COVER STORY: Straight in a gay world

Mitchell, Bengston, Hershner, Giles are just some of the non-gays who have found careers, friends and family within the LGBT community

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Stephen Mitchell has the world’s worst gaydar. And he has the story to prove it.

Mitchell, 24, started playing rugby when he was working in Antarctica three years ago. “I fell in love with the sport and every city I move to, I try to join a club,” he said. When he wound up in Dallas, he Googled local rugby teams. The Dallas Diablos’ site promoted a non-discrimination policy and welcoming attitude that Mitchell liked.

“The Diablos were one of three teams that practiced closest to me, but you wanna show up and feel you fit in well,” he said. “I thought, that sounds like an awesome group of people!”

After attending two practices, he felt accepted and comfortable.

But Mitchell must not have read the website too thoroughly. It wasn’t until about a week on the team, after his first game, that he realized most of the members were gay.

PLAYING  FOR OUR TEAM | Stephen ‘Cougar’ Mitchell, lower right, is one of several straight members of the predominantly gay Dallas Diablos Rugby Football Club. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“With rugby, on the field it doesn’t matter whether you’re young, old, your orientation, race — you’re there to have fun. Then we had [my] first team dinner, we were drinking and having fun and after I while I noticed a couple guys were sitting real close to each other. Then they started holding hands. I said, ‘Ummm, are you guys gay?’ I hadn’t noticed anything. But when they get drunk, the queen comes out.”

Mitchell, who goes by Cougar to his teammates, has been a hooker for the Diablos for a year and a half now, and although he’s straight, he loves being on the team.

“We’re a good, strong bunch of guys, but our club is more socially focused instead of athletically focused. We’re more about being a family,” he said.

He’s hardly the token straight guy. As much as 20 percent of the Diablos male members, including the team captain, are straight. In a society fast changing its views on homosexuality, finding straight people intimately involved in the gay community has become far more common.

Chris Bengston, who became part of the gay community before Mitchell was born, was a pioneer in gay-straight alliances. But Bengston initially felt the sting of discrimination from the gay community against her as a straight woman.

In 1983, Bengston and three friends — two straight women and a gay man — moved to Dallas from Peoria, Ill. They secured apartments at Throckmorton and Congress, just down from the Strip. Since she didn’t have a car, she frequented the bars on Cedar Springs Road with her gay buddy.

Even though it was a quarter-century ago, Bengston felt comfortable being among gay people and became friendly with many of the staff. She asked Frank Caven, owner of Caven Enterprises which ran several clubs, for a part-time job, but he brushed her off.

Then, on Halloween 1985, she got a phone call from the manager of 4001, a club where Zinni’s Pizza is now located.

“He said, ‘I really need your help. I am short of staff tonight. No one knows I’m bringing you in,” Bengston recalled.

When Caven saw her, he blew up; the only straight woman he’d ever let work there was his own niece.

But Bengston showed mettle and was put behind the bar at a different club, the Old Plantation. It was a more mixed crowd — gay, straight, men and women, Caven said; 4001 was for men only.

Despite the initial resistance to her, Bengston wasn’t fazed. Soon this part-time gig became a full-time job; she eventually quit her job at an advertising agency and made Caven her career.

25 AND COUNTIING | Chris Bengston started as a bartender at Caven more than a quarter century ago, She was the first employee to give birth while at the company. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“Just because I was straight, the fact I was working in a gay bar didn’t bother me in the least,” she said. “We had a gay bar in Peoria we used to hang out at, and I had been partying in the clubs for over a year before I started working there. To me it was a no-brainer.”

Bengston, now 62, was the first Caven employee to give birth while working for the company.

“I cannot even tell you the amazing support I received. When I had my son, they had an article in [the Voice]; they held a baby shower in the old Rose Room. My best friends are in the community,” she said.

Still, she recognized the stigma associated with being straight in a gay world: “When I would meet people and they would ask me what I did, I’d say I work in a nightclub. I told my son, Alex, never to say I worked in a gay bar when he was in school.”

Things are much better now — but we still have a long way to go as a society, Bengston said.

