In my imagination, Texas has always been 100% Republican, 100% Christian, 100% cowboy. When I decided to come to Texas on this trip, I told myself: I can handle anything, as long as it’s for research. When I’m a researcher, I am detached—I’m not really there, I am an observer, and everything is interesting because I’m not involved.
I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong that I could handle it, I was wrong that that I would even want to be personally removed. And, unsurprisingly, I was wrong that Texas, the largest state in the Continental U.S., would be even close to homogeneous. Sure, we have seen more American flags in businesses than I even thought was possible—a 9/11 mural in a Venice-themed Italian restaurant, a sign in the window of an Exxon that read “We don’t call 911”, flanked by two pistols. But we have also seen the block of Dallas that has 10 gay bars, the incredible talents of rural drag queens, and sometimes, even a lack of shock when we tell the waiter why we’re in Texas. I am at the point in my life and in my education when perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t fit their stereotypes, but I must admit- I am.
In methods classes, you only learn of how exploitative research can be, especially when researching marginalized populations. You learn of the awkward positionality that is being an interviewer, and the whole thing sounds like a sticky mess of ethics. There’s another side to this, though: interviewing can be immensely validating for the interviewee. It can affirm their life’s work. Many of the interviewees feel honored to be part of such a project, mainly because they get ignored in the big New York Times pieces on gay bars, which tell stories of the current state of gay bars that doesn’t align with the rural gay bar experience.
Every one of the people we have interviewed has been somebody I admire fiercely- an inspiration in a fight that is not nearly over, and a character at that, full of fag jokes and politically incorrect language that’s backed by a fierce set of activist politics. These owners give us drinks, glow sticks, and hugs instead of handshakes when we leave. Some of this is good old southern hospitality, but some of it is their joy in being heard. Their validation that their life’s work- often a life’s work that doesn’t sustain them financially on its own- is part of something greater. It’s just as important as San Francisco, if not more so, and as an interviewer it feels amazing to be a part of emphasizing that to them.
Gun Barrel City sounds like… well, I don’t know what it sounds like, but it doesn’t sound like a lake-vacation town. The electronic sign outside of the bank reads 100 degrees; the bank is just like every other establishment in Gun Barrel City: on Main Street. The town is one straight shot down a six lane road- not necessarily small, but oddly laid out. A resort town, a majority of the residences here are on the lake, and range from trailers parked near the lake to large 2 story lake-front properties. At the lake, located on the West part of town, people zoom by on wave runners, one guy with his dog in the driver’s seat.
Garlow’s, GBC’s only gay bar, is in a metal shed. It looks like a damn mechanic shop. Inside, Michael sat down with Greggor as I interviewed the bartender, Monique, who plasters Garlow’s Facebook page with selfies for every weeknight special. Garlow’s had a stage for drag performers, two pool tables, several poker tables, one bar, a row of slot machines (my favorite was called Glitter Kitten), and a gigantic patio with “Bario Party”—a life-size Mario Party board hand-made by one of the bartenders. I learned of their history of police harassment, quickly remedied by the owner joining the city council and making friends with the lawyer. He was proud of his popularity in the small town, and Monique was proud that so many straight people come to their club- so many straight people who used to swear they’d never go in a gay bar.
