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The boom and bust of North Dakota’s only gay bar

Rural life can be complicated for LGBTQ people. The story of Heartbreakers, North Dakota's lone gay bar, is proof.

It’s Saturday night, and Heartbreakers is empty.

The small bar, which holds 70 people at fire code capacity, is tucked away near the Amtrak station in Williston, North Dakota. During the oil boom that blessed the region in the mid-2000s, that train brought prosperity to the town, with workers arriving to claim the spoils of overflowing black gold. But since the oil dried up near the end of 2014, there’s less to go around these days.

While Williston residents gather for the annual Upper Missouri Valley Fair, complete with wrestling and a performance from the local hypnotist, the town sits silent, as if it’s waiting for something.

Heartbreakers, formerly a strip club, promised a new beginning for Williston. That club closed in 2013, shortly after a New York Times article chronicled the town’s demographic crisis: Williston, with a population of just 14,716, is young and full of men — 60 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 34 are male. The men, mostly oil workers who came to the area for work, compared it to being in prison.

The Times reported that since the oil boom, Williston had become “unsafe” for the women who live in the city — according to the Times, some women couldn’t even shop “at the local Walmart without men following them through the store.”

In January, the Williston City Council decided to revoke the erotic dancer licenses of the town’s two major strip clubs in hopes of “cleaning up” the city. Jared Holbrook, the owner of Heartbreakers, announced that it would be rebranding as a gay club following the shutdown. “For us to try to compete with the other establishments in town, we have nothing new to offer,” Holbrook told the Williston Herald.

Heartbreakers, however, illustrates the challenges of running a gay bar in a state where there are few resources for LGBTQ people, let alone gay clubs. North Dakota is a state that's not only legislatively hostile to queer folks but also geographically difficult to live in. Heartbreakers stands in the middle of downtown Williston — and when it opened, it became the only LGBTQ bar in North Dakota. If Williston residents want to go to a gay or lesbian club elsewhere, they have to travel all the way to Billings, Montana, five hours away. Winnipeg, Minneapolis, and Sioux Falls are a day’s journey.

Something that seems ordinary, a local watering hole catering to queer clientele, can be particularly revolutionary when you have few other places to go. If the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando reminded us how important safe spaces are, North Dakota is proof positive.

Heartbreakers is a club in search of its own identity

The bar at Heartbreakers, a gay club in Williston, North Dakota
Heartbreakers, a gay club in Williston, North Dakota.

When Heartbreakers reopened in late May, the stripper poles and stages were replaced with a rainbow-colored beer pong table, but the memory of the bar’s former life looms heavy over the space. The bar is filled with heart-shaped benches, where strippers once got up close and personal with male patrons. Its front windows are covered with boards, designed to prevent having bricks thrown through them. The whiteboard sign out front still advertises ladies’ night: “4 the Ladies Free Drinks.”

The handful of patrons are many of same people who frequented the strip club. At 10 pm on a June evening, a man is yelling about the music selection. “Is this Michael Jackson?” he repeatedly screams over “Billie Jean,” too drunk to realize how loud his question is. He wanders in and out of the bar, unsure if he wants to stay.

Other than the cornhole table folded up in the corner, there’s little that distinguishes Heartbreakers from the town’s group of straight bars. The retro-heavy playlist is dominated by well-worn rock hits of the ’70s and ’80s, and while “Eye of the Tiger” played to the bar’s smattering of patrons, Jeff Dick, a manager and bartender at Heartbreakers, extolls the virtues of the man behind the song.

“Rocky Balboa is the greatest American that ever lived!” he yells over the music.

He is unfazed by the news that the character is fictional.

Stephanie Shults is the general manager of the Penalty Box, which sits next door to Heartbreakers. Formerly known as Whispers, the bar was also forced to shut down and rebrand following the strip club closures earlier this year. Despite — or perhaps as a marker of — the low attendance, “all the feedback I heard was positive,” she said of Heartbreakers’ reopening. “Even if somebody was bothered by it, they weren’t bothered by it enough to say something.”

To Shults, opening a gay bar in Williston is personal. “My moms are lesbians, so I got to be raised in this community,” she said. “This has been my life for 33 years now. These women are just amazing. They opened my mind so much — just to life itself.”

