Ever since I figured out I was a big homo in high school, in the middle of the desert in Southern California, I haven’t had much desire to spend time in small, conservative towns. The thought of driving through the South on purpose, as a butch dyke, was a vision of my gay hell.
But for the first stop of our tiny Pride tour, Country Roads, Take Me Homo, a small town is exactly where we ended up. We decided to drive to Hardy, a tiny town in Northern Arkansas, in the middle of the Ozarks. We were all apprehensive, but during the last ten years of passing as a white man, I’ve grown bolder while traveling. My companions’ presentations were considerably more genderqueer, but I thought my presence might even provide some cover for all of us at rural gas station stops. However, I haven’t legally changed my name or gender marker, so I also hoped we wouldn’t get pulled over. I do have internal conflict over my newly discovered super privilege, but I try to use it only for good.
Hardy has a population of around 765. The median income is $17,375. We pulled over to use the restroom at a a café called Rebel Station. The fence lining one side of the parking lot was festooned with Trump and Confederate flags. We turned around and went to McDonald’s across the street.
Google told us Pride was only a few miles away– at Griffin Park. We didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t even sure an Arkansas Pride event was really happening. We wondered if it might be a trick to lure city Queers to their demise. After all, we’d seen a Facebook page for a protest at the event. We set off down the county highway anyway, turning off on a winding country road, then down a steep, private gravel road. As we came around a tree, we encountered a long slab of concrete, slightly wider than our Subaru, spanning a river with teens tubing on either side.
Giggling and cursing, we managed to cross, searching for any indication we were in the right place. We turned at the dog park and spotted the tiny rainbow flags of our people stuck in the grass next to the road. When I got out of the car, I choked up. This was worth the drive.
The organizers met us in the field in matching T-shirts, shaking our hands, and telling us where to set up. This was their first Pride. They had to change venues, the port-a-potties weren’t delivered because of gay cooties, and only half the vendors showed, but they were warm and charming and fucking Proud.
We set up our tiny table in the sun, next to two well-organized gay men from Batesville, Arkansas who were promoting their town’s upcoming second Pride. We didn’t bring a tent because we’re dumb, so they lent us a rainbow parasol. The handful of other vendors included two women who go to every event to sell melty Snickers and M&M’s to raise money to spay stray animals, a homemade jerky display, and a handsome young man selling bongs shaped like dicks. On a last-minute beer run before the festival, we discovered the entire protest to the event was one guy, standing at the entrance to the park, wearing an “ex-homosexual” t-shirt, holding a sign above his head stating, “Not Born Gay.” He proudly smiled when we asked to take his picture.
Upon our return, Amy, one of the organizers who moved to Hardy from Texarkana, came over and started telling us stories with the exact accent we wanted to hear. They were married to Becca, another organizer. Amy lost their leg in a car accident when they were a teenager, and the doctors told their mom they’d never walk again (slaps shiny prosthetic leg.) And upon learning I was trans, they told us they had been a week away from starting hormone therapy when they met their wife, who had reservations about the idea, so they never started. I gifted them a Hamm’s, shitty beer of the North, when they were summoned on their walkie-talkie.
Later that day, a teen trans boy and his parents came to the table. His parents asked Megan if I would talk to their son because he’d never met a trans man. They’d driven three hours so their son could go to this event. After a short weep, I had the pleasure of talking to all of them. Mom said she just couldn’t understand how people could be so mean to children. Dad affected a hard gay inflection every time he wanted to make his son laugh. The young man brought his best friend who teared up thinking about everything they’d been through in high school. He asked me if the shots hurt. He doesn’t like needles. I told him to just concentrate on how handsome he was going to be. His folks were excited to get him to his first treatment, but now they had to drive out of state. Arkansas passed House Bill 1570 in April, which prohibits health care providers from providing or even referring trans youth for gender therapy.
Shannon, one of the gays from the adjoining booth, told me the story of Batesville’s first Pride in 2019. There had been nine recent suicide attempts at their high school, one of them successful, all of them involving teens somewhere on the Queer spectrum. One of these youths had been trying to start a GSA the entire time they attended this high school and finally succeeded in finding a teacher to sponsor the club right before graduating. Then they helped organize the town’s first Pride. After we both stopped crying, he introduced me to them and their parents.
Mom said she didn’t think she’d met a trans man before and didn’t want to offend me. She also told me more than once she’d gotten into some scraps with closed-minded people in her town, and if they were going to be mean to their kids, their kids could just come live with her. She said she might have been like them if she hadn’t gone to college for a year and met her husband who was always taking her to parties with all kinds of people. She had never known a Black person or a gay person before college. (Hardy is 95.33% white). Her husband was a Methodist minister wearing a rainbow God shirt.
As the sun was setting, the last band was doing a Cranberries cover so it was mandatory to take a break and enjoy. They were a two-piece, husband and wife team. The wife was on drums. The husband was on guitar and vocals. After a Nirvana cover, he came out as pansexual to the last thirty people sitting on the aluminum bleachers – a solid, last-minute pickup strategy.
We were supposed to get on the road to shave a few hours off the next day’s drive, but our new friends insisted we attend the after party. We checked into the Day’s Inn to shower and change. We were warned not to go to the other motel. (That was the meth hotel.) We drove the block and a half to the Hardy Civic Center, a huge aluminum building that would have been a barn in a different location. Inside was an enormous concrete dance floor, circumscribed by plastic folding tables. Our hosts saved us to one by the DJ.
They then put on a three and a half hour drag show, with only three drag kings. It was an exercise in endurance for all involved. They took smoke breaks every third or fourth song. The entire room, including the kings, took part in this ritual. They brought us up to thank us for coming, then made us participate in a dance-off. Toward the end of the evening, our buddy Amy took the mic to announce their wife realized how much transitioning would mean to their mental health. They came out as trans to the room.
We heard many more tales that day about drug addiction, poverty, tragedy, and mental health struggles. We were told that Hardy is racist and homophobic. They told me I was right to fear some people in the South. When I asked if they ever thought about moving to a big city, they mostly said they couldn’t afford it, but they also have family where they are.
Hardy was the perfect place to start our tiny Pride tour. Their first Pride for them felt a lot like my first Pride felt to me. I recognized that joy. It’s amazing, that first day it feels like the world isn’t punching you in the face because you’re surrounded by a bunch of weirdos just like you. It was a gift for a cynical old Queer.
Next stop: Sioux City, Iowa.