LGBTQ history for scholarship investigating intersections of queerness and religion, as well as lesbian history more generally. Cartier explores the significance of gay women’s bars in the United States from the 1940s to the 1980s, drawing on extensive oral history research to demonstrate that bars were “the only place” for gay women to find belonging and create a culture with personal meanings akin to religious devotion.1 While her subject matter and sources are historical and potentially useful for historians, though, this book is not a history. Cartier’s arguments and emphases situate it firmly within the realm of theological theory.
Cartier argues that bar culture constituted a religion for the women who relied on it. Like churches, bars functioned as centers of gay communities: spaces that offered identity, meaning, and a “sense of something bigger than self” (1). Moreover, because dominant society defined gay women as sick, sinful, and criminal, bars were the only place in which these women could recognize their own humanity, could find God and “a sense of the sacred” (1) in themselves and in one another. Cartier coins the term “theelogy” to describe the “inherent theology” (24) of the communities and relationships that gay women developed, and she urges theologians to view her subjects as religious. [End Page 314]
The history in Cartier’s work, which engages theological scholarship and draws on queer historical literature to provide context for her interviewees’ stories, exists alongside her theorizing, remaining frustratingly disconnected at times. Her interviews show a rich and vivid portrait of midcentury lesbian life, yet the book is not organized to offer a coherent historical narrative. The beginning chapters documenting the decades between 1940 and 1990 are fragmented by sections on theological implications and repetitive discussions of methodology and participants’ demographics, while the second half of the book further develops Cartier’s religious argument and concept of “theelogy.” This structure, the author’s theoretical emphasis, and an idiosyncratic inclusion of source material make for a somewhat confusing read.
Still, Cartier also makes some persuasive claims that historians would do well to consider. Chief among them is a temporal analysis of Stonewall, that mythical end of an oppressive era. Citing examples of bars that were raided well beyond 1969 and communities that did not markedly change despite the onset of gay liberation, Cartier extends the “pre-Stonewall” period to 1975 and even later in some places, especially outside urban areas. This chronology not only offers an important historiographical intervention but also complicates histories of 1970s lesbianism by demonstrating the persistence of the butch-femme bar scene through a decade of lesbian feminist dominance and criticism. Moving into the “sex wars” of the 1980s, Cartier also provides an overview of coalition building among butch-femme, leathersex, and sex worker challengers to antipornography feminists and begins to discuss the generational tensions that surfaced with queer and transgender activism in the 1990s.
Cartier’s oral histories are impressive. Her research has amassed a vast collection that is chronologically and geographically far-reaching and offers poignant access to lesbian experience in the twentieth century. From the book’s introductory story of a married woman who routinely telephoned gay bars at night while her husband slept just to make sure they were still there, to testimonies of survival and resilience in the face of incessant, brutal police violence in a small Virginia town, to the butch bartender in Los Angeles who sold dildos made of mattress stuffing and electrical tape, Cartier’s interviews bring the danger, exhilaration, commitment, and beauty of queer life into sharp focus. They depict the flavor of pre-Stonewall bar culture and its powerful, enduring significance for gay women. For historians, the archive she has created is one of the work’s greatest strengths.