Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sweetheart Bar

3928 Third Street today -- with no
sign of the former Sweetheart Bar
Sweetheart Bar

Location: 3928 Third Street, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Opened: 1939

Closed: ???

The only source I know of that discusses the Sweetheart Bar is a fantastic article I've cited before, "The Changing Face of Lesbian Bars in Detroit" by Roey Thorpe. This is what Roey says:

The earliest of Detroit's lesbian bars was the Sweetheart Bar, which opened in 1939. Several women remember it as the first lesbian bar that they went to, and have fond memories of both the bar and its owners, Anne and Irving "Izzy" Ginsberg. The Sweetheart was located at 3928 Third Street, in the heart of what was Detroit's manufacturing center. On the outside, the Sweetheart looked like any neighborhood bar, but on the inside, it was divided into four sections, each with its particular clientele and activities. The front of the bar, the area closest to the entrance, seemed like other nearby bars, where heterosexual men and women from the surrounding neighborhood came to have a drink and socialize. At the back of this section stood a pair of double doors, behind which stretched a large space where the floor show, usually a drag performance, alternated with time for dancing. By convention, this space was divided according to sexuality. Billie Hill describes the back room as follows:

[T]wo women could dance or two men could dance there. So the straights would come in and sit on the one side just so that they could see all this, you know, what was going on....Then the middle section was more or less for the bisexuals and they'd go men or women, you know. Then over in this side it was the gays, mostly girls but boys too, but mostly girls.

The physical layout of this bar served several purposes. It provided a space for heterosexual people in the neighborhood to use, which no doubt undercut the animosity they would have felt toward a bar where they were not welcome. Their patronage also helped keep the bar in business. The double doors provided a barrier that need not be crossed by clientele uninterested in observing homosexuals and bisexuals, and thus also provided a bit of privacy for those who frequented the space behind the doors. The privacy meant that same-sex couples could dance together, an unusual privilege even in gay bars of the time. The social organization of that rear space also served practical functions; it allowed for specific forms of socializing while avoiding embarrassing and possibly dangerous situations. People could display their intentions and their interests by positioning themselves in a selected third of the backroom.

Separate sections also meant that while heterosexuals could watch lesbians and gay men from a distance, they were courting danger by crossing over into homosexual territory. The existence of the bisexual space in the center of the room meant that there was a buffer between heterosexual observers and women who were exclusively lesbian. It protected lesbians from some of the staring and pointing of heterosexuals who had come to the bar as their form of entertainment for the evening.

These sections were not always enough to keep heterosexual men away from lesbians, however. Billie Hill recalls that although "the guys knew if they went over and ask a girl to dance [and] she said no, that was it--leave her alone," as early as 1945 or 1946, men were ousted from the Sweetheart for harassing lesbians. She explains:

[I]f a straight guy came up and kept insisting on dancing then they just got put out....And then they'd wait outside, try to beat you up. That's where all the fights started....They'd, you know, bounce a couple of guys outta there for bothering the girls and they'd wait outside until the bar was closed and jump the girls and beat 'em up. And we got so that when we'd leave the bar we'd leave, you know, four or five of us together, then if a guy jumps, we can handle 'em.

The need to address harassment became a powerful force in shaping lesbian bar culture. It was a considerable challenge to keep lesbian social space separate from heterosexual men. But doing so was crucial for creating a space that was safe for white, working-class lesbians, since their refusal to dance with heterosexual men left them vulnerable to physical attack. Lesbians also had to learn to fight in order to protect themselves when physical separation in bars failed.

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