Update: Both Ryan Elkins and The Woodlands Pride issued statements and apologies to the Room Bar & Lounge this afternoon following this piece.
Let me start by saying that this is not going to be a gossipy piece about some silly Facebook argument. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s best to go and trot back along to Facebook. What this is is an opinion piece about the behavior of an individual high in the rankings of Texas’s newest Pride celebration that made remarks about something I hold near and dear to my heart, how it has the potential to negatively affect the LGBTQIA community, and why that’s not okay.
This past weekend, the Woodlands hosted its inaugural Pride celebration to mixed emotions when the news initially came out (no pun intended) many months ago. Many were excited and proud, and many were also curious as to why the Woodlands (which is only an approximate 40 minutes outside of Downtown Houston) needed its own Pride. I, personally, thought that the idea was lovely and wanted to support the Woodlands Pride in whatever way we could. While the Woodlands is considered by most to be a part of the Greater Houston Area, the cultures of LGBTQ Houston and LGBTQ Woodlands are quite different in many ways, which is something important to remember. The bars in North Houston for LGBTQ people are limited and there is no “gayborhood” proper like Houston has in Montrose. To add to that, and in a more general sense, life outside the loop is far different than life inside it. But what I’d like to focus on the most is that second point I made about the bars.
In The Woodlands — which is an independent township in Montgomery County lying partly in Spring, TX and partly in Shenandoah, TX (basically South Conroe) — there is only one gay bar, Ranch Hill Saloon. Ranch Hill is owned by Debbie Steele, a prominent member of the North Houston LGBTQ community that dedicates her life and bar to serving its people. And in the rest of North Houston, there is only one other gay bar for people of our community to flock to, the Room Bar & Lounge. The Room is owned by another important person of notoriety, Lorraine Crowne, who opened one of Spring’s first gay bars in 1997, the Rainbow Room (a separate entity). Both Ranch Hill and the Room are excellent bars in separate ways, and also in those that intermingle. They both have excellent staffs, small and hometown feels, and serve a community of LGBTQ people that don’t have a lot of other places within their niche to relax and be themselves on their side of town. That being said, they’re also very different bars. Ranch Hill serves a more rural, country feel to it that one might expect at a place such as Neon Boots in Houston, while the Room has a more go-with-the-flow vibe and sort of acclimates to whatever audience walks through the door.
But their aesthetic differences and similarities aren’t really the point here. The point, if I may, is that both are bars that serve an underserved community of people in a predominantly conservative area of Houston.Both, however, prove to get very busy on the weekends; and since they are so small, they often see a variety of patrons that cross over from the other’s side of the tracks. They’re both hosts of several events that support the community with fundraisers, drag shows, karaoke nights, and more. Neither is perfect, but both are pretty fantastic. And that ain’t easy, folks; and it certainly does not come without hardship.
That’s why it struck me as odd when I was directed to the Room Bar’s Facebook page this weekend and saw a negative review (which has since been deleted) about the Room Bar from board director of the Woodlands Pride, Ryan Elkins. The review read as follows:
This rubs me the wrong way for two reasons: one of which is a bit personal, and the other regards our social actions toward one another in the LGBTQIA community. I’ll start with the latter. I’ve also included some personal photos here to show just how much time I have spent at the Room Bar and why I love it (you’ll have to pardon some of them, as I’ve lost about 50lbs since they were taken).
Historically, gay bars were the only places in the world that LGBTQ people could go and be themselves. When Sodomy laws and the criminalization of homosexuality was prevalent, these bars were the only places to go and be around people like you. Moreover, they were some of the only places queer people could go to meet partners and friends that shared adversities, trials, tribulations, successes, and joys. In 2018, it may not seem as though queer bars hold quite as much significance, but the fact of the matter is that they still do. Being LGBTQIA is still illegal in many places around the world — some of which are even known for punishing these people by death. Gay bars are churches, homes, safe havens to people on the LGBTQIA spectrum. There are still many in the world who feel forced to remain in closets or fear coming out that seek out these places in order to let out a sigh of relief. It’s a bit like that cigarette you sneak at work when things get particularly overwhelming or that dance you do when you get out of the shower naked because no one can see you and you just need to feel a reprieve from real life. Granted, it is both of these things and much more on a greater scale. It is, however, a similar sensation.
