Fiddlers, funnel cakes and fudge attract millions of tourists to the Ozark Mountains village of Eureka Springs every year. Visitors flock to the Great Passion Play, and the city’s annual folk, fine arts, and music festivals.
And now thousands of gay men, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals congregate in Eureka for quarterly gay festivals. They are called Diversity Weekends and guests can choose from a dozen organized activities.
Diversity first started out in the early 1990s as a discreet, invitation-only or word-of-mouth party, first organized by lesbians who ran a local gay pride gift shop called the Emerald Rainbow.
Former proprietors and domestic partners Jan and Kim Ridenour said the festival languished for several years — until a local nightclub owner took over. “Which was a great scandal at the time,” said Kim Ridenour, “because she was a straight girl.”
To attract gay business, the nightclub publicized the Diversity event along with their other music acts.
“And that’s when it really broke open,” said Ridenour. “Still, we worried a lot of people in town wouldn’t be supportive — like the ‘biscuit and gravy’ restaurants.”
But soon, “Welcome Diversity” letters were clicking onto motel and restaurant marquees across town.
Today, Diversity Weekends are held around Valentine’s Day, the second weekend in April, in summer and in fall.
At a late Friday afternoon mixer hosted a couple of weeks ago by the Sherwood Court Motel on the west side of town, couples strolled among the tulips, redbuds and lilacs, and enjoyed cocktails, snacks and cutting gay repartee by Diversity co-organizer Mark Wetzel.
“One, five, three!” he shouted, raffling off gift certificates.
A burly gay man walked up to collect his prize: free drinks at the gay-friendly Lumberyard Bar. “Now you can buy some girl a drink!” Wetzel teased. The crowd roared with laughter.
Wetzel, known as “Sparky” to his friends, is from Hot Springs, where he works as a communications technician for AT&T.
“Eureka is not a place where you are tolerated or accepted,” Wetzel said. He took a sip from the dregs of a margarita. “Eureka is place where you just are. It’s nice to not feel ‘tolerated.’ You feel like you are equal.”
Wetzel is sharing this feeling with gays across America via his website, Eurekapride.com, which promotes Eureka’s gay culture.
But turning a longtime Christian vacation destination into a gay vacation destination is not easy, he said. Diversity Weekends have lingered in the closet because of the Passion Play crowd.
“Now it’s time for gays to take over!” he said.
This spring, they came by the thousands to enjoy the clubs, a golden oldies dance, Gayco (a gay comedy sketch troupe from Chicago’s Second City) and, of course, drag shows.
Performer Morena Larue from Joplin, Mo., drifted around the backroom of a local bar, fussing with a long brown wig, thick makeup and golden mesh gown.
While an impatient crowd called from beyond the door, Morena preened one last time in front of a mirror propped outside on the back deck.
“We are always gorgeous,” Morena said in a sibilant falsetto voice, “always flawless. We always have to look good, you know.”
Most of the gay tourists here also feel free to act out as they promenade through Eureka’s historic district, holding hands, even stopping to kiss. Some come here from large cities like Tulsa, St. Louis, Memphis, and Dallas. But most are from small rural communities — like Connie Miller, from Manhattan, Kan. “It’s good to get away from the pressures of everyday life, meet up with friends and relax,” she said.
Local artisan Timothy Hilty watched the action from a bench in front of the New Orleans Hotel on downtown Spring Street.
“I have lived in Eureka Springs for 14 years and I think of this festival as the hick gay and lesbian pride weekend,” he said.
“They’re simple country folk. They’re gay — like myself. And they come here to experience what it’s like to be free.”
And that’s important to them, Hilty said. “Most Americans said it’s OK to be gay — but not in public.”
That sentiment was recently documented in the 2005 Arkansas Poll, which, among other issues, asked Arkansans about their attitudes towards homosexuals.
“A large percentage of Arkansans said they were not comfortable with gays and lesbians,” said Janine Parry, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville political science professor who directs the poll.
Fifty-four percent said there should be no legal recognition of gay relationships. Only 15 percent said gay couples should be allowed to legally marry. Twenty-two percent said gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions.
Yet, a majority of Arkansans support the right for gays to adopt or foster a child, or enlist in the military.
“So you can conclude that maybe while Arkansans are uncomfortable with gays,” Parry said, “they are not totally willing to dictate the course of their lives.”
Until several years ago, Arkansas made same-sex intimacy illegal. But in 1999, seven gay and lesbian plaintiffs brought suit against the state, challenging the sodomy statute. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the 25-year-old law as unconstitutional.
