Friday, January 29, 2010

Playing with the Queen of Hearts

Watching the maximum glam queens on RuPaul's Drag Race (god help me, I'm addicted to it) got me thinking about this feature* and one night of research I did for it:

That a town such as Warren, Ohio, which lives in the ruts the steel industry left behind as it receded, is home to the Queen of Hearts Bar, is no small irony. Warren is neither rural nor urban nor suburban. It is the land of James Traficant (yes, still) and Fat Cats Tattoos (to name just one). There are boarded-up factories, dilapidated houses and acres of vacant weedy lots. There is Pete's Gun Shack (doing a brisk business) and the Tokyo Health Spa (nary a car in sight, but the neon sign promises that they are indeed open).

And if it is the third Saturday of the month, Warren is a place fit for a Queen.


The lot fills with cars. They venture from all points across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. The chariots hark from Michigan, West Virginia, Missouri, and New York. There is a baby-blue BMW Z3 Roadster next to an experienced Dodge Caravan, which is next to a gleaming Lexus sedan, which is next to a rusty Ford pick-up.

Inside, the bar is cavernous, with cinderblock walls, 20-foot ceilings and glittering disco balls. Forgiving red lights illuminate the bar, which is teeming. Cigarette smoke hangs. A bucket of beer (five longnecks on ice) can be had for $7 until 9 p.m., at which time the price goes to $10.

Sitting in that bar on "Queen" night was a singular experience. It was all about men in drag. The bartenders were gay men. And there I was. The queens stared at me like they wanted to take a bite right out of me. I couldn't tell if they wanted to deck me or bed me, stroke my long hair or grab of fistful and pull it out. There were plenty of uber-regular looking men in jeans and tees drooling over the queens. They would look at me and do a double take that would quickly turn wary, as if to say who is this broad, some sort of spy sent by my wife? I was intimidated and transfixed by all of it.

Many of the young glamazons were sexy and absolutely convincing, but the queens that fascinated me most were the older girls. I loved the sixty and seventysomethings. One was standing there in a pastel green dress with a Peter Pan collar that could have come straight from Aunt Gerdie's closet. She wore sensible heels, a strand of pearls, and had a straw handbag dangling from her wrist. She had a cigar in one hand and a scotch on the rocks in the other, but there was no Milton Berle ha-ha about her.

People were talking in tight groups. The music was cocktail-party soft, and despite the sizable crowd, it was oddly quiet until about 11 p.m.

That's when the opening glissando of ABBA's Dancing Queen blasted from the speakers. It was like a battle cry. All the queens exploded from their seats and poured onto the dance floor in a flurry of motion. Many were awkward in their heels. Their muscular legs were obvious in tight mini skirts. Some wore short baby-doll style party frocks full up with lacy crinolines. They danced with each other. They danced in groups. They danced alone. Their energy and abandon was something to behold. I marveled at their joie de vivre, even if it was contained to an unlikely barroom at the end of a mostly vacant strip mall in torn and frayed Warren, Ohio.

Although I got one good interview under my belt, as a GG (genetic girl) by herself, I simply did not fit in. This was an all-male vibe with no room for a straight chick. I don't often feel uncomfortable in a bar, but I did that night. Things were just warming up, but I left around 11:30. Although one of the queens made a vaguely threatening statement to me that I don't exactly recall (something about how, as a man, she would tower over me), I was probably being overly cautious when I got up to leave. In a rare move, I flipped open my cell as I walked out and called Eric. I spoke to him until I was safely locked in the car with the engine running.

* * *


LimesNow said...

Erin, I'd say M is for the many drinks one would need to consume to have that much confidence.

I thank you for your really nice e-mail.

Kate Collings said...

Wow what an interesting post.

No-one should make you feel threatened whether male, female, straight, gay or other, black, white, English or American. So I am sorry that you felt so umcomfortable.

It has inspired me to take my Journalism to the next level and spread my wings a little.

So thank you for sharing.

And the 'M' pose should deffinately be kept behind closed doors methinks.

Take care

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for dropping in, ladies. And a BIG THANKS to you, Leslie for my cool Hoppy Taw!

Who doesn't want to own something called a Hoppy Taw?

Erin O'Brien said...

To be honest, Kate, I didn't feel like they were intentionally making me feel uncomfortable. It was just such a strange strange vibe.

I did not bring a notebook, nor hide that I was a writer from the one interviewee, but they seemed to think I was not to be trusted. As in, what is she doing here?

The crossdressers were a very complex group of people. I could have written page upon page about them.

The mad woman behind the blog said...

Working retail AND living in San Francisco, I've been to a few gay bars, full of men and women of every variety. What I have never experienced was any animosity of any sort. One experience I remember quite clearly was at a mostly male gay bar and I was treated like a queen: "make way for the straight chic: she could be your mom or sister!" It was wonderful.
But then in SF, that part of town, gays aren't subjected to what they would think of as exploitation, and they're used to being oggled.
Thanks for having the guts to research this and share.

LimesNow said...

I thank you for the shout out, Erin. Love the description of the old chick in her pastel green frock with the Peter Pan collar. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable just because we ARE uncomfortable. If something feels wrong, then it IS wrong for you.

Kirk said...

Erin, I suspect the mistrust had less to do with you being a female and more with you being a stranger. Also, Warren's a lot smaller than Cleveland. The place probably had much less walk-in traffic, much more of a steady clientel, even by gay bar standards. A straight-acting male who had never been there before might have elicited just as much suspicion