Get Out of the Club Scene & Into the Mainstream

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Mixed company in Old Town
(photo by David Quick)

Go to a Wichita gay bar on any given night and you’re likely to find some sad homosexuals mixed in with the karaoke fun and libatious celebrations. Go to a Wichita gay club and you’re going to see some forlorn fags and disgruntled dykes glued to the side walls amidst flashy friends sipping cosmos and dancing queens debaucherously shaking up the latest Top 40 techno-remix. For many, a “Wichita gay scene” centered on the club/bar life is an accepted avenue of socialization. After all, these venues do the community a great service by providing a safe and accepting place for people to be themselves and meet others who are like them. Their importance cannot be overstated. I think it’s time, though, for the LGBT community in Wichita to think beyond the bars.

I’ll confess that I’m biased. I’ve never really fit the high-fashion, super skinny mold that’s necessary to be a gay scene sensation. I spend most of my days in Delano or Riverside coffee shops and most of my nights at Old Town music venues or Commerce Street art shows. I prefer conversation about literature, philosophy, and politics over grinding my ass on the dance floor while competing for a randomly cute stranger’s attention.  I want real human connection, not sleazy one-night stands. I sense that I’m not alone.

Every time I bring up the topic of the local gay scene to other homos, there are usually plenty of moans and eye rolls. No one seems to be satisfied with the current state of socialization. Poetic waxes about the rich gay scenes of San Francisco and New York are standard. Hopes of one day leaving our fair, flat state for “gayer pastures” to the east and west are the norm. Most can’t seriously pack up and leave, though. All, however, can do something to reverse the doldrums and breathe new life into Wichita’s queer community. We need to get out of the “gay scene” and grace the “mainstream” with our queer presence!

Gay businesses aren’t the only places in this city with safe and accepting atmospheres. There are plenty of clubs and venues in Wichita that are full of accepting, cool straight people who just love the homos! They would love it even more if we became further engrained in their daily lives. There’s more to do than dance to tired Top 40 tunes in these joints, too!

Venture west of the Arkansas River on Douglas Ave into Delano and you’ll find The Vagabond. It’s the perfect spot to grab a martini with friends or share pita and hummus on a date while XM radio blares cutting edge indie jams.  Wander north and you’ll find The Riverside Perk. Under new ownership, this is a welcoming place for LGBT people of all ages to socialize without shame while enjoying a cup of coffee or mouth-watering bierock. Go into Old Town and there are plenty of places to see live, original music. The Blue Lounge, Kelly’s Irish Pub, Caffe Moderen, Mead’s Corner, The Anchor, and Lucky’s are some of the spots that showcase the best in local and regional talent. As a gay man, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in any of these joints. In fact, I feel more at home in these places than in any Wichita gay bar. Head east into the Douglas Design District and you’ll find places like The Donut Whole, Watermark Books, and Caffe Posto, that aren’t gay businesses, but are places with good food, great literature, and awesome art any queer can appreciate.

Speaking of art, Wichita has a rich scene that we need to get more in tune with! The Blank Page gallery in Delano is a hot spot for visual art, poetry, writing, and live shows. Their Wednesday open mic nights bring out the avant-garde, and it’s not uncommon to see newly-out high school kids in the audience relieved to have a safe space they can expresses themselves. Tangent Lab on Rock Island Road is another spot where cutting-edge art happens. Commerce Street’s Fisch Haus, The Jones Gallery, and The Go Away Garage are also portals into fresh visual expressions. These places are only the beginning—they are so many other places full of culture where we can feel comfortable being ourselves, and where we don’t have to feel the pressures of fitting in at a club or bar.

The gay community is really a collection of individuals. Clubs and bars—gay or straight—by their very nature don’t usually cater to individual development. They provide a space where lots of people can gather to let loose and have fun. That’s their function. The individual, though, needs more stimulation to thrive. When clubs and bars are the only avenues for socialization for a community, that’s a big problem! Those who feel disenfranchised by the limited gay culture in this city do have an outlet. We shouldn’t be afraid to claim our place there. This city is full of people ready to accept us and learn from us. We just have to give them the chance.

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Homo on the Range

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Homos on the Range: Me with Kansas Equality Coalition Executive Director and very good friend Tom Witt.
(photo by David Quick)

Home, home on the range. Where the bis, trans, fags, and dykes play. Where seldom is heard, an intolerant word. And the cities are proud of their gays.

If you think I’m referring to Massachusetts, home of a visible and established gay community where same-sex couples have been legally tying the knot for half a decade, think again! It’s Kansas that is the object of my opining. Perhaps not the Sunflower State we live in today, but the land I believe we will live in soon.  It’s with this vision that I introduce “Homo on the Range”.  An online anthology about queer life in the Midwest, I’ll explore what it means to be gay in Kansas and examine the complexities of being an out homosexual in a time of great regional social change. For decades, gay rights battles have been staged largely on both coasts, with San Francisco being home to the nation’s first gay neighborhood and New York City being the birth place of gay liberation visa vises the Stonewall Riots. Well, Kansas is just as queer as any other spot on this earth, and the moment has arrived for there to be a gay shift in focus to the center of the country.

I love living in Wichita, and I will always have a special affinity for this city because of the way it embraced me. I moved here from North Carolina when I was 17. Recently outed at my southern high school, I lost all my friends and all sense of belonging. I came to Kansas down, depressed, and defeated. Over time, I began to notice that people here were different, though.   Kansans value hard work, self-determination, optimism, and community. Anyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard for the common good will quickly earn their respect and friendship.  Everything I’ve done in the community—in my education, in politics, and in the arts—I’ve done as an openly gay man. I worked hard to earn the respect of friends, fellow students, teachers, and colleagues. In turn, they came to respect me. For people who knew me, suddenly homosexuality wasn’t much of an issue.

A case in point came immediately after the 2005 constitutional amendment referendum, when 70% of voters voted to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.  I was director of the local Democratic Party at the time. During one of our meetings, an old farmer from Haysville cornered me. “You’re one of those homosexuals, aren’t you,” he asked straightforwardly.  Unsure of where he was going with this, I timidly replied in the affirmative. “Well, that’s what I’ve heard. And you know what? I voted for your people. I don’t know much about that gay stuff, but I know you, and you’re a good guy. I figured the rest of ‘em can’t be all that bad,” he matter-of-factly stated.  I understood in that moment just how important being out was.

Obviously, we don’t yet live in a state where intolerance toward gays and lesbians is a thing of the past or where cities embrace their LGBT communities. We can, however, make significant progress. If every person in Kansas who is gay was honest about it and made sure their friends, family, and co-workers had a human face to put on an issue that is all too often politicized, I think the marriage amendment battle would have had a different result.  It’s our responsibility to shape the world we want to live in. If you’re reading this and you’re in the closet, come out! Maybe you can’t tell your parents or perhaps you can’t be out at work (it’s still legal for most employers in Kansas to fire someone for being gay!), but everyone has at least one friend they can be honest with.  In Kansas, I’ve learned that the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more people are comfortable with you. Be true to who you are. Decisions about how we live our lives today will set the stage for how others are able to live their lives for the next decade.

Being a homo on the range really isn’t as tough as one might think. We’ve got great people in this city who want their minds opened and horizons expanded. Don’t deny them that opportunity. If you do, you’re denying us all that poetic community I muse about above.  We can accept the status quo, or we can create our own culture. Let’s make Wichita a city that embraces its queer-side!