//Raising The Bar

Raising The Bar

Celebrating Pride has always meant celebrating the LGBTQ journey, but this year marks the beginning of a continuing project to document the Central Valley’s own queer history.

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

Bars. Nightclubs. Colloquial terms for the proverbial watering hole of modern society – a place to unwind, to mix, and for many, to stir up the beginning of an explosive weekend. It has hardly been a name that is instantly recognized as a synonym for salvation, in keeping with the true meaning of the word, unless you’re a part of the LGBTQ community.

Imagine stifling repression weighted in the forced guilt and shame brought on by the outside world. Try, if you can, second-guessing your mannerisms, clothing, conversation, and most of all, the way you look at someone who catches your eye. It’s a suffocating, sometimes lonely, and often exhausting way to navigate everyday life, one that, for many a decade, was the only reality for members of the queer community. Gay bars and nightclubs allowed these members to hang their oppression at the door. It was freedom. It was safety. It was sanctuary.

‘Raising the Bar’ is this year’s theme for the annual Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade celebrating its 28th year in the historic Tower District on Saturday, June 2nd. Bar owners, past and present in the Central Valley area, are to be honored throughout the festival for their contributions to the community. An overwhelmingly apt tribute that ties beautifully into the globally recognized Pride month of June which, in and of itself, honors the legendary 1969 riots of The Stonewall Inn that sparked the revolution towards acceptance.

More Than A Theme – A History Project

Recognizing the longstanding history of queer-centric bars in the Central Valley and its lack of official documentation, CEO of Fresno Rainbow Pride and Publisher of News Link – a free monthly gay newspaper distributed from Bakersfield to Stockton – Jeffery Robinson, saw the need to record the past before it disappears altogether. From the Orange Ogre – a beatnik coffee house in 1950s downtown Fresno, Fran’s Pine Lake Lodge with an iconic creek running through the middle of the dance floor, Girl of the Golden West, the Express, the Circle, to the present bars of Legends, the Alibi, FAB, and the community’s most established bar, The Red Lantern; each establishment made its mark on the Central Valley.

Beyond honoring the history of the bars at this year’s Pride Parade, Robinson wanted to take the documentation to the next step by creating a detailed, comprehensive database that will be available for future generations to learn and, hopefully, expand upon. Helping him, and the Fresno Rainbow Pride Committee on this endeavor is Fresno State Assistant Professor, Katherine Fobear.

“Whether you identify LGBT or not, these bars are just as much about the history of Fresno as any other establishment,” says Fobear who continues to elaborate that what has been researched, archived, or stated about Fresno’s past has “largely ignored key demographics, particularly that of the LGBT community which has not only shaped the history of Fresno as a city, but the Central Valley as well.”

As these establishments provided an essential place of acceptance, and more often than not, safety as a vital life source, for its patrons, these bars were also the meeting place for organizations and fundraisers that helped to support the community. Throughout the rampant rise of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s bars were “ground zero for confronting, addressing, and supporting those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS not only for the queer community which is where it was first getting attention but also for those throughout the whole Central Valley,” shares Fobear.

Organizations like the Imperial Dove Court, a non-profit organization which has served the LGBTQ community for over 44 years and continues to do so, found a home in these bars which allowed them to host fundraising events that directly benefitted those who had HIV/AIDS throughout those tumultuous years. Through the Court’s tireless efforts, the non-profit also inspired into action other organizations such as the Central Valley AIDS Team, The Pink Panthers (a civil rights movement and activist group), and the local PFLAG (parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays) to name a few.

“Virgil [Wigley] of The Red Lantern has been the biggest supporter of the community. He’s the only one who let us put up posters, do shows, and fundraisers there. It’s also why he’s the King Father of the Imperial Dove Court – because he has been there for us since day one,” says Tiffany Taylor Tate, two-time Empress of The Imperial Dove Court and five-time Empress of The Imperial Sequoia Empire dept. Tulare Kings and Kern counties.

