By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
GUN BARREL CITY, Tex., March 4 -- "The thing is, Hillary's been a victim," says Leo Bartlett, taking a drag of his cigarette. "Hillary's a real fighter."
She's been picked on, ridiculed, bullied. Those haircuts, that laugh, the clothes. Oh, and Monica. But she never gives up. She's got good policy positions. She bullies when she needs to. She's "a diva."
And that about sums up why gays -- not all, of course, but many -- are such ardent, longtime and downright defensive backers of Sen. Hillary Clinton.
This historic primary race has turned the American electorate into a demographic pizza pie. Alongside white women and Hispanics, blue-collar folks and Catholics who currently form Clinton's core constituency, count gays and lesbians, too. Or, to use the more inclusive Bravo-TV-is-gay-TV term: the LGBT community. Hillary's their gal, that reliable, ubiquitous straight girl who hangs out with the gang, the Grace Adler to their Will Truman.
"We Shoot Straight With You" is the slogan of this small, quiet, conservative town of 5,000 about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. Which puts a wry, sardonic smile on the faces of the patrons of Friends, known throughout this lakeside area as the "friendliest gay bar in Texas."
Defiant is one way to describe the joint. Gay bars usually hang a rainbow flag to signal that, well, this is a gay bar. At Friends, right off Gun Barrel Lane and situated across from the cemetery, the flag doesn't fly. It's not mere cloth. Instead, it's painted on a piece of wood nailed to the building -- which, by the way, is bright turquoise.
The Lone Star State has a sizable gay population, many of them concentrated in Austin, Houston and Dallas. The Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, the state's biggest chapter, endorsed Clinton last month. The group's president, Jesse Garcia, 36, recently penned a pro-Clinton op-ed piece in the Dallas Voice, the state's most-read gay newspaper.
And far from the primped-up, tight-jean-wearing, I'm-eternally-single-and-loving-it vibe of Oak Lawn, the gay neighborhood in Dallas, Friends is a more laid-back, welcoming place full of older, middle-class and mostly coupled-up patrons. Kind of like "Cheers," where everyone knows your name, except they're wearing T-shirts that read "I love Cowboys" and baseball caps from Budweiser with a small rainbow flag. Jokes Bobbie Aldridge, 67, a retired teacher: "This is like a community center. Or a retirement home."
Like most of the patrons here, Aldridge wears a button on her shirt that reads "Out for Hillary."
Tuesdays are usually slow nights at the bar, but not this Tuesday night. Patrons came in and out, watching the returns on the three TV screens. At around 8:30 p.m., nervous about the tightening Texas race and watching Sen. John McCain give his victory speech, someone yelled out: "Look at Cindy McCain! That's either an Adam's apple or a very big pimple!"
Aldridge, meanwhile, said she voted for Clinton earlier Tuesday and made sure to caucus for her, too, over at City Hall, where Clinton ran away with 79 percent. Troy Luethe, 42, who runs a bed and breakfast about 35 miles east of here, caucused for Clinton, too. But there was a big gasp in the bar when Luethe's partner of four years, Daren Caywood, 43, the lone Republican in the room who voted for President Bush twice, said he voted -- and caucused -- for Obama.
"Ha!" Bartlett said. "You canceled each other out!"
Drag shows at Friends, with entertainers named Momma, D'Aundra and Sable Alexander, draw a crowd, mostly gay but also straight. (D'Aundra and Momma, a.k.a. Scott Denny, 36, and Gaylon Maddox, 52, are longtime partners. They're both nurses.)
Musical productions presented by the club's acting troupe, Friends Players, are renowned, too. Choreographed and directed by Jim Gribben, who's been coming to the club since it opened 18 years ago, the shows bring in money, which the club donates to charities for abused children and other causes. Gribben and Co. are now working on "Grease: The Later Years." Next comes their version of "Hee Haw."
Last October, Out magazine named Friends one of the 50 greatest gay clubs in the world. That same month, the Advocate, another gay publication, splashed an Eleanor Roosevelt-esque, black-and-white photo of Clinton on the cover. The headline: "The Object of Our Affection."
"It's her experience. She's been through every category of anything that could happen to an individual and has come out strong," says Bartlett, 42, who owns Friends. His partner of five years, Rick Foster, 60, helps manage the club.
Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is seen as "untested," "too new," "too young," Bartlett says.
Many patrons here recall an Obama rally in South Carolina last fall where one of the speakers was Donnie McClurkin, a conservative preacher who has said that homosexuality can be "cured" through prayer. Faced with criticism, Obama said he "strongly disagrees" with McClurkin.
Gribben, 64, gives a short history lesson and names all of Clinton's contributions to the gay community. She was the first first lady to march in a gay pride parade. She's fought for more HIV funds. She wants to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," though it was her husband who signed the controversial military policy toward gays. She's for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and supports civil unions.
Gribben wishes she were for gay marriage, but this being Texas, where gays have no domestic partnership rights and can't adopt children, Gribben and his partner of 34 years, also named Jim, will take what they can get.
Here in Texas, as in many other states, couples have to draw up wills to make sure that their partners get what they leave behind. Nearly three years ago, Texans overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Jim's partner won't give his full name.
Gribben says his partner has "been with that company for 22 years but if they find out he's gay, they'd fire him. There'd be no way to prove it, but they'd come after him."
He continues: "Gays have a history with the Clintons -- and when I say the Clintons, that's because I think Hillary was as much a president as Bill was -- and most of it was good."