5/05/2009

Small Town Gay Bar

Much to my surprise, out of the Netflix pile Michael chose "Small Town Gay Bar" as our dinner and a movie last night.
Deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, it is evident the fight for equal rights is far from over. Homosexuals in these areas lack social outlets, still face cruelty, ridicule and even violence. Despite being attacked on all sides by the Christian coalition, several spirited bar owners have created an oasis for gays to call home a Small Town Gay Bar. Executive Producer Kevin Smith presents an intimate portrait of these establishments and the patrons who inhabit them. Exploring the gratefulness the patrons feel for these various places we learn there is much more provided than a evening of entertainment. (film synopsis)
So, that's the synopsis of this documentary. Being from the south (South Carolina) I had expected to more or less identify with the people in the film. I couldn't have been more wrong. The bars in the film are in very small towns and cities in Mississippi, far from even the comfort of cities like Columbia, Greenville, Charleston or Charlotte in South and North Carolina.

The people who frequent these bars are for the most part closeted, or at least believe they are. Like so much in the deep south an effeminate man can be tolerated as long as it is never spoken aloud that he is gay and never dares to express his sexuality or affection for another man in any way publicly. In other words, Don't Ask Don't Tell, has been a cultural norm in the South since time immemorial.

So, these people gather at these tiny ramshackle bars where sometimes even the owner isn't out of the closet in order to meet other gays and have a few precious hours when they can be themselves. The bar is their only link to other gay people because they dare not associate outside the bar for fear of reprisal.

The film covers one young man who lived his life openly and how his brutal death sent shockwaves among the isolated gays living in northern Mississippi. Scotty Joe Weaver was murdered in 2004 for being gay. He was tied to a chair and beaten over a period of hours. He was stabbed repeatedly then partially decapitated. His body was then moved outside where it was doused in gasoline and burned. Obviously, I was struck by the pertinance of this story as we look at Federal hate crimes legislation and in light of Rep. Virginia Foxx's comments about Matthew Shepard's murder being a "hoax." After all Rep. Foxx is from an area of North Carolina much like this area of Mississippi where the Bible is used to justify hate and violence under the guise of "love."

During the film at times I was struck almost speechless by the feeling that these people lived in a different country almost. Even in my native South Carolina we were fairly progressive as a gay community. Yet, in these remote rural areas of Mississippi the gay community lives much as it did in the 40's or 50's elsewhere in the country. The patrons of the bars remain closeted and because they cannot live their lives openly they tend to seek release in excess.

One of the segments concerned a bar called "Crossroads." This club which was mainly a series of shacks tacked together served as a major outlet for the community of Meridien, MS. The owner of the club put on unusual and extravagant entertainments that were almost like a Redneck Caligula. Sex was rampant and he parked busses around the bar that he was turning into a "hotel" but seemed more geared toward quick hook-ups for the patrons - even underage ones. It was as though he had listened to the stereotypes spun by the religious right and, absent any other ideas of how to be "gay", adopted them as a lifestyle. It was heartbreaking.

The bar has now been purchased by a lesbian couple who live openly together and they have redone the bar as a cleaner and more decent place for the small community.

But, it still shocks the senses of those of us fortunate enough to grow up and live in other parts of the country, just how much these people must go through just to get together. In one case, the American Family Association, which was based in Mississippi originally, would send out members to write down the license plates of cars at the bar. Then the next day the names of the car owners would be read on the local radio with the information they had been at a gay bar. The implication was that they would be fired or labelled as pervets in the community. At one point they blocked a bridge leading to the bar and threatened patrons with violence. Police were, of course, complicit in these schemes.

It's hard to imagine, for those of us who have been out for years and live in places where our community and our allies would not tolerate such harrassment or where such tactics would be useless. However, in an area where the owner of the local gay bar remains closeted and one of the few openly gay men is brutally tortured and murdered as a sign to other gays, such intimidation could well have a chilling effect.

Small Town Gay Bar left me with a feeling of both extreme sadness and sympathy for these people, but also at times disbelief and anger that they seemed to accept this harassment as normal and simply a part of life. Listening to the interviews, many did not seem to grasp that they were part of a larger national gay community. Their isolation was so complete that they seemed to focus solely on weekends at the bar and hold no hope for ever being afforded even the most basic human rights and dignities.

If the portrayal of life in rural Mississippi in this film is even moderately accurate, those of us in parts of the country need to be aware of their plight and perhaps even organize to assist them in some way.

Regardless, the film certainly is worth a look and I urge you to check it out.

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