Reflection: Novak's bar steps out - with DOMA and in history
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Novak’s lesbian bar opened in 1996, same-sex sex was illegal, marriage equality was unheard of and I was a suburban stay-at-home mom, married to a man.
Curiosity compelled me to drive my white Aerostar minivan from Town and Country to Manchester Avenue in the city to see it for myself. The shame around even being curious about lesbian relationships made me bear down on the gas pedal a little harder as I whizzed past what was then known as Novak’s Fox Hole.
It would be a year before Ellen DeGeneres came out. And around the time Ellen declared, "Yep, I’m Gay!" on the cover of "Time" magazine, I declared "Maybe, I’m Gay!" — to myself.
Soon after, I strolled through the lesbian-looking glass of Novak’s, at 4121 Manchester Ave., to actually experience this wondrous, scary place where women danced and drank together and even kissed.
On Sunday, June 30 — Pride weekend Sunday — we will kiss this fabled institution goodbye. St. Louis’ iconic lesbian gathering place is shutting its doors. “I’m retiring,” Nancy Novak posted on the bar and grill’s Facebook page. Closing the post, Novak declares, “Let’s celebrate!!”
The celebration, the fun, the games were always at Novak’s. Drag shows, washer tournaments, karaoke, Pride brunch, Valentine’s Day, beer pong, celebrity dunking-booth fundraisers — you name it, it happened there. The fun began to draw gay men, straight friends and eventually everyone.
Novak’s was also the scene of countless individual dramas. Many a "You-kissed-my-girlfriend!" fight broke out on Novak’s dance floor. Many a good cry was had in the bathroom. Many a "Who’s THAT girl?" turned into a romantic evening, perhaps a relationship.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of photos of Novak’s regulars literally framed the good — and bad — times, recording Novak’s history on its walls. It’s a history that dovetails with the nation’s.
When Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions in 2000, it was drinks all around at Novak’s. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down the laws that criminalized same-sex relations, the beer flowed and the crowds cheered at Novak’s.
When Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, the clink-clink of glasses reverberated at the new across-the-street location of Novak’s. When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell went down in 2010, it was bottoms up at Novak’s.
And Wednesday, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a portion of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), the liquor again flowed at Novak’s — in a kind of a circle. DOMA, enacted the year Novak’s opened in 1996, met its demise just days before Novak’s will.
Like a cultural bookend, DOMA defines the age of Novak’s. From the early days of this one-man/one-woman legislation to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 12 states and counting and the District of Columbia, Novak’s has borne witness to, and provided refuge from, the roller coaster of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in this country and in Missouri.
Now that Novak’s will be no more, it’s not clear where we’ll go to one day celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in Missouri. Maybe a new owner will re-open it, maybe they’ll even keep the name. But it will be a different place. Nancy Novak, the heart of Novak’s, first opened the bar at the urging of friends who knew the party was always at Nancy’s.
So Novak’s is closing. Ellen’s California marriage to Portia will be legal at the federal level after Wednesday's high court ruling. My Canadian marriage to my partner still doesn’t mean anything in Missouri but it will someday. Progress marches forward, leaving behind the joy, the sorrow, the bittersweetness — and a whole lot of great memories. And photos.