Amidst North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, a Durham queer bar provides safe spaces
As my boyfriend and I passed over the Virginia/North Carolina border on our way to Moogfest 2016, we couldn’t help but feel a chill in the air. Anti-LGBTQ sentiment is nothing new to the region, and even here in RVA we don’t always feel 100 percent safe – but there’s something about entering a state that leads the country in laws that persecute sexual-minorities that really makes you shiver.
We’d set up the trip long before the passage of HB2, the law which now famously forces transgender people into the wrong restroom and takes away a locality’s ability to protect LGBTQ employees. The musicians on the lineup were some of our favorites and the festival had expressed its own distaste of the law, so we loaded up our car and headed South.
Register in front of the Pinhook, 117 W Main St, Durham, NC
The venue opened about 10 years ago as The Bull City Headquarters, a DIY space for Register and other local punk and anarchist folks to congregate, play shows and show art.
‘The whole downtown area was uninhabited,” Register said talking about the old days before NC’s Tech Triangle – the area between and including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill – blew up to become homes to companies like Microsoft, Dupont and IBM.
“This building was nothing for years,” they said looking over the back patio of the Pinhook while a party raged inside. Register and friends managed to get the venue off the ground officially about eight years ago. It was and continues to be a safe heaven for not only sexual minorities, but people of color as well – a segment of the community Register believes is often underrepresented despite larger population numbers in the region (about 29% are Black or Latino according to the 2007 census).
“People say [Durham was rough] cause there were a lot of Black people here,” Register said. “Durham has had a high crime rate, the police department sucks.”
No matter the state of the city, The Pinhook managed to thrive. Hip hop shows, punk shows, any kind of event supporting an alternative or radical way of thinking was welcome, and in a place like North Carolina that can be hard to find. And Register, who had spent years touring with different queer punk bands, had to start thinking about her future.
“I was like, I could start a bar and I could have a job for ever and so could my friends. We could still tour and do whatever we want. That’s how it started,” they said. “The only reason they gave the space to a bunch of people in their late 20s was cause no-one else would come down here.”
Lets’ take another second to look at NC some more here – their fight for LGBTQ rights is a bit more interesting than just HB2. The Tar Heel state didn’t ban same-sex marriage until 2014. The law, called Amendment 1, matched other state’s constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, but there were a number of controversies around it’s actual passage.
For one, the vote happened during a primary vote in early May, not during the traditional November Election Day vote. That primary election also featured a contested Republican race but an uncontested democratic race, meaning more Republicans – who would be inclined to vote against same-sex marriage – turned out to vote.
The amendment passed with over 61 percent of voters supporting it, but only about 34 percent total voter turn out. For comparison, Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, The Marshall Newman Amendment, was voted on in November 2006 with 57 percent supporting it and about 52 percent voter turn out.
Oddly enough the amendment’s passage did lead to one positive outcome for the LGBTQ community; the following day President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage and specifically cited the vote in NC as “disappointing.”
Either way, this made NC one of the last states to ban same-sex marriage and left many of the same legislators in office when their law and others like it around the US were nixed by the Supreme Court in June 2015.
Whether or not the animosity of being dragged into the progress directly impacted the passage of HB2 is a bit hard to nail down, but it’s easy to imagine any number of conservative legislators looking for an excuse to get back at the LGBTQ community for shutting down their brand new constitutional amendment.
But back at the Pinhook, Register is still talking about how much Durham has changed and how much her spot allows for diverse communities to mingle and meet. They’ve had gender neutral bathrooms for years, something the bar owner prides themselves on. And despite what you might imagine, The Pinhook has never had any incidents of violence or anti-LGBTQ demonstrations.
Register showing off the gender neutral (milk hotel) bathrooms which have been in place for years
“Fights here, I could count them on my hand,” Register said. “It’s a very supportive space. Our door guys aren’t big security guys, they’re conversationalists… they’re skinny punk dudes, we’ve got a woman of color.”
The more I spoke with Register the more I realized my NC-chill might have been overblown. With folks like them and places like the Pinhook, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Richmond – a rapidly expanding urban center with ever-gentrifying Black suburbs, a shitty punk/metal bar dominated by queers (talking about you, Strange Matter), and any number of unreasonably expensive condos currently under construction.
And Register is not just fighting for queer or POC civil rights, she’s standing agianst the broad changes and urbanization her home town of Durham is going through.
“There’s always going to be somebody who’s marginalized by heteronormativity,” they said. “That’s what this space is about. It’s not just a queer bar, its a bar run by a bunch of queers and anarchists… and we align ourselves with other people who are struggling. That’s why the hip hop scene does well here. A lot of people of color do hip hop and find home in a space that’s accepting like this space.”
Register pointed to the irony of the Pinhook’s role in gentrification. How places like it draw in a young creative class which is quickly followed by a more succesful class of people wanting to emulate the young creatives.
“We recognize our part of that,” they said, stealing one of the cigarettes. “You come into a place that is dilapidated and has actually nothing. And we’re like ‘hey white straight people, it’s cool – and they’re like ‘this white punk person is cool, we can go there.’…”
It’s hard to reconcile, but Register is succeeding and is proud to offer a safe space for those who need it.
And its folks like Laura Friederich who need it most. She is part of the Party Illegal collective, a party series at the Pinhook which started for the sole purpose of supporting queers and others in the area.
Friederich at the back door of the Pinhook
“I wanted a party that was specifically queer but not targeted queer,” said Friederich. ”One of the things that is appealing to me, and one of my goals with the party, was to throw different social groups and different genres of music at it and bringing in different things and seeing what happens… you get sort of the synthesis of what happens when you have different genres and different groups.”
Friederich identifies as queer, and while she’s focused her and Party Illegal’s work more towards broader social justice issues like immigration and marijuana law reform, she’s still invested in the fight for LGBTQ equality as well.
“Homophobes still exist and that’s not gonna change until this world changes,” she said, noting how she often feels unsafe holding hands with someone of the same-sex in public. “But there’s no place thats ever gonna be truly safe and pure for everyone.”
Friederich said a big part of their event’s success is the audience. While they curate the entertainers, it also inevitably curates the audience as well.
“If you bring in different DJs, what does that bring into the audience?” she asked. “How do you put two DJs with different communities on the bill together and then get two audiences together.”
Party Illegal DJs spinning during Moogfest 2016
Friederich said she was surprised at how well the different groups mesh and how they managed to create something entirely new, because it’s created on its own, organically. “It’s created a crew of people that comes together every month that has now been doing this for a few years,” she said. “It’s also created a space and a community around itself so it’s definitely sort of like a meandering animal of an experience.”
As the fight in North Carolina continues, even in the face of recent Federal Court rulings which show support for transgender Americans, Friederich, Register and friends continue to offer spaces for those in need, no matter who they love or where they come from. It hasn’t been easy, but the rewards are often as simple as a few beers and a crowded dance floor.
“It’s a really fun adventure,” Friederich said. ”Showing up and doing it month after month after month and being like ‘I don’t know why I do this.’ But then random opportunities wander in to your life.”
My boyfriend and I were only in Durham for the weekend and at no point were we really worried about being ourselves. The crowds, venues and event made a point to show they were against HB2 whenever they could. And while the events of the weekend left us exhausted, it also left us thinking a little differently about our neighbors down south. How, had we a more conservative governor, we might be facing similar national backlash for anti-LGBTQ laws. How we’re all just queers in a world trying to find a safe space, and how there are those around us who are less privileged and it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to support them when we can.
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