In small-town America, the need for LGBTQ safe spaces is still very real

Shults is part of the organizing committee for Williston Pride, which was held for the first time last July in response to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality. Alex Johnson, who serves as the president of the group, says the location for pride was chosen because the fairgrounds are on the outskirts of Williston, where attendees may be safer from counterprotesters and potential violent actors.

But Heartbreakers? “It’s in the middle of town,” Johnson said. “You have all these bars around. You have people that are drunk. They could come cause problems for everyone.”

Johnson said security was a major concern for pride this year. The group hired private security detail, and had police officers drive by every hour. “They walked people to their cars to make sure they were okay,” Johnson recalled.

Libbi Prestwood, an organizer for Williston LGBTQ Pride, says there was very little backlash from the town following the event. Security didn’t prove an issue.

“I think people have kind of a stigma about small-town USA — the good ol’ boys and the rednecks — but we really haven’t experienced that,” she said. “We’ve been shown a lot of love from the community. When people think of Williston, they don’t necessarily think of gay pride, but we’ve had a lot of businesses offer to donate and a lot of people telling us they think what we do is great.”

Prestwood believes the event was crucial for Williston’s LGBTQ community. “They were super happy just to have a place where they felt comfortable, accepted, and celebrated,” she said.

Those spaces, however, are few and far between in North Dakota. Currently, North Dakota is one of the majority of states lacking nondiscrimination laws that offer protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. That means that while same-sex partners can get married in North Dakota, they could be fired for having a picture of their legally wedded partner on their desk at work.

“When there’s wins on the national landscape, they can be undercut by things we don’t have here yet,” said Jennifer Weisgerber, the vice president of Dakota OutRight. “It feels really bittersweet.”

Because of the few protections afforded to the LGBTQ community, Weisgerber says it can be difficult to speak up about the harassment or discrimination you experience as a queer person, whether it’s in the workplace or everyday life.

“Our city has a human rights commission, but to report through them, your information is made public,” she explained. “You’re outing yourself. You need a certain amount of privilege to be able to complain about discrimination.”

Tyler Fisher recalls a history of being discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. A 28-year-old in-home health care worker who has lived in the state his whole life, he’s pursuing a lawsuit against a former employer after co-workers repeatedly mocked him during shifts, calling him a “queer” and a “dick eater.”

“It happens to me a lot,” he said.

Fisher says he was denied entry from a bar in Mandan, which sits just across the Missouri River from Bismarck, earlier this year after the bouncer called his friends “child molesters.” A woman at a Chinese restaurant asked the manager to wash the tongs after he used them. “I need you to wash this because there’s a homosexual over there and we don’t want to get AIDS,” he remembers her saying.

“I’m the same,” Fisher said. “I’m equal, just like everyone else. I don’t understand why some people have so much hatred toward the LGBT community. I’m the nicest person you will ever meet. I’d do anything for anybody.”

Dan Scott, the state’s oldest performing drag queen, says North Dakota’s LGBTQ community faces unique challenges.

“A lot of it is geographical, because we’re so far apart,” he explained. “It’s not like you can just drive half an hour to be somewhere else. Bismarck is an hour and a half away. It’s especially bad in the winter. You have to pack emergency kits with you in case you get stranded, because it gets 35 below and you can die in an hour.”

The difficulty of being queer in the Peace Garden State is also demographic: North Dakota has the smallest queer population of any state in the country, with just 1.7 percent of residents identifying as LGBTQ. Given North Dakota’s already small overall population (about the size of Indianapolis), it means there are only about 12,500 queer people in the whole state.

“It’s depressing, and you feel totally alone,” Scott said.

The state’s last gay bar, I-Beam, which was located in Fargo, closed down in 2008, and North Dakota’s LGBTQ community has struggled to replace it. On top of the numbers issue, frankly, things tend to move slowly in North Dakota. The state’s legislature only meets every other year, meaning that LGBTQ advocates have been pushing for specific nondiscrimination laws for the past eight years. Following three failed bills, they will introduce new legislation in 2017.