But an anti-gay climate has resulted in new legislation to withhold certain rights. Many states, including Arkansas, have passed constitutional amendments against gay marriage. Today only Massachusetts allows it. And gay hate crimes are on the rise.
Given current politics, homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender Americans tend to cleave to any kind of celebration, said Alvin Byrd.
“This last Diversity in the autumn? We had over 2,000 gay people through our shop — on just one day,” Byrd said. He and his partner, Charlie Thomas, own Byrd’s Eye View on Main Street. He is among four designated “diversity hubs,” or information centers. Metal, glass and wooden chimes swing in the breeze along the shop’s outdoor balcony. Inside, shoppers examine porcelain collectibles and gay pride merchandise. The partners moved here two years ago, they said, to grow old.
“Diversity is for anyone with a diverse attitude,” Byrd said about the weekend. “Gays, bisexuals, even straight people. They all know we are the funnest people to be with!”
A new activity was added to this season’s agenda: a “PDA,” or public display of affection. On a sunny Saturday afternoon at precisely 3:45 p.m. in Basin Park, nearly 100 couples turned out to drape themselves in bright pink boas and kiss.
Bystanders gawked from the periphery, clearly confused. A small group of visiting evangelical Christian youth milled about nervously. They were on break in the park from passing out religious tracts among the tourists. The streets were littered with the brochures.
Their leader, Skip Yoder, said he had no idea he would be in the midst of a gay and lesbian festival.
“Of course as Christians we believe it is wrong,” Yoder said softly. “I wish we had some homosexual tracts to pass out to them.”
A few feet to his right, gay couples kissed and hugged for a full 10 minutes. In their midst beamed 60-year-old Bryan Manire and his partner, Jim Fredrick. They are celebrating their 24th anniversary and have recently retired to Eureka Springs from Fayetteville.
“We love it here; it’s perfect” Manire said. “We fit right in.”
But some shop owners in town are furious about the growing gay presence. Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, David Correll, owner of the downtown bakery CC Cinnamon, confirmed he would rather lose money than serve homosexuals. He closed his shop all day Saturday.
And certain motels cater to “Christians,” as they said — meaning heterosexual ones — like Rockwood Cottages along the historic loop and the Traveler’s Inn on Highway 62 East.
“This kind of activity is hurting our city, driving our customers away,” said owner David Lynch. “Diversity Weekends are running our businesses out of business.”
Lynch and his family moved to Eureka last June. They were stunned by how open gays are here.
“I have had customers said they are not coming back, because of those things that go on,” Lynch said. “When it gets to that point it becomes my business.” Lynch and his wife, Susan, have been lobbying local officials to shut down Diversity.
“I spent a couple of days talking with city officials, aldermen — I even called the mayor’s office,” Susan Lynch said. “I said if they don’t make some changes then this town is going to be a ghost town. People come up here with families and have no idea it’s Diversity Weekend. What are their kids going to see? We need God to step in.”
The Lynches are organizing an anti-gay business group to combat Diversity.
The Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, however, is adamant that Diversity Weekends are here to stay, according to director Jeff Feldman.
“I think we pride ourselves on welcoming everybody to Eureka Springs,” he said. “We have a long history of welcoming people from all walks of life, from all socioeconomic backgrounds and all lifestyles.” Eureka Springs Mayor Kathy Harrison said Eureka Springs welcomes everyone.
“I have had so many phone calls asking me why the city is supporting Diversity and to stop it from happening,” she said. “But I won’t prevent anyone from gathering in the park, be they Diversity, Christians or bikers. The idea that people want me to suppress or stop these events from going on is in the face of what this country is all about.”
Eureka has long had a reputation for a diversity of tourists. More than a century ago, white, black and Native American health-seekers all drank from the same cold-water springs.
The history of Eureka as a gay-friendly place began in the early 1970s when outspoken New Orleans feminist, lesbian and gay cabaret owner Barbara Scott bought a run-down hotel called the New Orleans.
To drum up business, she placed a tiny advertisement in Ms. magazine.
“The ad simply read ‘Feminist hotel, the New Orleans, in the Ozarks, Eureka Springs,’ period,” Scott said. “And from that time it was enormous, what happened.”
A feminist news wire, “Fanny,” wrote a feature story on Scott, which she said was picked up by more than 200 newspapers across the nation, including the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Times.
By the late 1980s, by some estimates, nearly 20 percent of Eureka’s population was homosexual. Today gays and lesbians continue to relocate to Eureka to open restaurants, antique stores, gift shops and galleries. An estimated 20 guest accommodations are now gay-owned, like the rainbow-flagged Tradewinds Motor Hotel.
