Since I live in a city with a large gay population, a gay-friendly mayor, and two neighborhoods heavily populated by my fellow 'mos, it's sometimes easy to forget that not every gay person has it so easy. Granted, my boyfriend and I know not to hold hands in certain neighborhoods, and there's always going to be some bigoted asshole who has a problem just to have a problem, but Chicago has its advantages. There are plenty of stylish gay bars, gay publications and even Hamburger Mary's, a national gay burger chain (the waiters are actually ponies and the burgers are made out of glitter and Cher's old noses).
It's not like I live in, oh, say, Mississippi. When you open a gay bar there, it's right down the block from a Confederate-flag-decorated straight bar where the patrons say things like, "If [the queers] fuck with me, I'm-a bust their heads wide open." Obviously, he's never tasted a queer burger. Chicago 1, drunk redneck 0.
Luckily, that guy doesn't get too much air time in Small Town Gay Bar, a new documentary out on DVD August 7. The film, a grand jury prize nominee at the 2005 Sundance film festival, documents the struggles to open and maintain a gay bar in rural areas of the "Bible Belt." Faced with prejudice that sometimes leads to violence, the owners and patrons of these establishments risk social alienation and physical harm just to toss back a few Bud Lights.
The film starts by interviewing many of the customers, who endlessly reiterate how much they need Rumors, the local gay bar – how it creates a sense of community, how it's the only place they feel safe and comfortable (once actually inside), how they'd have to travel up to two hours away to the second-closest gay bar without it. It then jumps, somewhat jarringly, to the tale of Scotty Weaver, a local boy who dressed in drag. He was tied up, strangled, mutilated, partially decapitated, then dragged to the woods and set on fire. The filmmakers tie this to the danger rural gay men and women face by being themselves. Anyone who follows the news knows that many gays are the victims of hate crimes all over the country, even in such gay-friendly cities as Chicago. But the film reminds us that the large scale of cities offers an element of anonymity, whereas everyone knows who you are in a small town. Sure, the local gay men and women could flock to a larger, more accepting city, but whether for personal or financial reasons, they choose to stay and live in the place they call home.
In the film, we meet Rick, the owner of Rumors, who isn't even out to his parents ("I know they love me and accept me, but if I told them that I don't think they could accept that"). There's Rumors' "show director," the fantastically glamorous, sharp-tongued drag queen Jim Bishop, aka Alicia Stone ("Let us be the grown adult taxpayers that we are and make our own decisions"). There's also Lori and Ruby, the lesbian couple that buys the abandoned, dilapidated gay bar Crossroads and puts all their time and money into opening it up as a new gay bar, Different Seasons.
We also get a long, in-depth interview with the Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church that picketed Weaver's funeral (I'd compare his balding, pockmarked, squinty looks to Mr. Burns, but I would never, ever insult Mr. Burns like that). Phelps blames homosexuality on parents who don't teach their children about God 'n stuff and actually says, "I'm the only one telling [homosexuals] the truth, for God's sake. I'm the only one that loves them." Of course, that would be a lot more believable if he could actually supress his smirk when he says that all gays are going to hell.
We also get to meet Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, located in nearby Tupelo, Mississippi. Wildmon describes his association's acceptance that other people are allowed to "exist" (gee, how big of them) while others explain how AFA members would read on the radio the license plate numbers of cars parked at gay bars the previous night. So, you can exist, just don't be different and drink beer at the same time.
The film gets a little repetitive. Not to take away from anyone's problems, but there's only so many times in a 76-minute documentary you need to be told that being gay in a small town is really, really hard. Maybe it's because I'm part of the choir, but there's only so much preaching necessary to make your point — and isn't this documentary probably going to be viewed only by the choir anyway? Also, after a moving, silent montage of proud gay men and women who promise to keep attending their local gay bar despite local prejudices, director Malcom Ingram strangely decides to end his film with one more offensive spit of verbal bile from Fred Phelps. Not exactly the note on which you'd expect him to end his tribute to tough, perseverant gay men and women. (To make up for that, if you get the DVD, definitely watch the hilarious extra with executive producer Kevin Smith, director of Clerks and friend of the gays.)
Still, with the national debate still focused on gay marriage, it's easy to overlook the small, daily battles that gay men and women go through just to peacefully live their lives. These aren't activists marching in parades or providing commentary on national news shows. They're the local veterinarians and DJs and post office workers trying to escape from the daily grind like we all do. When you see all the effort they have to go through just to drink beer, laugh with some friends, and maybe dance to something other than Hank Williams, Jr., you have to stop and think. The AFA and others accuse them of trying to push a homosexual agenda or revolutionize mainstream culture. In some parts of our smorgasbord country, grabbing a beer bottle – next to a rainbow American flag – truly becomes something radical.Powered by Sidelines