Bars and the Violent Backlash

Being a small town may have spared Northampton the particularly virulent backlash that began to be experienced in the 1970s by feminist, lesbian and gay organizations in large cities. Bars, conferences, centers, publications and presses across the country had begun to be subjected to sniping, break-ins, vandalizing and arson.  The nearest incident was the Springfield firebombing of the Arch bar in 1973, which may have been Mafia related, but the Boston offices of Gay Community News were burglarized in the 70s before being destroyed by arson in 1982. Northampton, however, wasn’t totally spared a violent reaction to the new lesbian visibility.

One response of the growing number of lesbians that began to come out in 1975 was to find local bar space rather than travel to Springfield or Chicopee. Jeanie, owner of the Gala Cafe on Bridge Street, was amenable to hosting women in the bar’s backroom once a week and discouraging men from intruding there. The bar with blinking neon lights was a small, squat pink stucco building between the railroad overpass and Jack August’s restaurant. The backroom, which may have once been for family dining, held a jukebox and booths squeezed round a dance floor.

 

jean gala
“Jean at the Gala.” 24”x36” etching by Barbara Johnson. Used by permission of the artist.

 

When the first lesbian disc jockeys began to spin records there, the place soon became packed, attracting many more gay women than just those who were politically active in town. This custom was to continue through 1979. Because the Gala was so small, in the summer of 1975, the larger backroom of Packards on Masonic Street was rented for “Wednesday Nights at Zelda’s.”

 

gala cafe_edited-1
“Remember When?” Handtinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell. Used by permission of the photographer.

 

Over the summer of 1975, there was greatly increased visibility of lesbians on Northampton streets several nights a week. Women leaving these neighborhood bars began to be taunted by men. Rumor had it that several weeks of harassment culminated in a lesbian being attacked outside the Gala by several men armed with a shovel and a machete. The rape of a lesbian who was walking home from the bar was also rumored. (I am still seeking substantiation. Without it, I can’t verify these incidents.)

Responding to the increasing frequency of such incidents, Lesbians formed a Community Education and Self-defense Group in August of 1975 that organized small groups of women which became known as the Dyke Patrol. They established a physical presence outside the two bars, Lesbian Gardens and the occasional Wimmin’s dance, and also escorted women to their parked cars. This seems to have worked as an immediate deterrent, for the Patrol was disbanded six months later. It was, however the beginning of a violent male pushback on the streets of Northampton that would escalate over the next decade as Lesbians, and then Gay men, insisted on a new visibility in the City.

The Gala Café was razed in 1983 along with Jack August’s, the restaurant next door, to make way for a sports bar.

 

SOURCES:

  __[Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. the Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. Valley Women's History Collaborative

__Old South St. Study Group. “Analysis of a Lesbian Community-Part One.” Lesbian Connection. Jul 1977. P7-8.

__Potter, Clare. The lesbian periodicals index. Naiad Press. Tallahassee FL. 1986.               Listed, between 1973-1979: Sniper shot at women convening in Seattle; Gay Community News (Boston) and Majority Report (NY) offices burglarized; A NYC women’s center vandalized; St. Louis Women’s Center and Iowa Clinic firebombed; Fires also set at the Los Angeles MCC Church, Seattle Gay Community Center and a St. Louis bar.

__Mitchell, Phoebe. “Last Call for a Bar Ahead of Its Time.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 07, 2004. Northampton MA.

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