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Shelter: Gay Bars Provide Comfort in Storm-Ravaged Galveston

Give ‘Em
Shelter: Gay Bars Provide Comfort in Storm-Ravaged Galveston

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When major natural disasters strike, survivors are accustomed to expect help from the government or even big-box corporations that donate their vast resources. But for many residents of Galveston, Texas, walloped by Hurricane Ike along the Gulf Coast last week, a primary source of relief and support has been two local gay bars that, despite the near-impossible conditions, reopened almost immediately after the storm in the spirit of survival and community.

When major natural disasters strike, survivors are accustomed to expect help from the government or even big-box corporations that donate their vast resources. But for many residents of Galveston, Texas, walloped by Hurricane Ike along the Gulf Coast last week, a primary source of relief and support has been two local gay bars that, despite the near-impossible conditions, reopened almost immediately after the storm in the spirit of survival and community.

"Right now, everybody in the neighborhood is here," said James Lipps, on the phone outside Robert's Lafitte, the oldest gay bar on Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston. A straight patron who frequents the venue known for lively weekend drag shows, Lipps said, "They've been supporting the community with food and water. Everybody's just relaxing and trying to wait it out."

The bar, named for a 19th century pirate who dwelled in this former Victorian port, reopened only hours after the Category 2 hurricane struck early on September 13. Irate Ike hurled 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge that breached Galveston's protective sea wall and severely flooded homes and businesses, contributing to 19 fatalities.

David Bowers, a realtor and gay former city council member, lauded the role played by Robert's Lafitte in the wake of the storm.

"We believe it was the first place to have reopened on the island," he said. "It's been a way for people to stay in touch. A lot of people are coming in there and just getting caught up."

Communication links are vital in Galveston, where one week after Hurricane Ike hit, cell phone service remained minimal, and there was almost no electricity, gas, running water, or sewer service. The unsanitary conditions prompted legions of people who had braved the storm to escape an aftermath deemed "unlivable" by local officials.

As many as two thirds of the island's 60,000 residents initially stayed to ride out the hurricane, in defiance of a mandatory evacuation order. Robert Mainor, 68, the owner of Robert's Lafitte, and his staff were among the holdouts.

"This community is a strong community," he said, "and we knew people wouldn't be leaving. Somebody had to be here."

Once the wind and rain abated, the former female impersonator and his staff used mops, brooms, and squeegees to clear three feet of water and blown-out window glass from the bar, located just two blocks from the beach. Every day since, they have opened at 10 a.m., providing free food and water and selling alcohol until last call before the strictly enforced 6 p.m. curfew. Drag performances are on hold for now, though.

"Everybody is drinking and talking and keeping their spirits up," Mainor said. "People are really depressed."

Mainor estimates that 75% of those visiting his establishment may be straight patrons or newcomers. "Doctors and lawyers and even a couple of the big judges in town have come by," he said. "They bring their wives and girlfriends."

Maintenance and security worker Frank Trump can attest to the influx. "I've even got me a new girlfriend," he said.

Trump, who lives on the premises and considers Mainor and others "like family," credits their survival to the sturdiness of the two-story steel and brick structure, which also withstood the legendary hurricane of 1900. Responsible for the deaths of at least 6,000 people, that storm is still regarded as the worst natural disaster in the nation's history.

Nonetheless, Scott Hardin, who lives three blocks behind the bar, describes the experience of sitting through Hurricane Ike as terrifying. He huddled with his Chihuahua in his swaying, two-story house.

"I am a big, strong boy," he said, "and this one scared the fire out of me. Never again."

A gay chef known to most as "Cadillac," Hardin has been volunteering his time to cook all the food donated by neighbors or purchased by Mainor and delivered from nearby areas.

"We have three barbecue pits going," he said. "I'm probably serving anywhere from 80 to 150 plates per day, easy," he said, adding that 60 more pounds of chicken was on its way.

About 16 blocks east across the island, a slightly more serene-sounding scene greeted the 100 or so Galvestonians who have been seeking shelter each day at the Pink Dolphin, a laid-back beach bar opened by retired teacher Elredge Langlinais and his life partner, Oscar Placker, four years ago.

Unlike the crew at Robert Lafitte's, the Pink Dolphin team awoke on September 13 and walked over to find the all-glass bar, situated on higher ground across from the sea wall, completely dry inside and without interior damage. The day before, they had boarded up and caulked the bar before hunkering down in Langlinais's nearby home, which was devastated.

That's not to say the bar's landscape was entirely unchanged by the deluge of water from the Gulf of Mexico.

"We have the most beautiful patio you've ever seen," said a shocked Langlinais, 69. "It's all gone. You can almost fish off our front deck."

Since the Sunday after the hurricane, Langlinais and his staff have been serving drinks and free snacks and distributing canned goods brought by neighbors. They benefit from music and television made possible by a generator purchased after Hurricane Rita in 2005. It also helps with refrigeration.

"We're selling a lot of beer," he said. "Our beer is ice cold. Straight people want a beer too, and they don't care where they get it." He estimates that 25% of his patrons in the week since the hurricane have been straight or newcomers, hardly surprising in Galveston.

A resident for over 30 years, Langlinais describes the island as one with a rich gay history and a reputation for acceptance, if not assimilation.

"It's really easy to be gay here," he said. "Drag queens go in drag to our grocery stores and no one notices."

Asked why he would remain on the island in the midst of such difficult circumstances, Langlinais appealed to duty, and perhaps even a charming stubbornness.

"I'm here at the bar because I need to be," he said. "Our people are here. The gay community here rallies. Whether we're bar people or not, we know each other."

Besides, he noted, the scene at the Pink Dolphin seems much more appealing than the alternative on the other end of the island, where buses are available to whisk people to shelters on the mainland in Austin and San Antonio. "If you came in our bar and saw everyone sitting around and laughing," he said, "you would see why people are staying."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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