Little Rock: An Improbable Oasis
Little Rock, Arkansas may not show up on most LGBT travelers' domestic bucket list, but maybe it's time that bucket got bigger. Located in the heart of a very conservative state in the deep red South-a state where, in 2004, voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and employment discrimination against the LGBT community is still legal-Little Rock is a surprisingly sophisticated and seductive city.
Named in September by Kiplinger's Personal Finance as the country's best moderately sized metropolis, the city heartily embraces gay residents and visitors. With a wealth of LGBT-friendly bars, restaurants and shops, a booming drag scene and a smorgasbord of special queer events, Little Rock, Arkansas just might be the South's next great gay destination.
Little Rock’s Main Drag
Travelers anxious to experience the best of Little Rock LGBT culture would do well to start with its transcendent drag shows. Female impersonation took center stage in the city in 1972, when resident Norman Jones won the first Miss Gay America crown in Nashville. Jones eventually bought the pageant (producing many of the contestants in Little Rock) before opting out in 2005. Today, Jones owns the nightclubs Triniti, which is open Fridays, and Discovery, which opens on Saturdays. Housed in the same massive space, they offer three bars, DJs spinning nearly all night and live entertainment including, of course, drag.
According to Kristian Martin, 2012’s Miss Gay Arkansas America, the art form’s popularity in Little Rock has exploded in the decades since Jones’ historic victory.
With a city population less than 200,000, approximately 30 female impersonators currently tread area boards-that’s a whole lot of drag, "Little Rock may be a smaller city, but we have a lot of talented entertainers," says Martin. "Several of them have won multiple national pageants in female impersonation. I don’t think a lot of people know about the scene here... it really is a hidden gem."
Martin also manages Miss Kitty’s Saloon, a popular venue that is Little Rock’s ground zero for female impersonation. Offerings include Dragaoke on Wednesdays; an anything-goes talent show on Thursdays; and live entertainment Fridays and Saturdays, which runs the gamut from spectacular drag shows to burlesque, male strippers and musicals.
Miss Kitty’s also hosts drag kings and other female-centric events. While there is currently no establishment dedicated solely to lesbians in Little Rock, many, such as Six Ten Center Street, feature ladies’ nights.
Nightlife and Culture
Other nightspots not to miss include: Sway, a stylish, 3,300-square-foot multilevel club that hosts a gay night on Fridays and the popular bar Trax, which bills itself as "Cheers for Queers." Widely beloved for its warm, welcoming atmosphere, it’s situated in the Argenta Arts District, just across the Arkansas River from Little Rock.
Once desolate, with rows of empty buildings lining Main Street, Argenta’s fortunes changed around the turn of the millennium when gay couples began buying and
renovating its historic homes. Then, in 2004, investment adviser-turned-developer John Gaudin moved to the neighborhood. Falling for Argenta’s neglected beauty, he soon commenced an epic, decade-long effort to bring it back to life.
It worked. Argenta is a vibrant quarter sparkling with diverse delights. The Argenta Community Theater’s impressive digs, site of the Miss Gay Arkansas America pageant, is there, as is the Starving Artist Cafe. A fine eatery, the café is also home to Tales from the South, a radio show broadcast worldwide. Dishing out true yarns from the Southern scribes who lived them, Tales is recorded live Tuesday nights at the Starving Artist and visitors should be sure to catch this unique storytelling spectacular. Afterward, stop in to lesser-known pleasure Crush. "It’s a wine bar," explains Gaudin, "and a lot of local gays go there. It’s really almost an after-party. They hold wine tastings and then the music gets cranked up and everyone has a lot of fun."
Those who time their getaway right will discover Little Rock offers a number of worthwhile LGBT special events. Each April brings gay cowboys and girls galore out to the Diamond State Rodeo Association’s Rodeo in the Rock. Held at the state fairgrounds, it features the usual competitions like barrel racing and calf roping along with plenty of campy elements. There are even female bull riders.
At the other end of the spectrum, the stunning William J. Clinton Presidential Center, worth visiting for the interactive exhibits alone, periodically presents LGBT speakers such as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and former State Representative Kathy Webb, Arkansas’ first openly gay legislator. And Weekend Theater, a funky, off-the-beaten-path space downtown, produces quality shows often exploring gay issues.
