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— Some 30 years ago there existed in Houma, La., a little pink clapboard structure that had, hand-painted on its side, the words "Gay Bar."

We were curious. We thought of Houma as rough, a base camp for folkstaking a week off from their jobs on offshore oil drilling platforms. I imagined that the bar was a decoy, a trap set for unsuspecting tourists taking the scenic route to New Orleans. Inside, Cooter and Beau Jackwould be waiting with stale beer and pool cues.

It was only a couple of years later that I began to revise my opinion. My first job in newspapers was in Jennings, La., a strait-laced oasis of Midwestern propriety in the otherwisecolorful southwestern quadrant of the state. One of the few thriving concerns downtown, directly across from our newspaper office, was a gay bar. Later I discovered that Houma had a relatively lively gay scene.

That this surprised me says more about my naivete than the prevailing attitudes of people in small towns in south Louisiana in the 1970s and '80s. While at the time I might have considered homosexuals an exotic species, they were around in approximately the same relative numbers they are today. The difference is that back then I had friends who lived closeted existences, while today I think I know which of my friends are gay. I might not, and it is not my business to keep up with anyone's bedroom appetites, but I have at least evolved to the point that I no longer am startled to discover any of my assumptions proved false.

One of the things to like best about Malcolm Ingram's small town gay bar, an independent documentary released on DVD last week, is the director's clear-eyed appraisal of the not altogether-horrible plight of gay folks in northern Mississippi and the places they congregate. Ingram's movie not only makes it clear that people can be brave and resourceful in the face of intolerance, they can also throw a great party. The bars Ingram focuses on seem as joyous and emphatic as a spirit-drunk charismatic church service or a Friday night high school football playoff.

At night, mild-mannered veterinarian receptionist Jim Bishop becomes Alicia Stone, comely show director of Rumors, a ramshackle joint in the tiny town of Shannon (pop. 1,657). As Alicia, Bishop emerges as one of the more articulate and outspoken voices of the film, an indignant truthteller who won't be shut down or up. (Bishop is no slouch as a drag queen either; he could match his big-city counterparts snap for snap.)

There's a sweet lesbian couple who are trying to re-open a notorious nightclub in Meridian called Crossroads, where they used to stage boxing matches between "Marines and drag queens" and a ring of parked school buses provided patrons with a place to sleep it off. Or whatever.

While Crossroads eventually stirred up enough controversy to get itself shuttered, the women hope to re-imagine it as the more demure Different Seasons, with a somewhat toned-down atmosphere - more a haven than a circus.

A middle section of the film serves as a sobering reminder of the extant perils of appearing different before frightened people. Ingram takes a side trip to Alabama to the town of Bay Minette, where 18-year-old Scotty Joe Weaver was tortured and murdered by two childhood friends who shared his trailer and a man he was allowing to sleep on the sofa. They got the $80 Weaver cleared from his Waffle House paycheck, then tied him to a chair and, over the course of hours, beat, strangled, stabbed and partially decapitated him. Then they dragged his body into the woods, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

The district attorney in the case was horrified by what he called "the overkill" of the murder, which he said was partially motivated by Weaver's sexual orientation.

While there may be some question as to whether Weaver was an out gay man or confused about his sexuality - some family members deny Weaver was gay, though neither his mother or out-gay brother do - the Rev. Fred Phelps seems to have no doubt as to Weaver's orientation or his soul's disposition. In the margins of one of his church's' newsletters there's a crude little cartoon of "Scotty in Hell."

Ingram interviews Phelps, the notorious pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who in recent years has become famous for his "God Hates Fags" theology and picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. (It seems important to note that of the 71 registered members of the Westboro church, 60 of themare related to Phelps by blood or marriage.) And Phelps, a Mississippi native, provides a glimpse into the madness that underpins a certain brand of homophobic hate. During his interview, Phelps casually notes his plans to boycott the funeral of his "old friend" Billy Graham, whom he now considers a "fag enabler."

Executive produced by Kevin Smith and edited by Smith's longtime collaborator Scott Moiser, small town gay bar isat once affectionate and affecting, an essay on the sometimes baffling courage displayed by those determined to construct a community in an often hostile environment.

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 41 on 08/10/2007


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