Fun fact, I went to school in Bloomington, Indiana. I chased a boy there, and we broke up about a semester in, so things did not quite go according to plan. For a while, I thought I was doomed. I was Chicago-born brown queer stuck in a corn town smack dab in the middle of a red state governed by, at the time, a one Mike Pence. How did I get myself into this mess of a state, and when was the soonest I could leave?
What I found, in the following years I spent living there, was a vibrant queer community — something of a countercultural safe haven in contrast to the otherwise conservative region. Samantha Allen’s gorgeous travel memoir, Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, documents her journey across the typically ignored areas of America’s Midwest and Bible Belt looking for queer stories. People are often quick to judge red states, just as I was. Allen’s work sets out to nuance your perspective, so let’s start with Bloomington, at a bar called the Back Door that triumphed despite its surroundings. —Fran Tirado, Deputy Editor
Excerpted from Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, available March 5.
The Back Door is easier to find today, thanks to a new mural painted in the alleyway, featuring Daffy Duck dressed in stewardess drag and pointing to the bar. It is also easier to locate in the overcast light of day than it was in the middle of a June 2013 night, when I came here for the first time, looking at my smartphone screen and wondering where the hell my navigation app was taking me.
Just after 3 p.m. — an hour before the Back Door officially opens — my friend Billy and I walk inside to meet Brick Kyle, a soft-spoken fine arts student who stayed in Bloomington after graduation to become the bar’s graphic designer, and Smoove G., a self-described “big dyke” with a crew cut and sporting a black T-shirt that says solid gold clit — written in gold lettering, of course. Brick mixes us a green coffee-and-ginger concoction to give us a mid-afternoon kick as Smoove picks out a table in the middle of the empty bar where we can sit and chat.
Smoove starts to explain her job title. “I am sort of the, I don’t know, I don’t like to call it daddy, but . . .”
Brick makes it official: “You’re the daddy of the bar, for sure.”
Twelve years ago, Smoove was working for a major bank in the Bay Area, doing what she describes as “trap[ping] people in endless cycles of debt.” Feeling as if she was selling her soul to the devil, Smoove ditched the corporate career, the six-figure salary, and the hour-long commute to come back home to Indiana. At the time, her friends in San Francisco thought she was “crazy,” warning her that she was “going to die here.” With George W. Bush in the White House, they figured, conservative parts of the country couldn’t possibly “get worse” for gay people—a laughable thought today, of course, as anti-LGBT bills sweep through red states.
Smoove reassured her friends, “I’m not going to die there, it’s fine — plus we can’t all live here. We need to spread the wealth a little bit in terms of this bubble.”
Bloomington definitely needs a Smoove more than the Bay Area needs a Smoove. Her fatherly duties include writing checks, taking care of the inventory, and managing other Back Door business. Together with co-owner Nicci B., she has shaped this place into something special: the rare bar where you can find queer people of every stripe dancing and drinking together. Go to New York City, with its taxonomic nightlife scene, and you can find a bar for each different variety of bear; here, everybody has to get along.
“From the beginning, I wanted it to be a queer bar,” Smoove explains. “I wanted to use that language because to me, it was just more inclusive. Historically, gay has been for, you know, [cisgender] white guys.”
Look a little deeper than the zebra-print walls and the unicorn paintings and you can see what she means by “queer bar.” In lieu of gendered signage on the two bathroom doors, one has a drawing of two toilets on the front and the other has a drawing of a toilet and a urinal. Through the door I pick is the most political restroom I have ever seen. Signs on the walls proclaim no mercy for the patriarchy and black lives matter. The back of the door has been stenciled repeatedly with the words Fight, Fight, Fight, Fight—and on the wall is a framed poster of Zoe Leonard’s famous poem beginning, “I want a dyke for president.”
But my favorite piece of décor is a blown-up photo of lesbian socialist intellectual Angela Davis with a speech bubble saying, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’”
Although socializing is the primary purpose of the Back Door, anyone who can’t do that respectfully will have Smoove to answer to.
“You don’t just get to leave,” Smoove elaborates. “You’re gonna get a little lecture about how this isn’t cool and if you want to come back in here, you better not ever do that again.”
Persistent bad apples, as Brick puts it flatly, “get banned.”
The Back Door is a perfect example of the red-state queer ethos that being politically active is a responsibility, not a choice.