Chris Stoner, who was the show director at I-Beam, remembers it as “a little bit divey.” Housed in a refurbished gas station, the Fargo bar had an industrial vibe, with large windows and booths draped in retro glitter vinyl. The big draws were Desperate Housewives nights on Sundays and its drag shows, which attracted the biggest crowds.

“I-Beam was a little community place that people came to hang out, have drinks, and come to shows,” he said.

Stoner believes another bar “would help build community cohesion,” but that LGBTQ people in North Dakota have done a good job of making public spaces their own. “What’s happened is that because we don’t have our own space, it’s forced us to go out into our community and realize that it’s not as scary as people seem to think it is,” he said. “We’ve found other places that are open and supportive.”

In Bismarck, LGBTQ groups hold queer trivia nights, potlucks, and book clubs, as well as bar takeovers. “We’ve had to create pop-up community,” Weisgerber said. “The joke is that the gay bar is wherever all the gay people show up.”

Things are getting better in North Dakota, if slowly. Minot, the town Scott calls home, held its fourth annual pride weekend on July 8. He says the yearly event, as well as local meetups organized through the group’s Facebook page, has made a huge difference in his life. “Before, I had to drive 109 miles to be where other gay people where,” he said. “Now I have friends that I can call. I’m 61, I’m disabled, and sometimes I need help with things.”

The sudden end of the gay scene at Heartbreakers

Aside from the problem of geography, Heartbreakers faced a conflict. Depending on whom you ask, it might not be a gay bar at all. In an op-ed published in the Williston Herald, Matt Hickman noted that owner Holbrook’s announcement was “little more than a bluff, a publicity stunt to try to get his way in a last-ditch effort of ironic defiance.”

The theory went that Holbrook claimed Heartbreakers would open as a gay club as a gambit to get his erotic dancer license back. After all, what’s the only thing worse than a strip club in small-town North Dakota?

The bar itself did little to dispel that speculation. On May 29, Heartbreakers posted a photo to its Facebook page inviting patrons to “get [your] corn hole on.” One follower commented, “I heard this was a gay bar now,” to which Heartbreakers responded, “Heard wrong, it's a bar with entertainment for everyone.”

Holbrook declined to comment to Vox, but manager Jeff Dick said that after the bar closed as a strip club, he was told that Heartbreakers would be going in a different direction than what was announced to the public. Dick said he believes the announcement that Heartbreakers would reopen as a gay bar was intended to “screw over the town a little bit.”

He added, however, that going gay would be a good business decision. “When you’re a queer club in [North Dakota], you have the only game in town,” Dick said.

Holbrook perhaps underestimated that a gay bar would be not only championed by his own staff but also supported by a town that simply needed something different, especially during an economic downturn. Opening a gay bar gives the town something no other city in North Dakota has — it puts Williston back on the map.

When he spoke to Vox in June, Dick said he’d operate the bar as a mixed space, against Holbrook’s edict, catering to both women and the gay community. Considering the state’s small LGBTQ population, he surmised it would make sense to run an establishment that’s both queer and inclusive. The bar planned to book its first drag show in July, as well as host the Magic Mike tour. Featuring backup dancers from the film, it would stop at Heartbreakers on August 31.

“I want to bring more drag shows and male reviews in,” he said. “I want to bring everything I can in.” Dick believes that Williston is ready for it. “Where I’m from, they don’t call it a ‘gay bar,’” Dick said. “They just call it a ‘bar.’ Everybody knows, but who cares? It’s 2016.”

Apparently, the owners care.

Dick was let go from Heartbreakers in July. While the bar’s still open, the Dickinson Press reported that the owners of the bar had “decided against catering to any specific demographic,” after bringing in a new general manager.

Heartbreakers, as a gay bar, suggested the possibility for progress in an environment where progress is a Herculean task. In Williston, a lot on the edge of town serves as a graveyard for abandoned RVs, left behind during the oil bust. The town has been hobbled, but people remain hopeful. You can see it in the faces of the people you meet, who know that their town — and North Dakota itself — can be better. They’ve seen it.

But for now, it seems, they’re still waiting.

Dedicated to Kevin Tengesdal, my guide over the River Styx.