EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A handful of Evansville drag performers — in bright makeup and wild, sexy dresses — walked quietly onto the Scandals Night Club stage Wednesday.
They bowed their heads while people in the audience began to cry.
It wasn’t the normal lively start to a night of dance and celebration. It was a moment of mourning. The mass shooting at a gay night club in Orlando has left many in Evansville’s LGBT community feeling deeply shaken — fearful in a place they’ve never felt afraid.
Clubs like this are a sanctuary for the LGBT community. A place where all feel safe and welcome.
“Outside of here, we don’t ever get to feel totally accepted,” said Josh Payne, a drag performer at Scandals. “We don’t get that normality. But you walk in the door here, and they all get it.”
Payne stood with other performers outside Scandals. He looked quietly at the building for a moment.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “It’s kind of like — at last, I’m home.”
Scandals, located near the intersection of U.S. 41 and the Lloyd Expressway, hosted a special drag show to raise money for victims of the Orlando shooting Wednesday. Scandals’ owner, Michael Stocker, was worried that people would be too afraid to come after the Orlando incident.
But by midnight, the club was packed.
“This is what a gay bar is,” Stocker said, over the sound of music and laughter. “We’re a family, and we all come together to support each other. Always.”
It’s a tradition in the Evansville LGBT community built over decades.
Though often less high profile than the Orlando shooting, violence is nothing new to this group.
Until the mid-1970s, it was illegal in Indiana to gather in a bar or club that catered to homosexuals. Same-sex sexual activity in general was also illegal.
A few local places quietly catered to the gay community and at the risk of being arrested, gay people gathered for shows and dances.
Evansville’s first openly gay bar, the Swinging Door on Evansville’s West Side, opened in summer 1978.
Finally, the LGBT people had a place that was there’s.
“It was the happening place to be,” said Kelley Coures, an openly gay City of Evansville official. “It was the disco era. My friends and I weren’t 21 yet, so we’d just sit outside and listen to the music.”
Gathering openly may have felt liberating, but it was also dangerous. Bricks regularly flew through the bar’s windows and cars were damaged in the parking lot.
A group of young men in pickup trucks began stalking the bar at night. When they found people alone, they attacked and beat them with baseball bats, Coures said.
But despite the violence, gay bars in Evansville grew steadily more popular. There weren’t any other places where the gay community could gather.
“There were periods of time when there wasn’t a bar,” said Jan Barrell, an Evansville man who came out as gay as a teenager in the 1970s. “We just spent time together on the streets then.”
Without the protection of a building, such gatherings were risky.
Barrell remembers one evening he was with a few friends near the old post office in Downtown Evansville when a group of young men carrying baseball bats swarmed his car.
“I guess the day before they had driven down there and were yelling taunts,” Barrell said. Someone in a car that looked like Barrell’s almost hit one of the men.
They had returned for payback.
The men had Barrell on the ground, kicking and beating him. Barrell’s friend pulled up at that moment and pushed his back car door open. Barrell threw himself in the car and they sped away.
With such ever-present threats, Evansville’s gay community never went long without a bar. And the bars themselves took on great significance.
“They were almost like community centers,” said Wally Payner, president of the Tri-State Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the local LGBT community.
To others, they represent something even stronger.
“The bars were family,” Barrell said. “I don’t like using the word ‘safe haven.’ But that’s what it was.”
And to many, it still is.
Bar staff and patrons alike go out of their way to welcome new people to Evansville’s gay bars, whether its Someplace Else, Evansville’s longest operating gay bar, or Scandals, Evansville’s newest gay nightclub.
“This is one of the only places where you can walk in and know everyone is going to accept you,” said Tiffany Farley, a regular at Scandals. “I don’t ever want someone to not feel accepted, so I’m going to make you feel welcome here. We all feel that way.”
Though many said they were nervous after the Orlando shooting to gather at Scandals, they also felt compelled to come. It is a sanctuary, after all.
So Wednesday night, the performers and audience bowed their heads and wept as a voice on the club’s loudspeakers spoke the names of the 49 people killed in the shooting.
The drag queens and kings then quietly exited the stage, and the show began.
It was tense at first, a sudden shift from sorrow to celebration.
But before long, the audience was laughing, cheering, and singing along as the performers circled the room collecting cash to send to Florida.
“What happened in Orlando could happen anywhere,” Josh Payne said as he stood with the other performers outside Scandals.
Source: Evansville Courier & Press, http://bit.ly/28JOfw2
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com