January 16, 2016
A Place for ALL of Us . . . Somewhere
By Warren Holleman
Remember the heart-wrenching song from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story? It’s the prayer of two star-crossed lovers, unable to be who they were or to love the one they loved. And, of course, the stars weren’t the real problem. The real problem was the unmitigated prejudice and hatred of those around them.
Well, that story has been told a thousand ways since Shakespeare first crafted it, and last weekend The Moth Radio Hour added a new version to the canon: mine! (It’s the one titled: “Sewing, Singing, Suits, and Cemeteries.”) Big Thank You’s to: The Moth (Elizabeth Sosa Bailey in Houston, Catherine Burns and Jenifer Hixson in New York); to all my friends who listened; and, to those who contacted me afterwards to discuss. I enjoyed our conversations and emails as much as the story itself.
Kudos to Elizabeth for bringing The Moth to Houston, and to Jenifer and Catherine for discovering my story, getting what I was trying to say, finding somewhere a place for it, and producing it with intelligence and love. It’s not everyday you come across NYC producers who understand and appreciate the complicated interaction of conservative Texas culture and Southern Baptist faith in a modern, diverse city like Houston.
Some have asked me who sang the amazing rendition of “Somewhere” that followed my story. The correct answer is . . . Tom Waits.
I LOVED the way the The Moth production team placed that song, making it essentially a benediction to my story. I was listening at home, in my living room, with a bevy of storytelling friends. When the story ended and the song began, a number of us broke out in tears.
My friends and I discussed later what made Waits’ version so powerful, and here’s a theory. Unlike the more familiar version from West Side Story, Waits’ version sounds haunting and tragic, not hopeful. Being young and idealistic, Tony and Maria believed there really was “a place for us.” Waits, on the other hand, sings from the perspective of an older person who has known a lifetime of disappointment. He sings the words, not because he believes them, but because he doesn’t. He knows. It’s a profoundly sad realization. Listening to Waits’ sad song reminds me of all the LGBT men and women of times past who—like Tony and Maria—went to their graves lonely, marginalized, never able to be themselves or love whom they loved because there most definitely was NOT “a place for us.”
In case you’re looking for The Briar Patch, it closed a few years back, and exists only in the memories of a select group of older Houstonians. Maybe that’s a good thing, because maybe that means a “briar patch” is no longer needed. Maybe it means that LGBT men and women no longer have to hide, like social outcasts, in order to find a supportive community?
For those who did not grow up in the South hearing the stories of Uncle Remus, I’ll say a word about this powerful metaphor, “the Briar Patch.” Back before the Civil War, slaves told stories about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. It was a veiled way of talking about Negro slaves and their white owners.
The story I remember best is about the time Brer Rabbit got caught by Brer Fox. Trapped, powerless, and facing certain death, Brer Rabbit re-won his freedom by using reverse psychology to outsmart Brer Fox. “You can throw me anywhere you want, Brer Fox, but please, please don’t throw me in that there briar patch. It’s got thorns and brambles and it would be sheer torture to be thrown in there!” So Brer Fox decided he’d show Brer Rabbit who was boss, and he threw Brer Rabbit in the very place he begged not to be. As he hopped happily away to freedom, Brer Rabbit yelled back to Brer Fox: “Rabbits love briar patches ‘cause that’s where we’ve always found shelter from our enemies. The briars hurt you, but they are our protection.”
I can’t imagine a better name for a gay bar from the 70s, 80s, and 90s than “the briar patch.” I’ve heard that in the old days men parked in the back so they wouldn’t be seen from the street. I’ve heard that a lot of prominent individuals hung out there.
Right after hearing my story this past Saturday, a gay friend contacted me to tell me that when he first visited The Briar Patch 30 years ago, he was surprised to see there a man he knew to be a Southern Baptist minister. My friend was himself a Southern Baptist, so he struck up a conversation–awkward at first, but soon they were fast friends. It turned out that both were living secret lives, and both were looking for the “fellowship” of like-minded individuals. In time they both found their way to the same gay-friendly church, and to this day they are still close friends. A story with a happy ending—thanks in large part to The Briar Patch.
Several other gay friends have since contacted me with similar stories of meeting longtime friends, partners, and spouses at The Briar Patch. If you’re a graduate student in sociology, history, psychology, or religious studies, and you’re looking for a dissertation or thesis topic . . . why not interview the men who used to go there and write about the amazing role that this institution played in the lives of Houston’s gay community.
Although The Briar Patch is no more, you can get a sense of the energy of the place by taking a look at some old videos the former owner posted on You Tube. The quality of the videos is poor—they are from many years ago—but you can’t help but enjoy the piano playing and the singing, the show tunes and the gospel hymns. (At least, I think that’s a gospel hymn. Perhaps someone can help me out here?)
If you think my story is just a funny little tale of the “a man walks into a bar” genre, try listening more closely. I’d say my story is about growing up Southern Baptist and later finding faith, family, and fellowship in a bar. And not just any bar. Like any good story, I hope mine touches on important things, like identity, meaning, and community. Faith, hope, and love. Stories are often the best way–and sometimes the only way–to talk about the things that matter most.
So when we share our stories with our friends, we’re not just passing the time. And it’s not just a social gathering. It’s our way of taking the fractured world we were born into and make meaning out of it. It’s how we build a moral and spiritual community.
Which is exactly what stories have done, since the beginning of time, when our ancestors sat around campfires and made cosmos (order, meaning) out of chaos by telling stories. Such stories shaped the character of individuals and the culture of communities. Some stories became sacred stories and became foundations of the world’s great religions. Others became the basis of great social and political movements, like the Underground Railroad. You can find those stories in places like the Bible and Uncle Remus and in the memories of ordinary people who witnessed extraordinary events. You can sing your stories at places like The Briar Patch, or tell them at places like The Moth. Such places may look like bars, but they’re actually churches, temples, and mosques, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the external appearance of the building that makes it a sacred space. It’s the transformational power of the stories told within and the community that forms around them.