Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Capitols and Bars

The nearest gay bar to me is an hour’s drive away, in the state capitol. In my small town there’s a bar that’s gay-friendly, and I hear it’s all-gay every so often. But I’m not big on bars.

When I was in my thirties, I lived in your typical cow-town-on-hormones, Madison, WI. It has a big state University with a heavy emphasis on agriculture, and is also the state capitol. Madison thinks it’s more progressive and hip than it actually is: scratch the surface, and underneath you find many layers of old-time agrarian attitudes.

While I lived there, I played bass guitar and Chapman Stick in several jazz, blues, rock, and avant-garde post-punk bands. I had my fill of bars then. Some gigs were in venues ranging from upper-crust jazz clubs just off Capitol Square, while others were in dark and smoky bars on the edges of town, or out in the country. A few times we drove down to Chicago to play.

A couple of things you learn from playing gigs in bars: It’s no fun being around drunks when you’re not. It’s not much fun being around smokers when you’re not, either.

I don’t mind if folks do, it’s just not much fun when you’re not part of their group. There are lots of ways we sit on the sideline. We’re sidelined in so many ways, all our lives, when we’re LGBT. When I play music, I need to stay clear-headed, so I don’t drink; and then there’s the long drive home after the gig, often pretty late at night.

After one of those jazz/blues gigs, my clothes often reeked of smoke stink for four days, give or take. I’d launder everything but the smell would still take days to fade. Then I’d go out the next weekend and play, and my clothes would reek all over again. Some friends thought I smoked myself, although I never have. Some of the jazz clubs in Madison were at that time already smoke-free, a trend that grew over time to include most venues in Wisconsin. But not many small-town bars, even just outside town. The further out you go, the more likely you are to find Life in the 1950s, or even Life in the 1930s.

In anthropology they had an idea called “the doctrine of marginal survival.” Basically, the idea was that cultural elements ripple out from the artistic and governmental centers of any civilization: the capitol city is where change and development are turning over fastest, where fashions thrive, where trends are born. The trends move outwards in waves from the center. So if you’re trying to study what a culture was like in its more agrarian, tribal, or ancient past, go to the hinterlands and look in the small towns farthest away from the center of things. There you will discover that things haven’t changed much at all, yet.

Out here there is a change going on that may give the lie to that idea, rich and provocative as it is. Even small towns, borderline villages, and hamlets far from anywhere, are now getting access to the World Wide Web. The fabulous Internet. Cyberspace with its cyberpunks and data cowboys. We connect now in ways my parents never imagined. And our children have never been un-connected. I can say truthfully that I was born as part of the last generation to not own personal computers as students. Even some members of the older generation have internet access now. I know a farmer west of town who is online every day, in between chores. I know a few people out West who I talk to regularly, over the virtual back fence, as though we were actual neighbors. Cyberspace collapses geography, making us less isolated, more likely to find people who share our ideas and interests.

So maybe we rural LGBTs are not cut off from each other anymore. The gay bar remains an hour’s drive away from me, but now there are online LGBT connections for community, gathering together in affinity, and meeting for social activities. Of course, also for sex hook-ups, making friends, making “friends with benefits,” etc. The point is, we’re not as isolated as we used to be. Nobody is.

It’s still no fun being around drunks when I’m not. And going to the gay bar an hour’s drive away isn’t very satisfying: who wants to get drunk before having to drive home? It’s not just the safety issue, it’s the stupidity issue. So I remain an outsider to those venues, wondering why so many LGBTs think they’re supposed to be so much fun, just as I was an outsider when was a musician playing gigs in them.

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