No gay bar road trip could be finer than to be in North Carolina AND Tennessee for leg two (Part 1 here):
Dog is my co-pilot, but pictures of Blanche in the car don’t properly show off the Mardis Gras beads she got from DC’s Casa Ruby, the bilingual LGBT community center:
Greensboro is a home away from home at Lisa’s house, playing charades with Rosalie and Malik. I interviewed Jessica Blue, one of the co-owners of Q Bar. So far, all of the bars I’ve interviewed have been owned by white men for whom the bar is their primary full-time job. Jessica has a full-time job as a social worker, running the Q is an outgrowth of the party promoting she’s done since 2009:
I found I was good at it, and running and operating a bar was always the next step, from promoting, to jumping in there, getting my feet wet and seeing how things work, and then transitioning to a different role in the nightlife industry.
Jessica says she’s still trying to figure out how to create a desire for gay people to patronize a gay bar when there are so many other options. Between karaoke nights, Sunday day parties, pool tables, and the only hip hop dance floor on a core night (Friday or Saturday), she and her partner Robin Davenport have tried many new promotions in the face of resistance from longtime patrons:
The biggest challenge? Getting people to accept change. The weird thing about it is we [as a community] want to see it the way it was–“it’s changed so much” people say–at the same time, that was a slap in the face to Michelle [the former owner] who was this older white lady who was extremely accepting to the LGBT community. You weren’t coming, you weren’t, and she closed. [Us] promoting hip hop nights, that was what saved this place.
Another of the challenge comes from patrons: the actions of a few, and the lack of disposable income of the many:
You have people who come out and do crazy things that cost you money like putting beer bottles in the toilets. We don’t have, in Greensboro, that crowd of professionals who drink Grey Goose and Ketel One, or if there are, I don’t know where they’re going or how to get them in here!
Why is all of this worth it, after a long day’s work?
I had this space, someplace to be yourself, someplace to kiss your girlfriend and not get punched in the face, having that place is extremely important. There’s a lot of people who still aren’t comfortable, and they should have someplace to go too where they feel comfortable.
From Greensboro I drove to Hickory, NC, the center of the United States’ furniture industry. The older woman concierge at the Furniture Mart sized me up and suggested I visit literally the gayest store in the million-square-foot complex (the website measures it in football fields but I’d say its, like, as big as eight IKEA stores):
The Mart’s little museum credits the industry’s success thus: “Powered by plentiful water, supplied with an abundance of timber and fortified by a labor force that was skilled, loyal, and fiercely non-union.” Fierce.
In Hickory is the 40-some-year-old Club Cabaret, which serves a metropolitan area of 366,000 people.
Among show bars, as important drag bars are known, it’s “best in the South East,” according to manager Michael Henry. He cited many state, regional, and national title-holders who got their start in the club. Moving back to his hometown to manage the club was a dream come true :
I love this building and always have, and I’m happy to work here finally, to be a part of this building and the growth of this community… My husband, he always wanted a small town, and I love it. It’s actually amazing, I grew up when Hickory was small and as I’m growing up I kept watching it grow… I’m trying to think of the words to say. If I was to die tomorrow I could say that I’m satisfied. That’s the way I’d put it.
The Bar does frequent charity benefits, and even partnered with the local community theater to host a performance of Rent inside the club. Like many other LGBT outposts, the patronage is about half straight allies and half LGBT, which Michael sees as a virtue:
This bar is for everybody, we’re not just a gay community, you see all these communities, we’re all one, it’s just not being gay anymore. We’re all one and we need to work as one.
For Michael, the biggest challenge of the business is advertising. Facebook is one tool he uses, but smartphone social media apps are also useful. Although they are often blamed for the closure of gay bars, Michael finds them a good way to draw new patrons and remind old ones about the club:
I’ll sit here on Grindr and be advertising for this place. I’ll put it in my profile that I’m at the club, come see me. It’s a little bit of free advertising. [And does it work? He smiles bashfully]. I’ll be honest, it does. And the guys that come in, they’re good guys, hot some of ’em, and some are [already] members.
Michael seemed worried that I was visiting Club Cabaret because I thought it was closing, and he took great pains to tell me how well it was doing:
You will not see this bar as one of the bars closing on your list. I would already know if it was, and it’s not going to happen, I can tell you that. Why aren’t you typing that? Type that! I just hate to hear that any gay bar is closing. I know about three have closed in Charlotte. Any of them closing is sad. That’s why I’m glad we’re doing what we can, and we’re doing good.
After Hickory I drove to Johnson City, Tennessee. New Beginnings is the home bar to Eureka O’Hara and my colleague Christie Parris‘ first gay bar. The largest of Eastern Tennessee’s tri-cities, Johnson City has the only bar for miles around, also a notable show bar:
The side entrance, flanked by a note that shoes and shirts are required, opens into a vast building with three or four separate club areas, a 100-foot bar, prominent stage, and a split-level outdoor patio that featured karaoke that night. A guy on a chat app volunteered that he was a retired chicken farmer caring for his 93-y.o. mother or else he’d join me (meanwhile, the only father I need in my life at this time, who grew up on a failed chicken farm, was at his hometown’s Egg Day Festival).
