It is still hard to be a gay man in the Bible Belt.
That thought has crossed my mind, more and more in the last few days. Aside from my time at college in Savannah, and a year spent in Atlanta, I’ve lived in a small Georgia town. The area is very rural. Pastures, barns, and cemeteries dominate the landscape. On any given day, I pass by people on the highway, driving around in their yacht sized pickup trucks, with Confederate flags proudly flapping from their tailgate… as if they–the good ol’ boys– mean to say, “Hey, the South won after all! As our Predator and Chief loftily proclaims, make America (white) again!”
Recently, one of my mom’s coworkers informed me of an art contest. The coworker meant well. As an artist in a sports minded land, I don’t exactly see a lot of opportunities for creative endeavors within the local community. Apparently, one of the government buildings in Hall County needed new artwork for a grey, blank hallway. The theme for the artwork: Hall has it all!
My first thought: Well, that’s not exactly true. Hall County doesn’t have it all. It depends on who you are.
Gainesville is the nearest bustling metropolis to me. There are megachurches on every other street, a plethora of funeral homes, and multi-million dollar training facilities for the Atlanta Falcons. Oh, and the lake. Do not forget precious Lake Lanier. Ever.
Does that really constitute having it all?
One of the local community colleges, University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville State)–in 2003, when I came through, it had only just started allowing nude life drawing workshops. And even when those workshops were allowed, our professor still had to say, “Please don’t carry on about this too much. We had to fight tooth and nail to get this. This is a privilege.”
For the longest time, the art professors and the music instructors had to share one small, cramped building. Yet in Dacula, at a sports field only a few miles away, there was new, shiny turf put down for a football/soccer field. The fake grass cost well over a million dollars. Fake. Grass. Over one million dollars.
Forget about somewhere to go and meet other gay men. Over the last four decades, there was one club in Gaines-Vegas that tried to have a gay night every so often. It lasted a few weeks at most. The club itself… not much longer than that. In the historic district of Gainesville, there was a straight bar. The Monkey Barrel. “Stay on the sidewalk!” a policeman would shout if a patron dared to exit the bar and step outside of the building’s entrance. “You’ve been drinking, I need you to stay on the sidewalk! Don’t step off the sidewalk! I don’t want any trouble!”
How romantic that experience was. It too has since closed down. Most recently, the grand city of Lula, also in Hall County, held a town hall meeting to debate over whether or not to allow sales of alcohol. Yes. That is where we’re at, dear reader. Unfortunately. Straight out of Footloose.
Essentially the only option, over the span of all the years that I’ve resided here, is to endure a long drive to Atlanta or Athens. The latter of which is not really much of an option anymore. The lone gay bar in Athens, Boneshakers, closed down many moons ago. So, Atlanta it must be, which is always a risk. Like Athens, it’s at least an hour drive from the Gainesville area. Drinking a thimble full of alcohol garners the risk of fulfilling a DUI quota. This isn’t Brooklyn, with taxis zooming by every few seconds that can bring you safely home. For gay residents of Hall County, just to go out and possibly meet someone involves a two hour round trip, with the return trip usually transpiring at three or four AM.
I want to say that the search for a significant other is almost hopeless. Even if lightning strikes, and two gay men happen to encounter one another here, what are the chances that the two will be compatible?
Within the last few weeks, I encountered someone again that I met very briefly many years ago when he and I were both teenagers. Back then, to say that he was closeted would be an understatement. I approached him twice–just to be friendly and to attempt a conversation with him, as we saw each other almost every other day and I didn’t know many other gay men. He never spoke to me and wanted nothing to do with me. That I even approached him scared him out of his wits. After high school, I never saw him again… until a couple of weeks ago. The world hadn’t been kind to him. Mental illness and alcoholism had taken their toll. Now in our mid-thirties, I felt so badly for him and couldn’t help but wonder: even though much of his troubles came from within, how much did our environment play in his fall? Would things have turned out better for him if during our high school years, there had been some sort of place or support group in Hall County that welcomed gay youth? What if he hadn’t grown up in the heart of the Bible Belt; what if, what if, what if?
I’ve seen good ol’ boys move ahead–supported by the church network, while others are passed by; others that have apparently committed the unforgivable sin of loving another of the same gender or believing in something other than Christianity (such as logic and reason). It is exemplary of such a great sadness. So many here are brought up to hate what they don’t understand. To hate what is different. And to prop it up with some twisted version of organized religion.
So, no, in summation, Hall doesn’t have it all. I’m absolutely sure of that. Needless to say, I chose not to participate in the “Hall has it all” art search. Maybe a little morbidly, part of me wanted to send a found piece in… a photo of a friend of mine, who had his face beaten to a pulp by one of the aforementioned good ol’ boys who no doubt believed in doing the work of the Good Lord. But then that would’ve gone against the artwork submission guidelines of “no provocative or offensive material.”
If only I could leave. If only I could walk the streets of New York again, as I did when my uncle lived in Brooklyn, and go into one of the many bars or clubs to meet someone; not as an outsider, but as someone who belonged.
In closing, a small amount of solace came when I recently found out that Hall County’s University of North Georgia now has a gay student group. I wish it had existed during my tenure, but at least current students now have that. Still, I can’t help but think… what’s next? In this area, what support exists for those who are no longer students? Why can’t funds be put aside… just a small amount (considering the millions of dollars that are spent on sports and fake grass) for Hall County’s gay community? It could do so much good for so many. Maybe then, I might be able to get onboard with “Hall has it all.”
A journal entry that I recently found in one of my old sketchbooks, dated October 15th, 2007 (transcribed here with minor edits): Second night at Excelsior Bar. I love my grandmother, but it is hard to travel with her. We're probably going to the Monster on Wednesday. Wish I lived here in Brooklyn. Loving the music that they're playing. David Bowie. A song called "Jump." Went to Times Square earlier with my mom. Looked around in Macy's. Didn't think much of it. Going to see Die Mommie Die tomorrow. I want to stop by Ty's before we leave.
Wish Uncle Jimmie was here. Light crowd. Need to do more writing. How is Jimmie feeling about John? Ready for Halloween. I'd like to see the Halloween Parade here on Christopher Street. Should I do the book club with Bill? Hopefully Daniel can see Rupaul.
The guy sitting next to me–is he talking to himself? No. Okay. He seems nice. Yeah, actually he is talking to himself. I'm liking these bourbons! Feeling fuzzy. No pain.
I hope Cowboy Jim and Mike can come along to the restaurant on Wednesday. Like them both... but I see how Mike can get on your nerves.
Songs that just played:
Hole– "Celebrity Skin" New Order– "Bizarre Love Triangle"
No Doubt– "Ex-Girlfiend"
Melissa Etheridge– "Come to My Window"
New Order– "Temptation"
There was a moment, when I was talking to AJ in the bar. I forgot about having to go home to Georgia. I just love being here in Brooklyn. Liked that guy. Now I'm sitting alone on a church stoop across from Key Foods. Sigh! Woe is me.