Although bars are, obviously, only a piece of the overall picture, Jeffery Robinson’s initiative to record the past is about reclaiming and honoring their impact in shaping the landscape we understand today. The Central Valley is the culmination of its culturally and racially varied inhabitants, all of whose stories deserve to be told. Gay bars of the past are deeply embedded into the core of queer history, and the telling of that story cannot begin without also including that of the bars.

The project will start as a collection of oral interviews with an emphasis on critical members of the community who either owned, worked, or tended the bars over the years. Robinson and Fobear hope that this will spark public support that will lead to, ultimately, creating a database and archive that will be hosted and preserved in the Fresno State Library for the queer history of the Central Valley. The anticipated collection hopes to host oral histories, video interviews, photos, scanned documents, and a timeline of the bars. Fresno State has already expressed interest in the collection and Fobear will pursue grant applications in the fall to support the efforts of the project. It’s still unclear as to when the database will be open for public viewing, but hopes are high for the fall of 2019 or spring of 2020.

Bridging the Gap Between Generations

“How can you move forward if you’re going to keep making the same mistakes? Learn from the past so that we can continue the positive, forward movement that we created from the thirty, forty years we’ve been doing this.” Camille Roberts, a performer, and longtime community member sits poised, reigning in his frustration with the queer youth of today. “Kids these days need to learn their history because they’re making the same mistakes we did in the 80s.”

Like any demographic, a gap exists between the generations in understanding the journey of those pioneers who fought passionately to gain the level of acceptance that exists today. Documenting Central Valley queer history is, of course, rooted in the need to create visibility and recognition where there hasn’t been any before – but it’s also meant to connect the new generation to its legacy, one that affords them much more opportunity than their predecessors. It’s also a means to avoid similar mistakes, as Roberts points out.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report, just this year, about HIV trends in the U.S. for individuals under 30, and the numbers are trending upwards. Also reported, the result is due to a lack in preventative care such as practicing safe-sex, and the general assumption that they’re not at risk because HIV is perceived as much more manageable now than ever before. Recording history is just as important as studying it and making use of valuable resources that are available, the likes of which the Fresno Rainbow Pride’s history project hopes to provide.

Battles fought and won (or lost) throughout the globe didn’t just exist “out there,” but also hit home – and may again if the younger generation doesn’t look to its past for guidance.

“I lost 44 friends in two years in the 80s … I’m starting to see this happening all over again, and it scares me because we could lose an entire generation,” Roberts continues.

The Spirit Of PRIDE

The Fresno Rainbow Pride history project may tell the stories of the living, but they will also remember the magic of those who have passed on and the work they’ve done.

It seems unlikely that a bar or club could be so political in the very nature of their existence. However, these out n’ proud establishments stood and survived in the face of ongoing violence, sexism, homophobia, transphobia – aside from the general difficulties of just maintaining a business in a competitive market, anyway. It’s a testament to an entire community’s resilience, creativity, and sheer will to survive throughout heavy repression. The bars that exist now almost seem to say ‘We will not go quietly’ on behalf of the queer community.

“In the words of Audre Lorde, ‘survival is resistance.’ I think dancing, falling in love, singing, wearing a fabulous outfit in this space of incredible amounts of fear, hatred, and bigotry that’s cropping up today, it’s just as essential and a form of resistance as marching on the streets,” reflects Fobear.

Gay bars have been synonymous with salvation, as they remain a place of safety and celebration. And if Stonewall has taught us anything, they’re also a place where revolutions begin.

Tell Your Story – Get Involved

The team is actively looking for anyone and everyone willing to participate in an interview to share their experiences and knowledge of past bars or clubs from the entire Central Valley area. No story is too small, even if your experience is limited to a handful of visits to one bar, they’d still like to talk to you.

Add your piece of the history. Email Jeff for more information at clinkinc@aol.com.