Welcome to Eureka Springs

The gayest small town in America you’ve never heard of.

BY Chadwick Moore

April 24 2014 2:14 PM ET


Eureka is the only city in Arkansas to officially endorse same-sex marriage, and it keeps a same-sex partner registry. But in lieu of a city-sponsored Pride celebration, three times a year, in April, August, and November, Eureka celebrates Diversity Weekend. The weekend officially kicks off on Saturday morning in Basin Spring Park with the triannual Public Display of Affection, where dozens of locals and visitors gather for a photo op to give their neighbors a big kiss on the cheek.
 
The Jericho Riders Motorcycle Ministry, a local Christian group, is suspiciously absent from today’s kiss-in. They usually pour in for the PDA to support their leader, Kevin Thompson, who stands atop an overturned milk crate and condemns everyone to Hell.
 
“It’s a shame he’s such an asshole, because he’s really cute,” Alvin says.
 
The rest of the weekend is for downtime, taking in the sites and local color. On the Friday night before the PDA, I’m at a drag show at Eureka Live, a popular nightclub in Eureka’s downtown, a charming pair of Victorian streets carved into a hillside that look part French Quarter, part Deadwood.
 
Keith Cofield is an evening cocktail waiter here, part of the migration of middle-aged gay people into Eureka. He was a Pentecostal preacher who came out of the closet at age 40, after 16 years of marriage and two children. Now 53, he’s a bubbly, stout man with a hee-hawing laugh who works by day at a nearby Tyson chicken processing plant — one of the large employers in the region, behind Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt, the trucking company — inspecting poultry that’s been stripped from the bone and sent down a chute to him.
 
“Oh honey, I still preach all the time, it’s just a different kind of preachin’ now!” he laughs. After his partner died of AIDS six years ago, he moved from eastern Arkansas to Memphis, where he felt disappointed by city life.
 
“It’s hard in the big city, because everyone is so cliquish.” He jokes that he used to bounce over to Nashville, hoping to run into Randy Travis on the scene there.
 
“That skinny little thing?” Lee, his boss, interjects. “That’s like suckin’ roadkill.” Lee is from Memphis and remembers the old days of tiny, secret gay bars there, back when it was illegal for a man to dance with another man. After a certain hour the doors would lock and you were either in or out.
 
Ken Ketelson, a handsome New Yorker, moved here in 1996 and owns Farm to Table Fresh, a restaurant serving mostly local fare. In the Steel Magnolias version of the town he might be Olympia Dukakis’s character, slightly envied and a little above the fray. He’s excited about the arrival tomorrow of his very own chickens, which will live in a coop behind the restaurant.
 
“I think, in a lot of ways, moving to New York or San Francisco has been done before. Why do we have to move there? Why can’t we just be anywhere? And here is anywhere,” he tells me as I wolf down a plate of a brontosaurus-sized short ribs in his restaurant. Ketelson is refurbishing a house for his mother, who plans to move here from Long Island next year.

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