And that’s what makes this review not just useless to our community, but degrading and regressive. Surely the board of directors at the Woodlands Pride has a partial attitude toward Ranch Hill, as Ranch was the official after party sponsor for the Woodlands Pride and the Room was not. Making Ranch Hill the official after party venue was a smart decision. It’s not only a great venue, but it is conveniently located to the site of the Woodlands Pride, and the visitors of the event were likely familiar fans of the bar. But what does it say about the attitude of at least one member of the board of directors of the Woodlands Pride about the community when one of those directors is publicly smearing a safe haven for queer people on social media? How is it progressing us toward equality and normalization if we are tearing one another apart rather than lifting one another up?
With that said, I don’t know what Elkins’ experience at the Room in late August was like before he posted that status update. I have a few details from sources close to the situation that say Elkins allegedly was served by a bartender who didn’t seem all that interested in customer service. I also am not completely cognizant of what exactly went down at the Woodlands Pride between them and the Room Bar. In a comment left on the original review, Elkins stated that there were comments being made about the after party at Ranch Hill that were unkind to both Ranch and Woodlands Pride. From my understanding, these comments, however, did not come from the staff of the Room Bar, and were unbeknownst to the staff until after the review was posted online.
And I’d like it to be said that if that was the case, I am in no way making excuses for the Room Bar’s staff or patrons. The issue here isn’t one on the side of the bar exclusively. It’s an issue of why we, as LGBTQIA people, feel the need to perpetuate infighting within our community rather than rising above snide remarks, regardless of who they come from. It’s also one of why higher-ups in Pride Celebrations don’t recognize that they have a responsibility to set that example. I, for one, worked as the volunteer coordinator for Pride Houston for two years, and was an occasional volunteer in the years that passed before that. What I learned in that time — and not without a lot of working on myself to make changes to my behavior — is that everything that we do is a perpetuation of the organization we represent. I had my ass handed to me more times than a few from our board directors about how I behaved and spoke on social media. And while I’m a staunch believer that everyone has a right to say and behave how they feel so long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I also understand that when affiliated with something, your words and actions not only impact your reputation, but that of the others around you. More importantly, I had to learn for myself as the volunteer coordinator then and as the editor-in-chief of one of Houston’s largest queer publications that our job as pillars of the community is not to put down one another or to react to silly commentaries that ultimately are trivial in the long run.
But as I said before, I have a personal connection to the Room Bar. While I (again) don’t know the experience in great specificity that Ryan Elkins had at the bar, I’d like to share with everyone my experience with the bar, its staff, and the community I became a part of there in order to reiterate that one bad day does not undo the good that a person or establishment does over many years. That statement is two-fold. This one bad Facebook review does not undo all the good that I know Ryan Elkins to have done and continue to do in the community, nor does it undo the good of the Room Bar.
The Room Bar has been open at 4915 Fm 2920 Road #148 for eight years now, the better part of a decade. Its owner, Lorraine Crown, may not be LGBTQ herself; but she has been in this community advocating for our rights and providing a safe space for queer people for over twenty years. Back in 1997, she opened one of the first gay bars in the area, The Rainbow Room located off of Ella and I-45. When the Rainbow Room shut down several years ago, Crown opened the Room Bar and Lounge on 2920, transforming what was once a bar named Uncle Sam’s.
The Room Bar was my very first gay bar. I wasn’t even out to anyone yet except for a handful of close friends, and I would sneak over to the Room when I had nothing else going on — scared and hoping I’d not run into anyone that I knew for fear they’d tell my mother. What I was met with was not a tension of anxiety, however, but a sigh of relief. From the moment I walked in and saw the flame-haired bartender Natalie Brackin standing on the other side of the bar, I was made to feel like I was a part of a family. Brackin introduced me to new friends, took the time to get to know me, and remains to be one of my closest friends to this day, some three years or so later. That bar was my reprieve for the next couple of years. I’d spend my time there after work to take solace in being around people like me after being overwhelmed by homophobia at work, met my first boyfriend there, hosted our first fundraiser for my forthcoming TV show there, released my American Library Association Award-nominated book there, and made some of my favorite memories there.
