Of all the places in the country one might expect virulent outcries against the idea of a new gay bar, a small town in Mississippi is not the most surprising. If Los Angeles citizens signed a petition against the opening of a new gay bar, it would certainly more likely to end up on the front page.
Nevertheless, Pat “PJ” Newton has certainly made news by attempting to establish a new gay bar in Sharon, Mississippi. After applying for a license, she was met with a petition signed by at least 200 of the local inhabitants demanding she be kept from having one. Ironically, the ‘90’s had seen of Newton’s gay bars opened in the very same spot, neither of which had required a law suit to establish. But in 2013, locals claimed a new bar would add nothing to the town, and battle lines were fervently drawn.
Of those who signed the petition and convinced the town’s alderman to reject Newton’s request, some bore more distinctly oppositional reasons than others. There were those that claimed simply a bar wasn’t necessary—and there were those who were very upfront about their specifically anti-queer sentiments. One of the town’s inhabitants put it very frankly: “I’m anti-gay.”
The unapologetic discrimination against a bar that caters to queer individuals may be less surprising in Mississippi, but its location also gives it the weight that adding another bar to West Hollywood could never have. It is not one of many options; it is one in a world without options. It is a world where queer establishments may be so few and far between that in some cases they can be up to a hundred miles apart.
It is not just a gay bar for the small town of Shannon, then: it is a gay bar for anyone in any surrounding town that does not have the opportunity a large city would offer them. And in the small towns of Missippi, there are many people who fit that bill.
As the Huffington Post pointed out, the Stonewall riots carved out an important place for gay bars within the Queer Rights Movement at large: as the source of what would come to be known as the movement, and as the birthplace of many of the organizations that would come to dominate it, Stonewall imbued gay bars with profound historical meaning. Perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than in places like this, when opening a new bar in town is rendered a political act by the very forces that seek to shut it down.
Whether or not the lawsuit currently underway to open Newton’s bar rules in her favor, as one of the residents put it, “It will be tied up in court for two years and that’s two years she won’t be able to open.” As a suit that began near the end of last year, this may not be far from the truth: though this is by no means a long-term goal, stalling progress is its own kind of strategy. The lawsuit will not be decided for some time, and in the meantime there can be no bar.
It may be Mississippi, but the unabashed sentiments of the locals over the matter of a bar are not isolated statements. And even if the lawsuit rules in Newton’s favor, that alone is unlikely to change the perception of these very same locals.
There is still much legal ground to be won. But the ground to be won in the hearts and minds of people whose violent condemnations roll easily off their tongue may be a much slower process