+ people of a certain age don’t look back fondly at the ’80s, but there was one bright spot then —
were ubiquitous among the urban landscape, with well over 200 operating in 1987. Now, only a few dozen remain. Journalist Krista Burton, creator of the blog
, embarked on a post-COVID mission to visit some of these remaining oases of queer community and what she was found, professionally and personally, was profound. Her new book on the experience,
, takes lucky readers on the trip; read an excerpt below.
“It’s ok,” I said aloud, my breath puffing into the icy night air. “It’s going to be fine.”
It was Saturday night, and I was in Bloomington, Indiana, walking to the Back Door, the state’s only lesbian bar, by myself. I was going to a drag show there; I’d seen a poster advertising the event. I was both excited—my first drag show in two years!! I hadn’t seen one since before the pandemic!—and being a little stuck up about it. Really, my first drag show was going to be in Bloomington? What would
I was tired. I’d spent the last four consecutive nights at lesbian bars across the Midwest. I also felt nervous to go to the Back Door’s drag show alone. And I knew
I was nervous: college students. Bloomington was nothing but college students. I hadn’t yet seen a person over twenty-two years old, unless they owned a shop in town. And while I’m not actually
old, you have to understand: in queer culture, especially in the bars, I’m definitely considered an elder queer. I was going to be the oldest person at the Back Door by a large margin.
And so far, on the lesbian bar trips, I’d been OK with the fact that I was thirty-eight and few others were, wherever I was. But that night, venturing out alone, I felt suddenly
walking with no friends under the streetlights in a dress that was too tight maybe, too dressed up, too not-right.
I thought, tugging on my dress. What am I doing here?
And then, on top of feeling self-conscious and old and inappropriately dressed, I felt bad for age-shaming myself.
There’s no such thing as age-appropriate,
I scolded myself as I walked.
It’s not a thing.
Just me and my thoughts, heading to a lesbian bar near you!
People were smoking on the patio at the Back Door. Music thumped from inside. Masked and steeling myself for a sea of very! young! faces!, I walked in.
And there was a mixed bag of people in there! Of course there was! People older than me, younger than me, people about my age. It was also racially diverse, which was a nice change for the Midwest. I looked around, smiling under my mask, suddenly feeling stupid for worrying about being too old for the Back Door—who cared? This was a dyke bar. I felt like I belonged there; that everyone in the bar belonged there. I headed to an open back table and set down my winter coat, feeling happy.
The Back Door looks cute at night. The walls are black and white, spray-painted zebra stripes, and the decor is tacky-on-purpose, all black velvet paintings of unicorns and pictures of Dolly Parton surrounded by feather boas and famous drag queens in glitter frames. In the bathroom, I noticed my stall had the word FAGS scratched into the paint in a heart shape. I was home.
I went to get a drink. The Back Door has the best drink names I’ve ever seen. There was a drink called “Two in the Pink” and another called “One in the Stink,” which contained “Skyy Cold Brew Coffee Vodka & Kahlua & Cream.” Another was called “Citron My Face.” I ordered it immediately.
The place was filling up. A large group of sorority-looking students with uniformly long, loosely curled hair came in with what looked like a single token gay boy in tow. Several nervous-looking babyqueers nabbed the last few high-tops. I smiled at one, and they looked startled, and then smiled back bashfully and slid their hand to the back of their hair.
A drag queen wearing an enormous blond beehive sailed out of the stage wings. Clearly the emcee, dressed in a tight, champagne-colored, crushed velvet floor-length dress with a matching stole, she began making her rounds, being careful to get to every table, a good sign she was out for
for tips. I love that energy. Nothing like a little warm eye contact and friendly gay chitchat with each table to make every patron feel like they’re personally responsible for tipping. She came up to my table and tapped my notebook with her nails.
“You ready to have a good time tonight?” she purred. “No more homework, OK?”
“I’m writing about this show,” I stammered, looking at her in the worshipful way everyone looks at drag queens, helpless in the face of a deity on earth.
“OK, honey.” Her cheekbones gleamed with gold shimmer highlighter. She glided to the next table, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. The two full years since I’d last seen a live drag show were a long time to wait, I realized. Two YEARS! I’d missed this!
A queen, Miss Thang, came out onstage to Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” and the show began. And holy cow, did it feel fantastic to sit in the dark watching a drag show in Bloomington, Indiana. Ten seconds into the song, Miss Thang flipped her high, shiny, black ponytail over her shoulder and slipped out of a fur coat, winking at the audience.
I teared up. It was instant. She was beautiful, lip-synching perfectly, and went around collecting tips, air-kissing people, touching their outstretched fingers full of dollar bills. Jesus. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed Normal Gay Stuff during the pandemic.
But this drag show wasn’t normal, I was realizing. The second number was just as good, and the third was even better, and every seat was full, with more and more people streaming through the door and packing the line at the bar and calling to their friends and cheering wildly for each performer. This was a great drag show!
Most drag shows are pretty fun at their base level. There are always one or two performers who are the obvious stars, crowd favorites, and the filler acts are usually fine-verging-on-meh. But
drag show was
This one was seamless, almost tangibly smooth, every performer a star, each expertly handling the audience. Every song had been chosen with care and exhaustively practiced. Every costume entrance made people gasp. A queen named Aria Amethyst appeared in a robe printed all over with dollar bills and stripped down into ripped fishnets and a bodysuit dripping with rhinestones, and a gay boy near me practically burst into tears about it, red-faced and screaming, clapping with his fists full of money. I’d never seen queens work so hard. They were flirting with the audience and humping the floor and doing splits and sissy-walking and grinding on people’s faces; there was a long line snaking around the ATM
of people trying to get more money out to throw. I wished I was so rich I could tip with hundred-dollar bills!
After the show, I headed over to a nearby table, where I met a lesbian named Ally, who told me it was her thirtieth birthday. She loved the Back Door.
“Having an open and accepting space in a conservative space like Indiana is mind-blowing,” she said. Her friend, Andy, nodded. “It’s a very safe queer space, and they work really hard at that,” he said. “If you go up to any person working here—at the bar, security, anywhere—and tell them that you’re having a problem with someone here, they’ll take care of it. I love it here.”
I went from table to table, asking how people felt about the Back Door, and all the answers were like that. Unprompted. People just loved this bar. I did, too. Especially after I realized I’d drunkenly left my entire unzipped clutch on my table, with forty dollars in ones hanging out of the front of it, my phone, and all my IDs (including my passport!!!) and credit cards in there, while I chatted with people around the bar for a full twenty minutes, and
nothing happened to any of it.
The money was still hanging out the front of my clutch when I got back to my table. Get in, bitch, we’re moving to Bloomington.