At the wake, people read poems and wiped away tears. Blue and green lights danced across a rainbow flag. A mannequin that has lingered for years in the Hershee Bar stood tall at the back of the stage.
Those assembled recounted memories from the bar’s 35 years of existence. They discussed last-ditch hopes to save the storied establishment from eviction after the city of Norfolk purchased the property.
But after months of planning and pleading with city officials, Norfolk’s only lesbian bar — one of the last in the South and one of the oldest on the East Coast — is scheduled to close Wednesday.
It’s the latest loss in a nationwide vanishing act of bars that cater to lesbian, bisexual and queer-identifying women. Two recently opened in the District, but in many major metropolitan areas — including New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco — none are left.
Reasons for their disappearance vary. In many cases, they just weren’t making enough money to survive.
That wasn’t the case in Norfolk.
The Hershee Bar, a quirky dive with pool tables, a stage and a giant portrait on the wall of lesbian performers Melissa Etheridge and K.D. Lang, was routinely packed, regulars said.
A crew of loyal customers called it their home. They would gather for holidays, engagements, birthdays and Pride events. Owner Annette Stone would regularly feed families and members of the LGBTQ community who didn’t have anywhere else to go. The bar served as a stop on LGBTQ history tours and a place for residents and tourists alike to congregate.
The property was sold in February. The Hershee was given until Wednesday to leave.
Cooper Realty, which owned the four-building lot, had been trying to sell the property for years. Unable to find a buyer, the company urged city officials to buy the space to jump-start a revitalization effort near the tangled Five Points intersection.
“This termination will help make the redevelopment of the Five Points corridor a reality,” Jeff Cooper, whose father manages the property, said at a council meeting in August.
Norfolk’s council members voted unanimously to buy the property at 6107 Sewells Point Rd. for $1.5 million.
The vote happened with no debate, no discussion and no opposition. The Hershee’s fate never came up. Officials later told LGBTQ activists that it wasn’t on their radar.
The bar, like other businesses on the block, is scheduled to be demolished to make way for the city’s project.
The conditions of the sale were unclear to Stone and her patrons, they said. None realized that the building would be bulldozed until after the deal was made.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Mamie B. Johnson, who represents the area where the bar is located, did not return requests for comment from The Washington Post but told the Virginian-Pilot earlier this year that the lot, once razed, may be turned into a park, community space or a parking lot.
“It’s not targeted at anybody. I have to grow this community that is missing out on millions of dollars of revenue,” she said. “We have thousands of cars driving by this great opportunity neighborhood, and we have nothing for them.”
Longtime Hershee regulars, who have been wearing white T-shirts that declare “I am Hershee Bar,” say they are distraught.
They have packed council meetings since June. Some asked that the city continue to lease the property to the bar while council members and the Hershee Action Coalition figure out a compromise. Others have asked the city to offer incentives to Stone to help the bar relocate.
Despite several emotional meetings — including a council hearing last week in which council member Andria P. McClellan cried and Mayor Kenny Alexander shared a personal story about his mother, a lesbian — little has changed.
LGBTQ activists said that council members have refused to meet with them to discuss other options and that the mayor has not returned their calls. Alexander and McClellan did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
For many, moving the bar wouldn’t be good enough. They said there is history in its walls. They blame the city for miscalculating its significance to the LGBTQ community and the neighborhood at large.
“We’ve been asking the city to create an LGBTQ advisory board, a group of people who are really involved in the community and have a good idea of how to stop these things in the future,” said Cathleen Rhodes, director of the Tidewater Queer History Project and a women’s studies professor at Old Dominion University. “I believe [the] City Council when they say they didn’t realize the impact this was going to have, and there was no homophobia involved. I believe that from them. But when a community comes to them over and over and over again and says, ‘This thing really matters to us. Please listen,’ and you continue to ignore them? That is an act of homophobia.”
Activists said they changed gears in the bar’s final days, calling Gov. Ralph Northam’s office in hopes that he might intervene or help the bar become dedicated as a historic site.
A spokeswoman for Northam (D) said that as of early this week, the state had not received official applications to turn the Hershee Bar into a historic — and thereby protected — site. In addition to a multistep application, the process requires approval from a team of historians, architectural historians and archaeologists.
Dedicating a gay bar as a historic site is not without precedent: The Stonewall Inn — a New York bar where a violent police raid in 1969 and clashes that followed sparked what became the gay rights movement — became a nationally recognized historic landmark in 2016.
Like the Stonewall, the Hershee Bar’s early days were marred by violence.
A police raid during the establishment’s first night of operation inspired Stone to install a warning light above the dance floor that would flash red to let patrons know that police were coming. When it flashed, crowds would quietly flee out the back door.
Because of the bar’s proximity to Naval Station Norfolk, longtime patrons said, people nationwide have a connection to the venue, including veterans who were closeted during their time in the military — a requirement under the former “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“We’ve tried to explain this history” to the city, said Robbin Love, 51, a founder of the Hershee Action Coalition. “Opening the bar in 1983 was a real risk. It was a real risk to everyone who walked through the door at Hershee Bar. It shows you what it means that everyone who walked in there was willing to risk arrest and risk violence to just be there and spend time in their community.”
On the bar’s final night, Stone said, she’ll be throwing a Halloween party.
At midnight, the doors will close. The lights will go out. Patrons and neighbors will say goodbye.
But for several of the bar’s most loyal patrons, the fight has just begun.
“I think it’s safe to say that everyone involved knows that this isn’t over,” Rhodes said. “Wednesday is not the end.”