Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A dance down memory lane

Pardon my long-windedness, but this post is worth reading, I promise. In fact, I ask that you read it as a personal favor to me.

So tonight I find myself at home crocheting and watching "Small Town Gay Bar," a documentary released in 2006 by Malcolm Ingram. (And produced by Kevin Smith, who just took yet another leap forward on my list of heroes.) It ran on Showtime - the reason I got satellite. It documents the history of 2 gay bars in northeastern Mississippi. There's a lot of it that is eerily familiar.

The first is in Shannon, MS (pop. 1657). My hometown was around 1400. The second is in Meridian, MS (pop. 39,968), birthplace of Fred Phelps. Phelps was interviewed, though he'd never heard of the bar in his own little stretch of downhome. It also describes a few others that didn't survive the test of time. Granted "Rumors" has only been in Shannon for about 8 or 9 years. "Different Seasons," the reincarnation of "Crossroads Estates" outside Meridian, has only been open again for about a year. Both bars are now run by former patrons, because they understood how desperately the areas needed an outlet for those who are different.

Their stories aren't easy. Or neat. Rumors went through a brutal anti-gay murder. If you haven't heard of Scotty Joe Weaver you should go to Google. The local townsfolk aren't exactly accepting of their queer neighbors, though the bars are left mostly alone. Now. Over the years, local Christian groups, law enforcement, and public officials have written down license plate numbers. Then read them over the radio and published them in newsletters. The worst problems have come from the American Family Association, which was started in 1977 by a preacher in Tupelo, MS. They now boast a nationwide network of over 400,000 supporters, and are one of the most formidable (and prolific) "moral authorities" in America today. In other words, I view them about as favorably as Fred Phelps, though their rhetoric isn't as vile (ar overt).

Yet despite everything the bar regulars had been through, they all agreed on one thing. In interview after interview. Without prompting, they described the people in the bar as "family." It's a word I've blogged about frequently, and explained to countless panels and classes. It's a word every GLBTQ person understands, as well as its importance. Even the straight folks in the video described the bars as a welcoming place where you could just be yourself. And how amazing that can be, especially in a place where it's not always possible.

SO many memories. I remember my first trip to a gay bar. At that time it was called Nightengales, and it was in an old converted doublewide trailer on the outskirts of Fort Collins. Then it became known as the Tornado Club. Then Club Static. Today it's closed. It was the only gay bar in the area, and it was a 60 to 90 minute drive to get there. Just like folks in Mississippi, who can drive 90 minutes to Memphis. It wasn't much to look at, but for the first time I had a place I didn't have to worry about what people would think. I could flirt with other guys. I could dance with drag queens, drink with lesbians, and just let my hair down.

We also took over a bar in Laramie (the Ice House/The Cowboy on Third/whatever it is this week) on Thursday nights, when Club Retro held "Alternative Night." The goths, freaks, and queers frolicked openly once a week. That night it was OUR bar. OUR home. OUR refuge. The folks clad in leather, spikes, piercings, and tattoos joined in the kick lines to "Come on Eileen." In one night we'd dance to "Bloodletting," "Dancing Queen," and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." We'd help carry in the CD's for our DJ friends, dance all night, close the bar at 2am, and then go see Carol. She was the late night waitress at Foster's Country Corner. We boycotted Shari's for being rude to our friends who couldn't always afford food, but Carol waited on the goth and gay freaks with a smile, selling 99 cent all-you-can-eat biscuits and gravy. I'd make it home around a little before 4am, take off my white grease paint, fatigue pants, and combat boots. Then be up for class at 9am.

I remember when Steph planted a chair in the middle of the dance floor and did a body shot from between Lisa's pleather-clad thighs for her birthday. You could have cut the sexual tension with a knife, and ALL the boys who liked girls were watching. I remember Lisa returning the favor for Steph's birthday. "Leather David" (as opposed to Blonde David and David with a Beard - yes, I still know their real names) happily played "pass the ice cube" with both Lisa and I. Little Craig usually won "who kisses better," due in part to his tongue ring. His wife Carolyn giggled when I'd swoon after a kiss. If I was having a bad day, Ian would physically pick me up, then MAKE me grab his near-perfect ass. And if a "normal" walked into the bar, they usually took one look inside and turned around. If they so much as looked at us funny, they were out on the street. Shadow, sometimes bouncer, sometimes DJ, sometimes bartender, would make me his infamous "Black Tulip" in my request for a drink that was "sweet and tasty but will fuck me up." DJ Chickie and her boyfriend DJ Steve would take turns spinning each week. Sam tried to be a club kid in a place where nobody even knew what that meant.

They were definitely a family, and there is no doubt in my mind that they saved my life. They kept me sane and let me know I wasn't the only one. They taught me it was okay to be different, and that it was also okay to express that difference. To let it out. To let go. To just BE. My size didn't matter. My orientation didn't matter. The fact that I blushed when sex was mentioned (just like our Squiddy) didn't matter. I was one of them. I was PART of them. And they were part of me. The bar was eventually sold, our regular DJ's moved away, and Alternative Night moved to the Parlor for a while, where little Craig started spinning under the name "DJ Darth." Dawnsie even created a drink called "The Big Gay Jim." That, too, eventually faded away, but every time I walk into one of those bars, even years later, I still smile and remember my family and the amazing times we had.

Those little refuges helped create the person and activist I am today. They taught me about acceptance...of myself and others. They taught me not to judge a book by it's cover, no matter how pierced or inked it is. They taught me that people who think they are SO different from one another have SO much in common. I'd like to think over the years I've paid that forward, perhaps several times over. We joke about my house being Laramie's gay bar. We've even named it Ruby Slippers. But isn't that because we don't have a space of our own. For a while, we even had the "real" Cowboy Bar, thanks to Kristen being both my office aide at IT and the manager of the bar. We held a freaking drag show under a banner for Skoal, after all! Those small town gay bars live inside my heart and my memory. The thought of them has me in tears now, just as the movie did.

Today's lesson: do everything you can to create "a small town gay bar" for someone - a sanctuary. Where people can be whoever in the hell they are. Where they can explore who they want to be without judgment. Or labels. Where all that matters is having fun and being true to yourself. Create it in your town, your living room, or your heart. And share it. And anywhere you're lucky enough to find such a place, cherish it. They are too few and far between. They save lives and rescue souls, though they are often the most simple, run-down, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants dives.

Today's homework: Take a moment to remember places like this from your past. And TELL SOMEONE ABOUT IT. Recount your memories to friends, family, or most importantly, someone who could use such a place, even if it doesn't exist anymore. They deserve to know that they're out there. Share them in the comments on my blog, if you like. And for those who sometimes visit Ruby Slippers, I'll keep the movie on the DVR for a while. And happily do my best to bore you to tears with tales of YesterLaramie. Our queer masquerade balls at the pyramid church on the prairie, DJ Chickie's most famous lines, the exploits of my first lesbian gal pal Lisa, or the most dismally attended Gay Awareness Week events ever held. The stories and struggles deserve to be told. And you deserve to know about those who came before. Who helped me in the ways I try to help others still today. I have photo albums, and bad poetry, and endless love in my heart.

Thanks to all who are now or ever have been a part of ALL my "small town gay bars."

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