In many ways Small Town Gay Bar is a throwback to the feminist filmmaking trends of the 80s and 90s. The filmmaker, Malcolm Ingram, is an openly gay man who has made several documentaries about the current landscape of being LGBTQ-identified in America. The film is primarily an ethnographic study of rural America, particularly the south, and the struggles of being a queer person in a more traditional environment than an urban center. The film, or should I say video, is comprised mostly of talking head interviews with citizens on both sides of the debate, the patrons of Rumors, Crossroads, and Different Seasons, and right wing conservatives (including Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps). Malcolm remains a subtle but consistent presence through out the film and there is an ever present feeling of camaraderie and cooperation between his subjects (at least the left-wingers). One part history-making, one part identity politics, and one part ethnographic study of gay culture, Small Town Gay Bar has one foot in the past and one foot in a prominent social issues of our generation.
Up to this point in LGBT filmmaking/study we have focused on cities, New York, San Francisco, etc., or the home, the private, safe, world that many queer people in our country still feel restricted too. Even many ‚out of the closet‚? people speak of putting up their guard when they leave the confines of the home. So, while there has been a cultural revolution beginning in the anonymity of dense population centers, the rural areas of our country remain an identity battleground for those who choose not to chased from their roots. Mary L. Gray suggests this in her essay ‚From Websites to Wal-Mart: Small Town, USA:‚?
‚[There] is the pervasive assumption that rural environments are, by definition, hostile to queer desires and genders and, therefore, rural LGBTQ-identifying youth (at least the self-respecting ones?) must live in quite invisibility or have already left the small towns for the BIG CITY.‚? (289)
For this reason rural communities represent one of two major sites for identity politics in our country today, the other being the online community . There are a few reasons why the rural towns of America have not developed at the same rate as cities. As Gray pointed out many youths have left for the big city, there are simply smaller queer communities in smaller towns. Secondly, as an AFA spokesman says later in Small Town Gay Bar there is no anonymity in a small town. But another large issue is the difficulty to establish open, friendly places, as Gray says:
‚Most critically, rural queer youth do not have access to the material or social capital to establish their own freestanding counterpublics of gay owned or occupied neighborhoods, bookstores, gyms, or bars.‚? (291)
This is the key step forward that we see take place in the video. Malcolm highlights two such ‚counterpublics‚? in an effort to show the viability of these establishments and, in a form of camcorder activism, encourage future gay bar, gym, or bookstore owners to create something similar in their communities.
In her essay Gray gives these kinds of bastions of the queer community a name, ‚Boundary Publics.‚? On the topic she said:
‚Rather than thinking of boundary publics as tangible buildings, specific streets, or solitary websites, I suggest that we imagine boundary publics as strategies for space making and constitutive processes for the queering of identity.‚? (292)
While Rumors is a tangible building, to view it as such would be to deny the power such an establishment can have in a rural community. In a segment towards the end of the film Malcolm collects various answers to the question, ‚What would happen if the bar closed?‚? There is a unanimous outcry that the community would dissolve, individual people would suffer without their weekend outlet, and, comically, that people would have to start making the hour and half drive to the City. Perhaps not as comical as the Rumor's patron intended it though, the flocking to big urban centers is one of the main causes of weakened rural LGBTQ communities.
The bar, and the others featured in the video, offer many services, drinks, music, dancing, drag shows, and just the right amount of debauchery. I would like to praise Malcolm here for not shying away from queer sexuality. Roland Gregg, in his essay ‚Queer Representation and Oregon's 1992 Anti-Gay Ballot Measure‚? take a stance against the white-washing of queer sexuality for the straight public. This generates an environment were gays and lesbians feel they must keep their sexuality in check. Small Town Gay Bar is not afraid to show the truth of sexuality, there is courage in this action and I believe it speaks to the current state of affairs in queer filmmaking.
I digress to the services offered by the bar; the most important, more so than any I mentioned above, is a sense of security. In the video many people talk about the lack of security they feel in public places, at work, even in the parking lot of Rumors walking from their car to the front food, but once inside their was a unanimous feeling of safety. This speaks both to the physical threat of gay-bashing and they social threat of being seen by a family member or co-worker with their partner, Rumors is truly their place. Gray speaks to this very topic:
‚The boundary public ... was made all the more imaginable by the presence of friends working at the Super Center seen as having the authority to step in if their consumer citizenship was challenged.‚? (294)
We see something very similar at all three bars in the film where the openly gay or lesbian owners reside over their establishment like kings and queens (or maybe just queens).
However, the sad truth is that these establishments do not erase the threat to queer people in rural communities. On that subject Gray says:
‚even though boundary publics mediate the availability of publics to rural queers and questioning youths, they do not circumvent or neutralize the very real possibility of violence faced for queerly standing out.‚? (295)
About halfway through the film the story of Scotty Joe Weaver acts as a somber reminder of how far we have not come. Scotty, an eighteen year old gay kid from a small town, was beaten, stabbed, and ditched in a river. The perpetrators, three of his peers, were motivated by their homophobia. Scotty serves as a reminder that small towns remain hostel places towards queer-identified people to this day.
However, that is not to say that strides have not been made. Scotty was brave enough to be honest about himself and it is people like him that are helping to break apart the binary of visibility laid out by Gray, who cites Eve Sedgwick and others:
‚visibility operates as a binary: in order for someone to be visible, to 'come out,' there must always be a closet some place where others clamor or struggle to get out.‚? (290)
Historically the clamoring has always existed in the rural communities of our country. This is the biggest triumph of Small Town Gay Bar in my opinion; by demonstrating that the LGBT groups in small town America are standing up against the bigotry and slowly carving out their place they being to dissolve this binary. The feminist and queer struggles of the 70s, 80s, and 90s were aimed at breaking down binaries and this film shows us that the fight is still alive and well today, it has just moved back from the big city to the small town.