While I neither live on that side of town any longer nor make it out to the Room Bar as often as I’d like, I still spend a great deal of time with Brackin, as well as my other friends that I made there. My close friend Nick and I still get together for drinks and good music, my friend Ryan (Fuller) is the karaoke DJ there who goes to great lengths and key transpositions to let me sing any song I want, and some of my best friends and drag queens perform there on a weekly basis. The Room was even kind enough to let us film an episode of Wineding Down with Anthony there just a few weeks back. Brackin, in particular, has a way of making people feel special, and not because she’s looking for a fat tip. It’s because Natalie Brackin is genuinely invested in the bar and wants it to succeed; but this is more so because she is genuinely interested in the people that pass through its doors and wants to see them happy and well. That’s a rare thing to find amongst bartenders, who truly have some of the most chaotic and stressful jobs in the world. They’re friends of patrons, therapists of patrons, and sometimes even the only family patrons have, especially so in this community. It speaks not only to the Brackin’s work ethic that she behaves this way, but also to her heart. In the years that I’ve been patronizing the Room, I’ve never once seen or heard Natalie treat any new customer differently than the next or those that she’s been friends with for years. The bar’s manager, Chris Vega, is equally kind, which is what has made them such an effective team since Vega made his way to the Room Bar after leaving Ranch Hill a little over a year ago. When Brackin recruited him, he brought a new kind of life into the bar — not to mention many of Ranch Hill’s customers — and took it upon himself to aid in reinventing the bar’s aesthetic. He too is a genuinely kind person who speaks in a soft voice that he almost never raises and smiles and laughs with all his friends and customers. You couldn’t find two better bartenders.
It’s also fair to mention that they make excellent drinks.
The Room Bar — just as I’m sure Ranch Hill is to many — is a special place to me even after being out and moving into Houston where I quickly ingratiated myself into the LGBTQ community deeper than I ever had been with my role at Pride Houston and here at About. But there was a moment when I realized how special the bar was to me that I’m certain to never forget for as long as I live.
It was in the wee hours of the morning of June 12th, 2016 when I was at the Room Bar while another gay bar in Orlando, FL was being gunned down by a domestic terrorist. I was at the Room to see the Tatiana Mala-Niña perform in her monthly drag performance at their “Roomers” show, which also featured Veronica Strutts and since-retired Akira Sky and Estella Blow. Many other people like me were at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando that night having the same sort of fun we were, until a man entered the club and opened fire, killing 49 queer people of color simply because they identified as LGBTQ and dared to go out and celebrate themselves.
I remember waking up later that morning, seeing the news of the shooting, and crying like I’d never cried before. These people — while different from me, certainly — were like me in a lot of ways. Many of them were gay Latinx people like myself who had only gone out to have a good time with their friends. Some of them were out of the closet to their families and friends, but others — like me — were not. I couldn’t help but think about how real the violence against LGBTQIA people was and how that could have been any bar in the world, including that same night that I sat on a bar stool on the left side of the Room bar watching my soon-to-be friend Tatiana celebrate herself and her audience.
That evening, I made a trip to my mother’s house and deliberated all night long how to tell her that I was gay. We watched the coverage together as I working up the nerve to tell her during it, backing out, and trying again. I spent the night at her house because I couldn’t make myself do it then, and I went to bed sick at my stomach, never having felt before that I’d been lying so blatantly about something in life. But the next morning when I got up for work, I took a shower, caught my mother outside while she was smoking a cigarette, sat down with her and told her the truth about who I was and the life I’d begun to put my toes in the water of over the last year.
Once I said it, before I even saw how she was going to react, my whole life changed. Weights I’d been carrying around for twenty-two years flew off of me and I could finally move my extremities again because the chains and shackles had come off. I felt liberated, and I owed it in immense amounts to those poor souls that had lost their lives at Pulse Nightclub the morning before in a way I knew they’d never get to know. They changed my life, which is the least respect I could pay to them after they’d met such a tragic end. I wished they’d been around for me to thank them. And my mother was supportive, and she was kind, and we moved on with life as per the usual. She was raised a conservative Christian, but as a nurse knew that there was science emerging daily to prove that people are not making a choice to be gay. How could they? Who makes a choice to live a life of ridicule and adversity, all-too-often one that ends the way it did for those 49 people in Orlando. But she asked me that very same question I’d been asking myself all along through the coverage of the Pulse Massacre: what if it had been you?
