‘Living joyously is a radical act’: why America’s gay bars still matter

Fifty years after Stonewall, and with Trump trying to roll back LGBTQ rights, Dominic Rushe visits three gay bars in different states and finds them as vibrant and vital as ever

The gay bar is in trouble. Fifty years after the Stonewall Inn in New York became the symbol for a new wave of gay activism, the three horsemen of the gay bar apocalypse gentrification, assimilation and technology have hollowed out their numbers.

Rising rents have shuttered gay bars; more straight venues are accepting of gay patrons; and dating is something people now do with their phones. Even the term gay bar looks a little tired as the LGBTQ community finally comes to terms with its many rainbow stripes.

Bare numbers are hard to come by, but Yelp calculates the number of gay bars listed on its service fell 16% between 2014 and 2018. It now represents just 0.8% of all bar listings.

But across America and especially in less progressive states and communities the gay bar is as vibrant and vital as it has ever been. Its a rallying point in times of trial and celebration. It is the pumping heart of a community that, as the Trump administration rolls back its rights, needs its own space more than it has in years.

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‘This is where we live our truth’: visiting America’s gay bars video

The oasis: Wonderlust in Jackson, Mississippi

You can find Wonderlust, the only gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, on the northern edge of town, just past the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and the duelling discount stores Dollar General and Dollar Tree. Housed in a long, black, squat building, Wonderlust is marked by panels painted in a sort of rainbow flag. The colours are off hospital green, shop-soiled peach, sun-bleached eggplant as if picked from a paint stores remainder bin.

Its not much to look at, but a bar on this spot has been a haven for Mississippis LGBTQ community for more than 25 years.

Mississippi is one of the most conservative states in the US. A majority still disagree with same-sex marriage one of just two states the other is Alabama to still hold that view. A few years ago, a Mississippi pastor even brought a horse in a wedding dress to the federal courthouse to protest against gay marriage. State law means businesses can deny service to queer people if doing so would conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

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Erin Steele waits to compere a show outside Wonderlust. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

Gay people here are mostly discreet. Either that or they leave the state. So Wonderlust has become the one public place where they feel safe to be themselves. Theres a lot of hate in the world, says Jodi Sullivan, a trans woman and a Wonderlust regular. Its either come here or sit at home.

Its the Bible belt. Everybody isnt as accepting of us as other places, says Drew Gully-Luckett, who, along with his husband John-Corey, is in the process of taking over the bar.

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Even going out for dinner together in Jackson can have its issues. If we sit on the same side of the booth, people will look at us funny, says Gully-Luckett. We dont hold hands.

A few years ago, protesters picketed the bar. It wasnt a large group, he says, casually. Just 10 to 12 men outside in jacked-up trucks, one with a Confederate flag, yelling Bible verses and telling us we are going to hell, and if we talk to them well be forgiven.

I tell him that sounds terrifying. He shrugs: If you just ignore them, theres nothing they can do.

There are no protests tonight, but as we walk in, a man approaches us asking that we not take his picture or identify him. A prominent sign on the door says the Guardian is filming and interviewing people. Hes a government worker in his 30s. They dont know Im out, he says.

Jodi:
Jodi: Theres a lot of hate in the world. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

Inside, everyone is out at least for a good time. Wonderlust is a riot of inclusivity. The crowd is young, old, black, white, Hispanic, trans, straight, gay, lesbian, undecided. The music is pumping, theres a drag show, dancing, laughing, more drinking, pool tables. By 11pm on Saturday, there isnt a space left on the car park.

If theres a better time to be had for a hundred miles, good luck finding it.

But theres also a layer of sadness draped over this southern charm. Mississippi is stuck in the past. Many of the patrons said they would move if not for financial or family ties.

Being black and gay in the south its rough, says Michael Johnson, a regular who drives close to an hour to come to Wonderlust. And yet hes hopeful about the future. The south has come a long way, he says. I see a change. Its slow, but its a change, he says. But its hard.

He continues: When I first discovered Wonderlust, it was like a burden was lifted off. It gave me a place to come where I could really let go and be myself. It was a place where I felt comfortable enough to be myself and in this damn time you need that.

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A drag queen performs on stage. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

The LGBTQ community has achieved major victories in recent years, but Curt Sullivan-Ellis, a tall, handsome bearded man in a checked shirt who is also the drag queen London DuMore, says life has got worse under Trump.Legislators in Mississippi have felt empowered to chip away at hard-won rights, he says, and that message has not been lost on the haters.

I feel sometimes I could be attacked, he says. I see a lot more hatred. Especially on Facebook. These feelings, theyve had them forever but now they can come out and talk about it.

Not here, he says: Wonderlust gives us a place to be without fear or judgment.

The institution: the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas

Back in 1986, when Gary Miller and Alan Pierce first started working at the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas, same-sex couples were not allowed to dance together.

If the police came in, everybody would stop dancing and hang out until they left, Miller remembers. People were afraid to park their cars close to the bar; cops would take peoples license plate numbers and turn them in to their employers which, back in the early days, would mean an automatic termination.

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Gary Miller and Alan Pierce, who opened the Dallas Round-Up saloon. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

How things have changed. At least at Round-Up.