“I don’t think being queer, you can be neutral or not political,” Smoove says. “I mean, you have to take a stand because we still don’t have full rights or protections.”
Few know that better than LGBT people in Indiana. In March 2015, then-Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, essentially opening the door for business owners to discriminate against LGBT people based on religious beliefs. That shameful law was immediately followed by widespread calls to boycott the state. The tech company Salesforce announced that it would end travel to Indiana. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List canceled a $40 million expansion project.
At the time, I wrote an op-ed asking Americans outside the state to consider the fact that queer people still live here before deciding to boycott Indiana in toto — because I hated the thought of businesses like the Back Door losing revenue because someone had canceled a conference to punish the regressive Indiana state legislature.
Fortunately, Governor Pence was forced to essentially neuter the law mere days later in one of the most decisive demonstrations of LGBT political power in recent history — although it seemed like much of the country forgot that episode when Pence got the vice-presidential nomination in 2016. Queer people in Indiana didn’t forget.
On election night, the watch party at the Back Door took on a funereal mood as the electoral map turned red — in part because the crowd’s longtime adversary Mike Pence would now be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
“There were a lot of tears,” Brick recalls.
“You see the look of shock and disbelief on people’s faces,” Smoove adds. “I’m like, ‘Even if we get rid of Cheeto, Pence is not that much better.’ And I guarantee you [that] he’s the one behind rolling back all the rights for everyone in our community.”
Smoove’s hunch is right. As the Daily Beast reported, citing sources in the White House, Pence had been “pushing hard” to kick transgender troops out of the military before Trump’s late-July 2017 tweetstorm on the subject. Anyone who saw Pence as just another bland Republican white guy was ignoring the extreme threat he posed to the LGBT community.
But as Brick soberly notes, life in Bloomington has moved on out of necessity. The news cycle will continue to be terrible. Trump will do something awful almost every day. Pence’s behind-the-scene machinations will continue. There is nothing to do but carry on. That doesn’t mean ignoring oppression, Brick explains — it means recognizing the limits of your reach.
“You can’t stop everything just because idiots are taking control of the country,” he says. “You just have to focus on community.”
This bar has been Brick’s passion since college. Originally from the small town of Seymour, Indiana, Brick started working here as a coat-check boy after transferring from the New Albany campus of Indiana University to Bloomington. Soon he started bartending; not long after that, he was recruited to do all the bar’s marketing — or, as Brick puts it, “I kind of just stuck around until I forced them to make me do everything.” Bloomington is where he came out as gay and “blossomed,” as Brick describes it with a small flourish, after enduring a religious childhood and the relative isolation of life in small-town Indiana. He doesn’t just pour drinks; he pours himself into the bar because he knows what this place means to the community here.
The passion pays off. I am not the only out-of-towner who cherishes the Back Door, who still thinks about it years after leaving. Smoove has had one woman tell her that “she hasn’t had this much fun since Studio 54,” the seventies celebrity hot spot widely regarded as the best nightclub in history. Folks visiting from the coasts are constantly surprised by the Back Door—many of them, Smoove notes, openly wishing that New York City had an LGBT bar this good.
Even the difficulty of finding it after dark adds to its charm. As Smoove explains, the back-alley entrance is a “nod to old-school queer bars where you had to know a password.
“You literally were going to back doors and basement doors,” she says.
And if you hang out here long enough, you might just brush shoulders with LGBT royalty.
Brick lights up when I ask him for his favorite memory here: “There was one time when I first started working here. I had on this eighties ski jacket and running shorts that were a little too tight, and weird hair, and probably like a ‘baby doll’ necklace. And I was smoking outside and Kyan [Douglas] from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was out there with me, and I was having a mental breakdown, a panic attack.”
Smoove, when asked the same question, tells me that RuPaul’s Drag Race legend Shangela once “ended up in my hot tub,” leaving the story at that.
“Indiana kind of sucks but Bloomington is great,” Brick sums up.
“I love this little town,” Smoove agrees. She can remember but a single bad experience here: “Only once walking down the street someone called me a ‘big dyke.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right! I am! Congratulations! Goodbye!’ I’m like, ‘Great, it’s working.’”
“The shirts help,” Brick chimes in.
“Are there more like this one?” I ask, still in awe of solid gold clit.
“Oh yeah,” Smoove says, with a grin. “I have a whole closet full of this shit.”
Excerpted from Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, available March 5.
Copyright © 2019 by Samantha Allen
Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.