“Help yourself to some coffee,” said owner Kelly Allen, while his partner Lee Ostergren checked in some late-morning, hung-over-looking guests.
The couple said they welcome everyone to their motor hotel, but usually they are booked up months in advance with gay patrons.
“We had a sudden cancellation,” Allen said shrugging towards their new guests. “We just love the fact that people can come to town any time of the year and feel comfortable, embraced by the community.”
And in a season when business in town is usually diminished, the city will court any color of dollar, green or lavender.
“Our little cosmopolitan community is well aware of the spending power of the gay and lesbian community and we’ve centered on inviting them for years,” said Lynn Berry, executive director of the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The commission has advertised Diversity Weekends on its annual calendar for the past five years.
“Fifty thousand pieces about festivals and events in Eureka,” Berry said. “We call it our accordion brochure. It’s quite lengthy. Ten panels.”
Berry said Eureka’s advertising commission targets the gay community because they shop. And they shop hard.
The spending power of American gays — referred to as the “lavender market” — is legendary, calculated to be close to $640 billion this year.
Diversity co-organizer Wetzel said because many gays and lesbians do not have children, they have more disposable income to spend on themselves.
“I think the lavender market responds completely different to advertising directed at them,” Wetzel said. “They like it when they know businesses support them. They are loyal and they will spend their money with those people.”
Although Chamber director Jeff Feldman said the chamber is unable to sort gay revenue from straight, Diversity Weekends are now among an assortment of permanent attractions.
“We consider ourselves an everybody-friendly destination,” Feldman said. “There are religious attractions, eco attractions like Beaver Lake, architecture, art, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, restaurants galore — opportunities for everybody to enjoy Eureka Springs.”
But Albert Pryor, another outspoken critic of Diversity, said they are “perverse.”
“Their lifestyle, their dress, their open display of affection, should be kept off the streets,” Pryor said. “Eureka needs to be cleaned up.”
Pryor, who lives in rural Carroll County, periodically submits letters on the subject to the Lovely County Citizen newspaper. In one he wrote:
“There are a great many conservative people around here that object strongly to the promotion of the homosexual lifestyle in our back yard. Most have been quiet up to this point but people are finding their backbone and beginning to speak up.
“Here is what we want. If you are homosexual, fine, live your life in peace. You are the one that will have to answer for it or not. However, keep it to yourself. Don’t try and justify yourself by making it appear normal or acceptable. We don’t like it, it offends us greatly. Get used to it.
“Christians are told to go into their prayer closets. So y’all have closets also.
“Minister Al Pryor.”
Lovely County Citizen Editor Bill King said the paper routinely publishes critical mail about Diversity.
“Some businesses claim it’s the worst thing that has happened to the town,” King said. “As for the businesses that close their doors for the weekend, I respect that they are showing their homophobia and not profiting off of it.”
King is openly gay. His domestic partner is Citizen photojournalist John Rankine. The couple relocated to Eureka from Key West, Fla., in the early ’90s.
When I first moved here I was stunned there was no ghettoizing of the gays,” Rankine said. “Gay people interacted with straight people, there was no gay bar, you went into a place and everyone accepted you.”
Eureka’s reputation as a cosmopolitan community can be directly attributed to Diversity, co-organizer Deborah Rose said.
“We are standing up, but not in a hostile way,” she said. “We have a right to be here too. After all, we are Eureka, not Huntsville, Arkansas.”
Rising tensions around Diversity have had the local police department on alert. There have been no organized protests or bias violence — yet, said police chief Early Hyatt.
“We have had few minor incidents, the occasional redneck driving down the street yelling out their window,” he said, “but not any hate crime toward the gay and lesbian community.”
While one lesbian, who did not want to be identified, claimed she overheard local policemen mocking drag queens, Hyatt prides himself on having a hand-picked, tolerant force.
“This is our town,” he said, “and it doesn’t matter what you are like when you are in town, you are treated the same. Period.”
Hotel owner Scott, now 70, who invited the first gay tourists to town, backed Hyatt’s claim.
“This is all I know about it: My friends are still the same. They have never been suppressed. It is extraordinary, that a little town of 3,000 plus can have a four-times-a-year celebration of diversity. There is nothing like it in the world.”
A summertime Diversity Weekend is planned for early August. Already scheduled are a “pink party,” a citywide silent auction and a Lucky Starlight 13 Outdoor Cinema showing of “Pillow Talk,” featuring gay icons Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Everyone is encouraged to bring his or her own pillow.