For an inspiring look at another minority’s struggle for civil rights, visit the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Visitors Center. In 1957, as a mob raged around them, nine African-American students entered the all-white institution and effectively ended segregation in public education. The event serves as a historic reminder that change, no matter how difficult, can come - and perhaps also as confirmation of Little Rock’s reformist bent.
According to pediatrician Chad Rodgers, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood with his husband, Eric McDaniel, "I think people identify Little Rock with the Central High crisis, when it was one of Arkansas’ first schools to be integrated. But one of the reasons Central was chosen is because Little Rock is such a progressive community. It was a hard thing to do. It’s still the South, but Little Rock is a very broadminded city. We’re not really on guard. In Hillcrest we feel very comfortable showing affection-I’ve rarely felt uncomfortable here."
McDaniel, president of the Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas, seconds Rodgers’ observation. "Chad got us in a lot of nonprofit organizations... there was a Just Communities of Arkansas event honoring the first lady, and Chad and I were out there dancing alongside everybody. We’ve danced at the country club and were told we were probably the first gay couple on the floor."
Historic Hillcrest boasts some of Little Rock’s best gay-friendly shops. Highlights include Box Turtle, specializing in women’s clothing and accessories from local designers such as Korto Momolu, featured on Season Five of "Project Runway"; Shoppes on Woodlawn, a collection of 12 boutiques in a rambling Dutch Colonial home showcasing everything from original art to handmade bath products; and Haus Werk, a four-in-one store in a landmark building with rooms devoted to home furnishings, women’s apparel, children’s toys and unique gifts for men. (For gay-owned high-end furniture retailers, head to the Riverdale section.)
On the dining front, the go-to spot for chili rellenos
and quesadillas in Hillcrest is the Tex-Mex Canon Grill; great pizza can be found at Damgoode Pies, which draws the cool, alternative crowd and U.S. Pizza Co., where thin-crust, creatively topped pizzas can be eaten on the patio. More upscale eateries include the Creole-infused Acadia, which offers a superb prix-fixe menu, and Ciao Baci, fashionable with the younger gay crowd.
Next page for where to stay and resource guide.
Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts
For truly singular lodging, visitors should head downtown, to the Capital Hotel. From the elaborate cast-iron façade to the lobby’s exquisitely maintained mosaic tile floor, marble grand staircase and stained glass ceiling, the property, built in the 1870s, is the epitome of old world splendor. Upstairs, guest rooms with 14-foot high ceilings feature modern amenities including custom-designed mattresses and subway-tiled tubs. Downstairs, the property’s bar and grill, a trendy after-event stop on the weekends, is famed for its burgers and fried catfish.
Across the river, Argenta’s Baker House Bed and Breakfast is a great value. Room rates begin at $99 a night and include not only breakfast, but also a pass for the delightful River Rail Streetcar, which stops at major attractions like the Clinton Library. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Baker House is graced with a circular central staircase, ornate oak mantels and plenty of other Victorian details, making it ideal for a romantic retreat.
While it’s true Little Rock can’t claim a definitive gay neighborhood all its own, many see this as a positive. Jason Wiest, deputy communications director for Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe and co-owner of Sway observes, "I think the reasons Little Rock is an attractive travel destination to LGBT visitors are the same reasons why it’s an attractive place to anyone. The setting and some of the attractions, such as the Clinton Library, are what really distinguish us. We don’t have a true gay district, so Little Rock offers gay visitors a very inclusive experience." And inclusion, particularly in the Bible Belt, is a thing to be cherished.
STAY: The Capital Hotel. Not only is it the height of luxury, but also the property’s ultra attentive staff gives new meaning to the term Southern hospitality.
EAT: The Starving Artist Café, Tuesday nights. The Mediterranean-influenced American cuisine is reliably wonderful, but combine it with a Tales from the South performance and Starving Artist becomes a can’t-miss.
DISCOVER: P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home at Moss Mountain Farm. Open for half-day tours, this magnificent property should really sparkle during the holidays - especially if the genial lifestyle guru pops in to say hello.
DON’T MISS: Mark Rothko in the 1940s: The Decisive Decade, through Feb. 9, 2014 at the Arkansas Art Center. An exploration of one of the 20-century’s most influential artists, this blockbuster show will feature many works never before seen by the public.