State of the Queer Savannah: A C.U.N.T. Study of Space

At a point in our culture where we can roughly delineate between the terms “gay” and “queer,” Savannah rests as the Bird Girl statue weighing them in each hand. There’s still a sticky sweet Southern brand of acceptance lingering here that dates back to the fantastical story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but in a lot of cases only extends as far as a straight-passing gay person looks.

Just months after his fourth trial, Jim Williams died in the same house where he shot his lover, Danny Hansford. Regardless of the problematic nature of trying a man four times for the same crime, the mystery of this story alone is enough to attract tourists on Mercer House walking tours, buy T-shirts printed with the infamous Bird Girl statue, and flock to Bonaventure to sip martinis on a bench marking Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Conrad Aiken’s resting place (just like in the book!). Club One still boasts a Lady Chablis photo on the window.

Between Club One and Chuck’s, the two most prominent (okay, wait—only) examples of permanently instituted gay spaces in Savannah, there’s a lot to be desired. At the very least, Chuck’s seems more inviting, but they don’t actually self-identify as a gay bar. Maybe it’s only fun because they usually don't have a cover and sometimes have karaoke.

The most entertaining thing about Club One is Star Search, where up-and-coming queens can compete once a month for cash and a bar tab. The paradigm between the Star Search performers in the basement and the showgirls who work upstairs is disappointing. The girls with the contracts upstairs hardly put in as much work.

The front door is usually surrounded by men. Notable plus: One time I saw Raven from Drag Race there and showed her my clit piercing (hey, she asked).

Club One and Chuck’s both have appeal for the gay crowd — if only because they’re permanent gay spaces amidst the straight shitstorm that is downtown Savannah.

HangFire fills the gap with a “not gay as in happy, but queer as in ‘fuck you’” sort of attitude and a big helping of Scorpion Tea. As a trans-identifying nonbinary assigned female, it’s places like HangFire that reinstate the value of all (queer) people — not just cis gay men and women. Without that bar, I would not be a functioning queer in Savannah, even though the environment can be jokingly brash at moments. But that’s the reason it feels more honest than the gay spaces available downtown — that, and the music is better. “Where the US Army comes to fall in love with trannys and black people come to film white people dancing like white people!” read the bottom of their receipt paper at one point. Take from that what you will.

Occasionally, places like Ampersand and The Jinx actively involve what queer culture does exist in Savannah, but limited options for supremely queer space means downtown can be a hostile environment on any given weekend. Taking a walk down Congress Street as a visibly queer (or just plain weird) person maps out a series of possible public aggressions between the military population, Pooler/Garden City visitors, and tourists.

The further from downtown you get the harder it is to get away from the reality that Savannah has only a few blatantly queer spaces. While Starland District is literally overloaded with places where no one gives a rat’s ass what kind of person you are, that doesn’t change the fact that every space south of Congress Street is straight (until proven queer). Queer is never the ‘standard’ or ‘default’ option, no matter how much the person serving you coffee “seems okay with gay people” or “looks like a lesbian.”

In most conversations, that half-baked logic gets people pretty far here. Savannahian transplants, currently or currently-becoming queer during their time at SCAD, often make a move for bigger and better and queerer cities as soon as they get a chance. To say Savannah doesn’t bare queer fruit would be a lie — but to say Savannah often gets to taste its effort certainly is. Sure, queer artists and organizations let you get gay drunk on the beach (Tybee Rainbow Fest is coming up this weekend May 1-3) and rainbow-y in the park (Pride, as commercialized gay as it is). Collectives like the alterna-drag group House of Gunt and Stand Out Youth impress themselves upon straight spaces. We’re welcomed to events in creative consults at Sulfur Studios, to exhibit at Art Rise or Non Fiction, or book our own show at any number of DIY venues across the city. But temporary queer zones aren’t privileged the same kinds of safety, autonomy, and visibility that permanent spaces are.

Yeah, we’re here, but it won’t be for long. Something about claiming queer space in Savannah is inherently related to the storm that is a rapidly-gentrifying city. The longer we wait to vocalize an actionable response to the homogenous wall that IS Ben Carter setting up shop on Broughton Street—the longer we wait to claim spaces for the queering of artists and activists, transient and permanent members alike — the smaller our options will get. And that’s something we can all agree on, queer or not.

So, what do we actually do about claiming queer space in a city built on a mystifying incident of tabloid-status Southern murder (and gaydom)? In a city built on glossed-over, whitewashed history? We exist. Yeah, that’s what I’ve got. We keep being here. We continue to invade straight spaces and conversations until we queer them all ourselves or get kicked out trying. We organize ourselves on an actionable plane of intervention by diverting attention to our “alternative” lifestyles. We rewrite the queer agenda for the sake of leaving something better than the memories of a Midnight murder and abandoned straight spaces.