Featured image by Lucas Hilderbrand, 2017
In January 2017 I embarked on a three-month research road trip for this project, starting from Los Angeles and driving through Texas, New Orleans, dipping down to Florida, up through Atlanta and the mid-Atlantic coast, then looping back through the rust belt and across the plains, the Rockies, and the Southwest. I covered thousands of miles and visited gay bars and archives in dozens of cities.
My trip, scheduled to align with a sabbatical, also took me through a newly charged political map; I started driving the week that Trump was inaugurated, and most of my route took me through red states. In those places and in that moment, I not only found that queer people were indeed everywhere but also that we needed the sanctuary of gay bars more than ever.
Five days into the trip, I had the most sublime gay bar night of my journey at Mable Peabodys Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw in Denton, Texas, the only gay bar in Denton, home of both UNT and Texas Womens University. (The bar closed in September 2017 after thirty-eight years.) It was located in a 1960s-style strip mall, and a sign announced its name in large block letters; the front windows featured murals of Divine in Pink Flamingos and Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well as a smaller but more elaborate logo for the bar.
The joint had me before I even walked in the door. Inside to the right, a sign announced a room flanked with red fringe as the Rouge Parlour; to the left, a chainsaw hung over the pool table and near a pair of disco balls. Mid-century hospital signage identified the dance floor/stage area as Gynecology & Obstetrics. Both restrooms were gender neutral. It was quiet when I stopped in during my first night in town, but I noticed a flyer for an event called Glitterbomb two nights later and decided to check it out. That may have been the best decision of my life.
This was still Texas, after all. But seemingly the queer heart of it.
On Thursday the bar was much busier, and before the show it was difficult to distinguish performers from audience members. The clientele was gender mixed and gender fluid. A table near the entrance collected tampons and sanitary pads for the local food bank. One patron presentedin archaic termsas a bearded lady as they circulated with glowing Christmas lights draped around their neck and shoulders. The crowd cheered for a birthday girl when she arrived. It felt more like a community than any bar Id ever visited. The line for the barjust one bartender was workingwas long but single file and very orderly. I had arranged to meet up with a nice guy I had chatted with on the apps and his fun gal pal, and we settled at a back corner table to watch the show.
Glitterbomb unveiled itself to be a variety show featuring genderqueer burlesque and drag. The theme for each act in that weeks installment was junk food, and it was amazing. If I used Twitter, I would have live-tweeted it; instead, I posted a series of tipsy Facebook updates to document the proceedings. The boi emcee went by Milo Cox, and most of the performers appeared to present as female, although most also toyed with gender. The stage manager performed the opening number: a lesbian Oompa Loompa burlesque routine in which she stripped down to golden-ticket pasties.
Next, first-time audience members were ritually devirginized as at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and then baptized in glitter. To counteract the terror and depression of Trumps new presidency, the emcee made a practice of announcing good news between acts; these dispatches ranged from global progress (like a species making it off the endangered species list) to very local breakthroughs (Lucy finally got her ex off the lease; someone heard from his parents for the first time in twenty years; another person got a new job). The crowd was here to witness and support people getting through life.
Performers with such pop-culture double-entendre stage names as Justin Beaver and Strawberry Squirtcake took their turns on the stage, as did drag king Oliver Clothesoff, who offered an Oreo-themed act to Weird Al Yankovics The White Stuff. A genderqueer performer with a beard and amazing dance moves pulled Twinkies out of their underwear, crammed one whole in their maw, and then deep-kissed it into the mouth of someone standing in the front row. A femme dancer displayed her body strength and control, and a chaotic duo drizzled each other with Easy Cheese followed by bowls of queso.
A woman in Ronald McDonald draga long red wig and terrifying clown makeuppulled off her pants while eating French fries. Like the processed foods that inspired it, the show was delicious. I have seen my share of questionable queer performance art and after-midnight nightclub genderfuck drag acts on the coasts, but this show managed to feel cathartic yet be in on its own joke. Queerness has been famously difficult for theorists to pin down and define, but here it was in its fabulous, playful, transgressive, messy, and world-making essence.
After the last act, the emcee announced that the following weeks show would be themed for Galentines Dayreferencing the alternative holiday celebrating female friendships invented by the sitcom Parks and Recreationand said, Come see some Leslie Knope action you never thought youd see. As soon as the show was over, the audience spontaneously rushed the stage to line dance for two songs. Everyone seemed to know every gesture and step. This was still Texas, after all. But seemingly the queer heart of it.
From The Bars Are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After by Lucas Hilderbrand. Copyright 2023. Available from Duke University Press.