And, you know, what’s funny about coming out is that even moments after you do it, you have these tiny, pocket-sized moments of clarity that just seem to make you go, “Oh. I’m not sure why I didn’t see that before.” I had one of those right then, thinking about how much fun I’d had the night before with my friends — new and old, gay and straight — as I danced and drank and took for granted the fact that I had been safe in my own safe haven.
“You know, I would never want to die,” I told my mother, “but if I were to have died last night, I can’t think of anywhere else I would have wanted to be or where I would have been happier.”
You don’t have to understand my story, Ryan Elkins; although I’m sure that if you look back in your own timeline as a gay man, you have a similar story relating to a similar establishment or person. Maybe for you that’s Ranch Hill. Maybe not. But if you don’t think that that’s something ‘unique’ or ‘special’ about the Room Bar, as stated in your review, I’m not quite sure what else is. Because, you see, LGBTQ bars are sometimes hit-or-miss. But the defining aspect of them is not one person’s snide opinion about the establishment; it’s the way they protect our people from the ugly, nasty world out there where we are not yet equal or normalized. And as leaders of our community, as you and I both are, it is our job to see to it that all LGBTQ businesses that are working toward goodwill, equality, intersectionality, and normalization are boasted rather than shot down.
This is not the part of this letter where I call for Ryan Elkins’ resignation or anything. Quite the contrary. I know Ryan through mutual friends, and I like him a great deal. Thanks to those mutual friends, we have had the opportunity to have spent time together. I have always and will always continue to support The Woodlands Pride, including in our forthcoming highlight of it on Wednesday that two reporters from About wrote up about the event. They were so impressed, and I was sad to have missed it due to having plans with a close friend of mine I’d had scheduled for several months. I think it is a lovely — and clearly successful — endeavor to have another Pride in our larger, spread out area of Texas. But I will say this to Ryan Elkins here publicly: Shame on you for posting a nasty review about a bar that paid to be an entry into your festival, that showed up and supported our community and your cause — as well as countless others throughout its near-10 year life, and that continues to do so inside its four walls in more ways than I think you realize. But more to the point: Shame on you for doing so while preaching about equality, diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion to the LGBTQIA community of North Houston. I know you enough to say that you are better than this.
And to the Room Bar, I say this: Get your people. If you hear something, saying something. I am not here to excuse any actions or words that may have been perpetuated, as they clearly upset Mr. Elkins and the staff of both the Woodlands Pride and Ranch Hill. We cannot, however and to both parties, continue infighting in the community if we want success and normalization of our people. We must set aside our differences and come together to continue to raise people up. The Room Bar has a responsibility to the community just as Mr. Elkins does. I do not, however, believe that anyone on its staff or any of its regulars were the speakers of the not-so-nice language, nor do I believe they have it in them to intentionally hurt anyone. They wanted to support the Woodlands Pride, and that’s what they were there — like so many others — to do.
This is, however, the part of the letter, where I call on not only Ryan Elkins, but the Woodlands Pride as a whole, to issue an apology to the Room Bar for Elkins’ commentary. While he is entitled to his opinion, just as I am here in this letter, it is important for all of us to be more accountable of the things we say and do. I for one am not innocent of behaving the same way. I often make jokes like, “Screw OutSmart!” as there is a misguided belief that OutSmart and About have some sort of rivalry going on. But anyone who knows me or my publication knows that I genuinely support OutSmart and all our other publishing partners in the community. We’re all hear with a similar goal (to spotlight and raise up our community) and we all do so in different, yet equally effective ways. And I know for fact that Mr. Elkins wants the same for Woodlands Pride. Unfortunately, words of inclusion and diversity and support are not enough when you perpetuate actions that speak louder than hollow words.
The Room Bar is small, and quaint, and it is sometimes dead as hell. But whether there is 1 patron in the bar or 100, the staff always does its very best to give the community — myself included — a place to call home.
Do better. Be better. Love each other.
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