Mafia Bars and the Male Gaze

Here is a throwback to the days when Northampton gay people had to travel to Hampden County to find a bar to cruise, meet others, and perhaps dance together. For most of its history, Northampton has not had a bar specifically for LGBTQ folks, let alone one owned by family. The town reverted to that condition with the October 2016 closing of Divas, the lesbian-owned dance club had been open on Pleasant St. for fifteen years.

In this reminiscence about the Arbor in Springfield in the early 1970s, Jacqueline E. Letalien touches on mafia ownership of bars and the discomforting danger to lesbians in not having control of space. Thanks to Jacqueline for permission to publish this piece, which has previously appeared in Kulture Klatch and Common Lives: Lesbian Lives, and also for the wonderful recent portrait of her.

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Jacqueline Elizabeth Letalien, photo used with her permission.

                                                  Lesbian – November, 2003

Kulture Klatch – Jacqueline Elizabeth Letalien – L-Word

My family and friends adamantly assure me when I come out at twenty-three that this being a Lesbian is a Passing Phase.  They don’t understand that I have been a Lesbian all of my life. Some say being a Lesbian is due to genes or hormones; others say it’s environment; still others say it’s a Disease that’s contagious.  I have a friend whose aunt always and immediately washes the glass The Lesbian Niece drinks out of, to make sure nobody else in the family catches The Affliction.

In these times of the early seventies and the heterosexual revolution, no one believes that lesbians are lesbians by choice because no one believes women have a sexuality.  Men are the reference point:  their pleasure (usually very exclusive), their sexual prowess (usually very overrated), their whim (usually very undeniable).

In the Springfield bars straight men come to ogle the lesbians.  While they are a bit fearful of us, they embolden themselves to be the knights of heterosexuality, trying to convert lesbians to straighthood.  This is a challenge that really amps them.  They never seem to get that even if I’m interested in fucking with men, it wouldn’t be them.

The worst of these are the mafioso pals of the Arbor’s owner.  They are walking stereotypes of themselves.  White shoes with little brass do-dads on the top of their shoes.  They drive up in white or black cadillacs; very, very shiny.  These are creepy men. These are also dangerous men with very fragile, yet over-inflated, egos.

I don’t just know them from the bars.  I know them from living in Agawam where the families of the mafioso reside.  What I learn is that they have rules, codes of honor.  They do not do business in Agawam because that’s where their families reside.  Their influence is still felt throughout the town.

It’s when I move to Springfield that I learn about how they do business.  Because they own the bars and they believe they own everything in them, the mafioso funders don’t get that they should never come to the gay bars.  Interactions with them always have the subplot that offending them could have very negative consequences.  Declining their advances is a tricky business.

The first rule of engagement is to refrain from eye contact unless I have a gun and am foolish enough to use it.  The second rule of engagement is to utilize wit to the maximum.  The third is to avoid an argument.  The golden rule is to watch out for the ego, theirs and mine.

The man owner does not get that these men should never be allowed into the bar.  He does not get any of this about the oglers and mafia because he is a mafia connected ogler.  One night he approaches me.  I know what he’s up to.  I do not look at him as I ponder how I’m going to get out of this without ending up missing and later floating to the surface of the Connecticut River.

He swaggers over, steps uncomfortably close to me.  His cologne doesn’t mix well with the amount of rum I’ve consumed.  I bet you wouldn’t be a Lesbian if you had a good fuck; have you ever fucked?  (I pause for the mere split second there is to set the direction of this interaction.)  Yeah, I been fucked; let me ask you a question: when you were in the navy, did you ever fuck with men?

He’s obviously startled by this question.  He’s also tricked by the query because his ego thinks I’m expressing interest in his story:  Uh well, there weren’t any women around you know; yeah, I fucked with men.  I ask in a rather voyeuristic voice: did you like it?  Now he’s off balance while being given a chance to assert his ego: Like it!  No I didn’t like it.  Still without eye contact, the action is checkmated: Neither did I.  He doesn’t approach me again.

The thing that none of these relatives, friends, oglers seem to understand is that being a Lesbian is the complex will of the spirit, the simple logic of the heart:  I am a woman, I love my self; I love women.

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