New Beginnings’ founding owner, Michael Trivette, spoke to me while expertly tending bar. A bodybuilder with the face of a young Danny Kaye, Michael greeted patrons by name and served them their drink before they could order. As he told one patron, “I know exactly what you want… AND what you drink!” Michael has owned the bar for 30 years, slowly transforming the onetime bowling alley and refrigerated warehouse into a glittering palace. When I asked if his patronage was mostly straight or gay, he replied, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” continuing:
This has been one of the great revolutions in gay bars. You know, back in the day because we were a gay bar nobody else would come here, but now that’s just not the case. Now we have a lot of straight people who come here and its been a bit of a double-edged sword, because patrons will say, “I hit on him and he’s straight! What is he doing in here?” And I say, “well, he just doesn’t want to be with you. Does it matter whether he’s straight or gay? It could be that he just doesn’t want to tell you that you’re ugly!” But the other group that has been coming lately are the swingers. Yes, they have a big meet and greet every month.
When I asked when this revolution happened, he replied
I’ll say it has been gradual but it has been a lot faster progression in the last five years. I really do think that’s part of our equality. As people have become more accepting in the workplace, they have become more accepting in their party place too. Many years ago there was a girl who had never been here before and I went to talk to her. “I thought I would be having a good time, but I’m not comfortable.” She though the end of times was going to come and she was going straight to Hell! I said honey, you know if God’s going to judge you it’s on your life and not on the moment, it doesn’t matter where you are.
We haven’t gotten [patrons like] that in a long long time.
Another patron described the bar as a haven from Eastern Tennessee even as it was inflected by it: “there’s a real brain drain in Johnson City. It’s such a small community that other people are worried what other people think of them.”
At a folk art gallery in downtown Johnson City, amidst signs for a leukemia patients’ fundraiser, an announcement for a drum circle, and a sign for the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention, I spotted some flyers for PFLAG and a transgender youth support group:
These were reminders that I’ve had other LGBTQ sightings apart from bars: the barefoot student in Boone wearing a t-shirt reading “We Need More Lesbian Farmers,” the blonde twink in a sporty VW with pink flamingo stickers on either side of the Human Rights Campaign’s ubiquitous gold equal sign on a blue square.
I returned to North Carolina to Asheville. The drive over the mountains dramatized the realities for travelers to these regional bars: just because its only 40 miles as the crow flies doesn’t mean you can drive it in less than an hour, especially if the roads are wet, you get stuck behind a truck or an RV, or there’s road work:
Asheville is home of the oldest gay bar in North Carolina, O.Henry’s. When I visited, the front windows featured a color portrait of each of the 49 victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting, free condoms and literature festooned the inside counter, and a prominent rainbow “Don’t Treat On Me” flag was flanked by the other LGBTQ flags:
O’Henry’s is the only gay-owned gay bar in town. Scandals, which once was a mostly gay nightclub, has been “straightening out” since it was bought by straight owners, according to several patrons. Another patron noted that it was only ever for white men anyways, so no big loss. Asheville used to have four gay bars and briefly 5, before dwindling to the current 1.5.
Owner Derick Boyd said the effect of these closures and straightening on O.Henry’s was:
Nothing bad, really, because this town is so gay. A lot of businesses are gay owned and operated, most of the rest are gay friendly, but it’s still nice to have a gay bar. We consider ourselves a safe place, at least that’s how we’re described. If people aren’t out, or if they’re not anything and feel more comfortable here rather than going elsewhere, then that makes sense.
He purchased the bar three years before and had already instituted plenty of changes that had kept him ahead of the curve. Tommy Dembinsky, another employee, attributed the bar’s success to its patronage by everyone: “there’s always a representation of people from every demographic, we get the leather[folk], the bears, transgender [patrons], lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, even straight people: everybody!” As Derick described the effect of these changes:
A lot more younger people are coming here than there was before. It used to be an older man’s bar, but now you have 20-year-olds coming out. We’ve got a younger generation coming in and we’re retaining the older generation. We’ve still got the people who’ve been here from the beginning–Rosie here was one of the original bartenders.
Unlike many of the other outposts, O.Henry’s doesn’t seem to rely on straight patronage for much of its clientele. Bartender Rosie Coates, described by one patron and former coworker as “the matriarch of Asheville’s Queer Community,” described O.Henry’s success as “it’s always been about the people, and the customers, and the gayness. And it’s held true to that. It’s always been the cheers bar, but gay.”
Asheville is plenty queer for having only one and a half gay bars. It’s home of Malaprop’s, one of the last great feminist bookstores:
Asheville is also really into its hillbilly heritage, which shouldn’t have surprised me given its reliance on tourism:
I have now been out four nights in a row and this post is too long.
Next up: The Abbey of the Grand Palmetto
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