In the front of the establishment, near the bar, sat four people over 60 years old– three men in Harley Davidson shirts and one woman in a wheelchair. Then, I saw several seemingly straight women with glitter cat ears on, the kind that are just the outline of cat ears- which always struck me as just weird enough to fit in at a place like Mable’s while still being glittery and pretty enough to seem cute and not anime-y. Then, I saw the crowd I was most surprised by: the cool dykes, the young gays. There was everyone from cool bull dykes to trans men just feeling out their new masculine presence to 17- year-olds with yellow and blue hair who fan-girled at every chance. The emcee asked for everyone who hadn’t been there before to come up on stage and “stand like we were posing for a yearbook photo.” We got glittery gold star stickers and repeated the oath of Mable Peabody’s, in which we promised to “throw sunshine not shade.” I beamed the whole time, and decided I could die happy when we walked back to our spots by the entrance way that divided the bar and the performance space near a newly-out trans girl and her older goth-girl friend. The regular host, Milo, was turning over the mic to a young black girl because they were “clearly very white”—and this was POC night (people of color). That in and of itself nearly knocked me off my feet—the only gay bar in Denton, TX had a POC night for their queer variety show? Still, it’s got to be just like a middle school talent show, right? Wrong. The first performer came out: first of all, it was a drag king. Second of all, it was a MICHAEL JACKSON IMPERSONATOR. And a damn good one at that. From there on out, we saw a beautiful parade with of a latin dancer drag queen, a belly dancer from Plano, a stunning drag queen who won “Miss Mable’s,” a young trans man who lip synched “tonight I’m fucking you” in a white undershirt, and the best burlesque dancer I’d ever seen who alternated between shyly pulling up her skirt and raunchily punching her boobs.
Throughout the night, the emcee handed out bags with condoms and swag from the Denton Country Health department for answering random trivia questions. The night finished with the Mable’s line dance, a line dance featuring booty shaking, shimmying, and a good old grapevine with some claps.
Coming to Dallas was like getting whiplash. From rural Texas, where everyone talks slowly, to the urbanity of downtown Dallas, where everyone talked fast and moved quickly, the heterogeneity of this massive state hit me like the Ford truck that almost literally hit me on the freeway.
Dallas is home to Sue Ellen’s, one of the nation’s last lesbian bars, and one of the longest standing ones at that. We met Ginda Bayliss, one of two general managers, and learned of her storied past as one of the only lesbians put on trial—and acquitted—for homosexuality in the Navy. Soon we met Kathy Jack, the other general manager and founding member of Sue Ellen’s. The question of the day became: so why do we need a lesbian bar? They had a lesbian bar full of gay men and straight people (and lesbians)- what’s the point of it being a lesbian bar? We heard the same response we’ve heard to this question before (and others like it)—we still need a space. There still needs to be a place for lesbians to call home. We still need a space.
I wrote my honors thesis on safe spaces—why are they important, why do we need them, and what the hell does safe space even mean? How safe can a space be? I came away with it with an understanding that no one actually thought a safe space could be 100% safe, 100% protected from the harsh world that marginalized people walk through all the time. However, just having a dedicated space is important. Just having the space exist was what made it worth organizing. This is not too different from the responses from gay bar owners: yes, there are a lot of straight people who come into our bars. In fact, bar owners can only pay the bills with straight dollars. What’s important is that the gay bar exists as a gay bar. That, despite the straight presence, the very existence of a space dedicated to the LGBT community was worth it.
The key difference between safe spaces at liberal arts colleges and rural gay bars, though: the notion of exclusivity. For students in safe spaces, the idea is that only people with such-and-such marginalized identity can come in. Sometimes allies can come if they step back, if they’re respectful, if they’re specifically invited. These gay bars? They are obsessed with saying that everyone is welcome. Over and over again we hear that “this is an everyone bar” or “this is a gay bar, but everyone is welcome.” In fact, they want straight people to come to their bar- not only because their money is as green as everyone else’s, but because that’s a major show of acceptance. And not the kind of acceptance that goes hand in hand with assimilation: no, the kind of acceptance where straight people in their communities can realize that gay bars are not scary sex dungeons, and gay people are not dungeon dwellers or sex-crazed monsters. The presence of straight people in rural gay bars is a message of acceptance, without diminishing the importance of a dedicated space. The presence of straight people doesn’t ruin the gay bar experience, it doesn’t make the gay people feel unsafe, it simply means that straight people are willing to go to a gay space and honor it, not as their space, but as it is—a gay space.
Thanks for my first guest post, Tory Sparks!