Small Town Gay Bar

The LGBTQ community is a tough group of folks and it’s really no wonder considering all of the challenges that many of us face just to be who we are. Many of us are disowned by our family or face persecution for merely being true to ourselves. I didn’t come out of the closet until I had left the “danger zone” of small town, Mississippi where I grew up. There were several years there that I became a very good chameleon, able to adapt to whatever the situation called for. I saw it as a world of survival where it was be the prey or be the wolf. I chose the latter and my walls were up around me like fortresses, protecting the truth, protecting myself.

It was after after college when I first went to a gay bar. I was 19 years old and had just moved to the mountains of Chattanooga, TN. There was a dark, shady bar called “The Toolbox” in a very questionable area of town. The patrons in the dark corners of the smokey bar were able to hide in the shadows, laughing and watching the drag shows. It was a small oasis of tolerance and kinship that most of us didn’t have in our daily lives.

I was reminded of the Toolbox and so many other small town bars that I frequented over the years when I recently watched the documentary Small Town Gay Bar. The focus of the film chronicles two small town Mississippi gay bars- Rumors in Shannon and Different Seasons (Formerly Crossroads) outside of Meridian.

Watching the film was a mixture of emotions and memories and a stinging disconnect to periods in my life that now seem so foreign. I was humbled to be reminded of where I came from and everything that I had to overcome to get where I am now. Some people who reviewed the film felt that it was painful and demeaning to watch and well, yes, it was but I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase that “the truth hurts.”

I doubt that there are very many people in the gay community that have never had derogatory statements yelled at them at some point in their life. I know I have, more than once. I’ve feared for the safety of myself and my friends when visiting small town bars very similar to those in the film. And although it seems like lifetimes ago, I vividly recall the horror that I felt when hearing that a friend had her face bashed in when leaving a bar in Chattanooga. Even worse, when one of my favorite drag queens from the Toolbox was robbed of her life. I was on my way to work one morning when I heard on the radio that someone broke into her home and stabbed her 27 times. I was forced to pull over to the side of the road and cry.

It’s uncomfortable for me, even seven years later, to write that. And it was, at times, uncomfortable for me to watch this film… but documentaries aren’t about making you feel comfortable. They are made to reveal truths and as painful as it may be, Small Town Gay Bar accurately captures the challenges and bigotry that so many youth in small town USA face on a daily basis. “It’s hard but we survive”, says one of the cast members.

It’s our natural instinct to survive and that’s much of the reason that I felt like I had no choice but to leave small town Mississippi. I set out on my own journey to figure out all of the internal conflicts that I carried around regarding my sexuality and being raised in the bible belt. I would have never thought, once I did come out, that not a single friend abandoned me but that I would lose the love and support of my only brother for over a decade. I recently realized how important it is to share our struggles and to remind those in the small corners of the world that they are not alone. This, after all, is how we survive.