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
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
David Bowers, a
realtor and gay former city council member, lauded the
role played by Robert's Lafitte in the wake of the
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."
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.
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.
is drinking and talking and keeping their spirits
up," Mainor said. "People are really
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
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
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
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
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.
to say the bar's landscape was entirely unchanged by
the deluge of water from the Gulf of Mexico.
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
"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
"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."
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."