Today, the club holds dance classes almost nightly. People from across the state and the world come to watch cowboys do the Texas two-step. Cowboys can be gay too, says Miller, with a twinkle in his eye.

So strong is the pull of the bar that Lady Gaga visits pretty much every time shes in town. (We have a madhouse that night, says Miller.) Willie Nelson pops in from time to time.

And if youre not fazed by celebrity sightings, the huge country-themed bar has something for everyone. Handsome Stetsoned bar staff sling tequila and beer to a mixed crowd of all ages, ethnicities and orientations to a soundtrack of country and dance music. Patrons pop in to watch Ru Pauls Drag Race, stay for karaoke, country dancing, a drag show. Big businesses come by the busload to sell Dallas as an inclusive place for their workers. There was a battle to be fought and we won, says Miller.

At Round-Up, maybe, but for queer people, Texas is still not easy.

Small-town Texas there are two religions: football and Jesus. And if you dont agree with either of those, you are going to hell, says the drag queen Sable Scities as she beats her face before the nights performance. Scities grew up in rural Texas and says for many outside of the big cities little has changed.

I snuck up here when I was 17 and snuck into the clubs because this is where you feel accepted. Youre not going to find that at home a lot of times. Maybe Christmas and your birthday.

Texas is still a difficult state for LGBTQ people. Trans women of colour are being murdered, even in Dallas. Gay couples are still being kicked out of bars for dancing together.

Coming out here is never going to be an easy road, says Pierce, Round-Ups co-owner and Millers partner. Theres progress, but theres always that hatred. The bars owners organize charity events and back initiatives aimed at tackling the alarming rates of suicide and addiction in the community.

Outside the Round-Up and its surrounding gayborhood, Texas conservatives are still fighting the good fight, trying to pass a religious freedom bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ. Little wonder, then, that gay people travel from across the state to spin their spurs at the saloon.

After 33 years at the bar, Pierce and Miller are thinking of hanging up their hats. They have their eye on a place in Mexico. Millers son, who is straight, will take over. But it will always be a gay bar, he says. He knows not to mess with a good thing.

The resistance: The Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana

Smoove Gardner and Nicci Boroski wont forget the night of 8 November 2016 in a hurry.

The owners of The Back Door, Bloomington, Indianas radical queer bar, had organized a huge party for what they thought was going to be the election of the first female president of the United States. There were beanbags on the floor and hundreds of people sat around, sometimes going outside to smoke and relieve tension.

Nicci
Nicci B and Smoove: Live joyously but dont get complacent. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

And then, as things started to go south, people started to get very drunk and very sad, says Boroski, who identifies as gender queer and uses the they pronoun. It was just piles of people cuddling and weeping together by the end of the night.

Trumps election was an especially bitter blow because it ushered in Mike Pence, Indianas former governor, as the vice-president. Pence, who once said it was Gods idea to stop same-sex couples marrying, has a long history of working against pro-LGBTQ reforms. (Trump once joked Pence would like to hang gay people.)

And so the fight was on. The election helped radicalize the queer community. It matters now. You being active and paying attention. It matters, says Gardner.

Established in 2016 as a politically minded queer venue, The Back Door is tucked down an alleyway behind a car park. A Golden Girls mural adorns its exterior. Inside, the venue is a cosy, crazy den-like space, with wallscovered in zebra stripes and campy unicorn paintings. The gender neutral bathrooms the walls read: NO MERCY FOR THE PATRIARCHY, BE A SLUT, DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, BURN THE ICE VANS PLEASE

The Back Door could come across as a little serious if it werent for the owners determination to have fun. I feel like this space is part community center, part entertainment center because there is so much crap happening right now that sometimes you just need to come dance and forget about it, says Gardner.

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Outside the The Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/The Guardian

Living joyously is a radical act in a broken world, especially in an unjust world. For people to come here and be their most fabulous selves and let go is an act of resistance, says Boroski.

On the night we visit, the bar is having a benefit for sex workers. A zaftig tattooed woman who bills herself as Virgin Mary poledances to Hoziers Work Song in a jacket that reads: Make Nazis Scared Again as a queer crowd collects cash for National Abortion Fund and Red Light Legal. Its all very woke David Lynch.

The Back Door is not a space for everyone, and thats the point. One patron complained online that they didnt feel safe in the bar and worried there might be a riot or a massacre, laughs Boroski.

We dont want everybody here, they say. There are plenty of venues for heterosexuals. And if someone doesnt like the vibe? Im like, fantastic! See you never! Tell Google!

As for the future of LGBTQ rights, huge issues remain, Boroski says. Gay people and especially white gay men have made great strides since Stonewall, but even in the gay community, transphobia and racism are still issues.

Its a bitter irony that 50 years after Stonewall, while Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera two trans women of colour and two of the main actors in the Stonewall riots are being celebrated, trans people are still being thrown under the bus, and trans people of colour are being killed left and right and nobody gives a shit, says Boroski. And thats a fucking problem.

If Indiana cracked down on the queers, The Back Door is exactly the sort of place where a riot could start, says Gardner.

In remembrance of Stonewall, keep a brick in your pocket, says Boroski. Dont get complacent. But also live joyously, because that is a radical act.

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