Small Town Gay Bar

Small Town Gay BarI’m not sure how intentional it was, but I applaud Logo for airing the documentary, Small Town Gay Bar, immediately before the HRC/Logo Visible Vote 08 Forum. Going into this discussion of the realities of LGBT American life, it was a good reminder of the reality of who LGBT Americans are.

The Forum showed us Joe Solomnese, Melissa Etheridge, and a studio full of A-List gays, not a huge leap from the common picture of LGBT America in the public imagination: wealthy, fashionable, educated gays sipping cocktails in tastefully decorated urban lofts before heading out to a Broadway musical.

Malcolm Ingram’s Small Town Gay Bar reminds America that there are LGBT people in every town and county in this country. We’re not just in New York and San Francisco, but everywhere from Maine to Alabama to Idaho. We live in rural parts of blue states and the suburbs in red states.

Ingram shows us the reality of gay life for many LGBT Americans that is nothing like what you see on programs like The L Word, Queer as Folk, or Will & Grace by taking his camera into rural communities in Mississippi. He smashes stereotypes of both the rural south and of LGBT people by reminding us that sometimes Bubba is a bear, and the old man living in the trailor was someone’s mother.

The focus of the film is on the role of the small town gay bar as the heart of the gay community in places like Mississippi. He interviews person after person about the role these bars play in their lives. The bars are a safe haven in an often hostile environment, where they could freely express themselves and their love when elsewhere simply holding hands with a loved one could put them in danger, and where they are not alone.

It’s not completely safe. They tell of “Christian” protesters recording license plate numbers of cars parked there and reading them on the radio. They talk about the threats they face on a regular basis. We hear stories of horrific violence. But inside the bar, they are surrounded by family.

I’ve been to bars similar to the ones showed. Some of them might be seedy and rundown, but Ingram captures one of the best things about these bars: the internal divisions that often split our community are practically nonexistent. When there’s only one bar in a hundred mile radius, everyone must come together – twinks and bears, drag queens and butch dykes, black and white, young and old – all sharing a common sense of community and family.

When one of these bars closes, as the film shows, it’s like ripping the community’s heart out. Instead of a community, they become unattached individuals, going on with life, drifting alone, sometimes driving 200 miles to go to a bar. There’s a hole at the center with nothing to hold everyone together.

The film ends with a powerful montage, a series of portraits of people standing outside a newly reopened bar. In each frame, the bar is in the background on the right, light and music pumping the lifeblood back into the community. On the left there is a flag, and the various members of the community take turns posing in front of the flag, making direct eye contact with the camera. One after the other, we see their diversity, their dignity, and their beauty.

I hope as they sat in the green room waiting for the Forum to start, the candidates saw this ending on a monitor somewhere. I hope they were reminded that the people in this film are as much a part of the gay community as those present in the studio. I hope those faces, looking into their own, reminded them that we fight for equality not just so wealthy gay couples can have fancy weddings, but so the people in this film – people with little money, no job security, and constant threat – can have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The film is now available on DVD and will probably also be rebroadcast on Logo. I highly recommend it.



  1. Martin Lanigan said,

    August 16, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Well said Gina. You’ve peaked my curiousity about the film and now I will be looking for it.

    While in no way an “A-List” fag, I am definitely fortunate. I married a terrific man, work in a large company where I am out to all of my colleagues, am surrounded by supportive friends, and no one in my urban neighbourhood cares one way or the other that we are gay.

    Life is not perfect – I am still estranged from many family members because of religious intolerance, and growing up in a rural town was utter hell. Being the “village fag” was no easy row to hoe.

    But the world has changed for the better here. It is so easy to forget about all of those before me who struggled to transform society. It is so easy to forget that being an emanicpated homo is the exception rather than the rule in too many places. Until all LGBT people are free, none of us will be truly free. I long for the day when we will all be free at last.

    Your post reminds me that there is still much to do. Thank you.

  2. Gina said,

    August 16, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Martin, that was beautiful. I’m glad you added it to my post. I think you’ll find the film very moving. I hope you’ll post your thoughts after you watch it.

  3. Martin Lanigan said,

    August 23, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    I managed to get my hands on a DVD of the film. I was struck by what I can only describe as the personal bravery of so many of those folks. At times, I actually thought they were crazy to persist in the midst of so much animosity. “Get the hell out and move to civilizaton” I kept thinking.

    But then the face and words of a sister to one of the drag queens came to mind. She loved her brother and was so accepting of him. She identified with his struggle. In some odd way, his bravery actually seemed to enoble her. Contrary to the common stereotypes, even the bible belt is not monolithic. But damn, it is a conflicted place.

    I am not sure I would ever choose to live there. I suspect that many queers and free thinkers in Mississipi have done the math and moved on. Whether the bible thumpers know it or not, Mississipi is the poorer for having chased off so many of its children. Poorer in spirit, poorer in energy, and poorer in economy.

  4. Gina said,

    September 8, 2007 at 9:02 am

    I’m torn with the same questions, Martin. I understand those who do leave, but I also understand why some stay.

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