The Queer Oasis of Jackson, Mississippi's Lone Gay Bar
Photos by Glenn Garner
Any queer person who's lived in Jackson, Mississippi knows that safe spaces for queer folk are scarce. Ask them where their first gay bar was, and they'll likely give you a different answer each time. Queer spaces don't last long in a place like Jackson, and it seems that there's usually only room for one or two at a time.
In the '90s, it was a place called Jack & Jill's. That was followed by a place called Dick & Jane's, which is now a western style saloon. JC's managed to last a while before the owner took a much-deserved retirement, and the space now belongs to a hookah lounge.
These days, the local LGBTQ community finds a queer oasis in Wonderlust. Formerly another gay bar named Bottoms Up, it's undergone new ownership, but it attracts the same old crowd. With no community center and few resources available, it's a safe space for Jacksonians to come out, come of age, and just dance with friends.
Jesse Pandolfo has found a place to settle down in Jackson. Originally from Boston, she came out after moving to Mississippi. Now a wife and mother, she's made an unlikely home for herself and the rest of the local queer community, taking over as owner of the bar.
"The opportunity really just fell in my lap," she says. "At first, I was like, this is not my life dream. I never plotted it out this way. But I thought about it for a while and decided. Jackson didn't have anything like that at the time, something for the 18 to 35 or 40-year-old crowd. So, I just kind of took the opportunity and went with it, and hoped it would work."
Pandolfo admits she didn't do it alone. She credits the local queer community for seeing the potential and bringing to it what Jackson so desperately needed. In a city like this, it truly takes a village.
"Wonderlust was like a collaborative creation, not just for me, but my wife, my friends," she says. "And I had a little input and ideas when it was coming together of what they wanted and what they thought Jackson needed. So, we kind of worked on it together."
Having grown up in Boston, the queer community of Jackson was a bit of a culture shock for Pandolfo. But as she's come into her own as a queer woman and a member of the community, she's found it to be very tight-knit.
At risk of perpetuating a cliche, Wonderlust really is a place to come home to. The staff operates like a family, and they treat their customers just the same.
"We function like an Italian family," she says. "There's lots of yelling, lots of critiques. But we all sit down at the end of the night and revel in the success we've had that night. It does extend to the community quite a bit. It's really funny when people come in and say to the door girl, 'I know Jesse.' And it's like, we all know each other. I know every one of them. You're gonna walk in here and see literally 20 other people you know. It's a very close community here."
One staple of this community is a relationship that's blossomed from the beginnings of Wonderlust. Manager, John Corey Gully and head bartender, Drew Luckett have been together since before it was known as Bottoms Up. They ended up working together after a few chance encounters that ultimately became a long-distance relationship.
"We actually met in Starkville at Mississippi State through mutual friends and just coincidence," says Luckett. "Seven years later, here we are. It just kind of worked out."
Last September, Gully popped the question to Luckett. And although living as a gay couple in Mississippi hasn't been the stereotypical oppressive nightmare some outsiders might think it is, they still turn heads during their day-to-day life.
"Just going out to eat here, you can get looks," Luckett says. "We're not the most PDA couple you've ever seen, but we are a couple, and couples act a certain way. And people realize we're gay because two guys sitting on the same side of the booth is just not the norm when there's an empty side. So, you do get stares. And that's what's great about this place. Here, it doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, bi, transgender. You can come in here, not be judged, and just have a good time."
"It's definitely a safe place for everybody," says Gully. "I think Jesse works hard for everybody to know that it's a safe place. Everybody pretty much knows that Drew and I have been together for seven years now. But the ones that do not, it can be a little awkward at times. But we work around it. You learn to just roll things off."
Luckily, working together in a place like Wonderlust has offered an escape from those awkward moments.
That escape is not without obstacles. Pandolfo recalls protestors setting up in the parking lot when the bar first opened. But the clientele merely laughed them off the few times they made an appearance.
For Pandolfo, the real obstacles seemed to come from higher places.
"When it comes to permits and licensing and things like that, that's something I feel the backlash from," she says. "When we were applying for our liquor permit, it was just so incredibly difficult. And it's hard to tell if it's just difficult because it's a tough process or if it was being made specifically difficult for us. So, you have to kind of stop and wonder, am I being too sensitive or are they pushing back against us because of what we do?"
But it paid off. Pandolfo has created a space that caters to a new generation of queer Mississippians. As previous bars have attempted to do, but never quite been successful, Wonderlust provides a timeless sense of community for a generation that demands to be accepted, regardless of what state they call home.
The idea of queer community and safe spaces in the south once meant finding a discreet place to meet others like yourself. But the mere concept of community has become a symbol of resistance for young Mississippians who have taken their safe space and made it the place to be.
It's a place where you know you'll see your friends. It's a place to drink and dance or just decompress from the many adversities of the bible belt. It's a place to see some of the many drag queens who make queer culture in the south such a hidden gem.
In the age of RuPaul's Drag Race, support for local queens is often in short supply. But in Jackson, there's just as much fandom for the queens at Wonderlust as there is for the cast of All Stars 4.
It's a unique crop of talent that forms the lineup. Veterans of the pageant circuit go on with younger queens who hold the future of drag in their hands. They bring a whole new perspective to a queer community that's never quite been on the cutting edge.
One such promising young talent is Ke'Chrria Illuminati. A member of Jackson's popular drag family, the House of Illuminati, she carries the name with a swagger and style that's bound to take her far beyond the walls of Wonderlust.
But she recognizes the bar as the place that let her be who she is. The child of a pastor, gender expression was never quite encouraged until discovering Wonderlust.
"I was like this young little gay boy that was so in love with all the drag queens, and I was like, I want to do that one day," Illuminati says. "When I first put on makeup, I realized I could be a boy all day, and in just two or three hours, become a woman. I started loving it more, performing and just dressing up. I was being my true self when I was in drag. I was me."
For many others, it offers that same opportunity. It's a place to be themselves. It's a place that shows them inclusion exists, even if in small doses.
"There are so many places out there that bash gay people, talk about us, call us all types of freaks," she says. "But when you come to Wonderlust, you feel like you're at home. You feel welcome. It's like a big happy family."