“It’s so mixed now: gay, straight, male, female, every color you can imagine,” she said. “But people still ask me, ‘Do you really think they’re really born that way?’ We all try to say we’re sophisticated and have come a long way, but we’re not as far along as we think we are.”

To look at Lonzie Hershner — 300-plus pounds of tattooed Texas beef — you might assume he’d be the kind of guy who’d beat up gays. You’d be wrong. Like Bengston, Hershner has enjoyed a career catering to the gay community.

The gay clubs Tin Room and Drama Room, the straight club Chesterfield’s and the soon-to-open Marty’s Hideaway were family-owned by Paulette Hershner and her sons, Lonzie and Marty. When Marty, who was gay, died unexpectedly last year, Lonzie took primary responsibility for keeping the bars going. That he is straight didn’t matter.

“It’s just been such a big part of my life for so long,” says Hershner, whose mother first bought the Tin Room 14 years ago, when it was a redneck bar called Judge Roy Bean’s Saloon. Marty was instrumental in converting it to a gay club. That was 10 years ago, and Hershner has felt like part of the gay community ever since.

“It’s such a comfort zone for me,” he said. “I have a house on Maple Springs — it’s my neighborhood. These guys are my friends.”

Marty was 22 when he came out to Lonzie, and was petrified his big brother would reject him. But Lonzie was completely accepting.

“It was OK with me,” he said. “He’s family.”

Because Marty was “the face of the Tin Room,” a lot of customers didn’t know Lonzie was his brother … or a co-owner … or straight.

“They thought I was a bear,” Hershner said with a laugh. “They call me Butch.” But just as big a deal as being accepted by the gay community is the acceptance of Hershner’s straight friends and extended family.

“I have a fiancé and she’s cool with it,” he said. “I get her lap dances from our dancers. Her own sons can’t wait ’til they turn 18 so they can dance at the Tin Room.”

For a dozen years, Tony Giles has been a fixture in the Dallas gay community, both as a personal trainer and (under his stage name, Tony DaVinci) as a model for Playgirl and other magazines and as a performer in solo adult videos. He’s now completely comfortable among his clients and fans (he and his girlfriend attended Pride last fall), but it wasn’t always that way.

“Before I began in training over at the Centrum [gym] in 1999, I had no prior exposure to the gay community,” he candidly admitted. “My first day of training was interesting because everyone said ‘Don’t go back to the steam room!’ As a straight guy, I was afraid and intimidated.”

A LOT TO LEARN | Tony Giles, right, knew nothing about the gay community when he began working as a trainer; he now estimates 95 percent of his clients are gay. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Now, Giles estimates that over his career, easily 95 percent of his training clients have been gay.

“When I’m talking to other trainers, they kind of envy me that I’m training in the gay community because I’m busy and keep a good retention rate of clients,” he said. “When you’re training a straight guy with a wife and children, he gets distracted — he’s not consistent. In the gay community, you get that client that wants to work out more times a week and go that extra mile. He’s not your seasonal client.”

Getting there involved a steep learning curve.

“As a straight guy diving into the gay world, I learned a lot,” he said. “Not every gay guy wants to fuck you; not everyone talks with a lisp or dresses feminine … although my first day [at the Centrum], there was a guy wearing pink shorts and a pink bandanna!”

Working in the gay community opened his eyes a lot to wrong notions he had about orientation.

“Before, I thought being gay was a choice — a rebellious thing or a learned behavior. And now I know it’s not! I educate people on this all the time — I argue with [straight] people who say otherwise. You’re born the way you’re born.”

Giles knows that in his field — he’s also a competitive bodybuilder — there are some preconceptions people attach to men who work their bodies.

“I had this guy come up to me at Gold’s today and say, ‘I’m not gay but your biceps are really bulging today.’ I thought, You don’t have to say you’re not gay! It’s OK.”

Giles, Bengston, Mitchell and Hershner all cite the friendships and affection they receive from their gay friends as the primary reason they feel at home in the gay community.

“I didn’t grow up gay, but I feel guys who do don’t have a sense of belonging,” said Mitchell. “This team really provides them a family and a sense of belonging. That’s one of the reasons I stuck around. I saw how these people created a home. It’s pretty powerful.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Day of the living DIABLOS

Dallas gay rugby team wants you to go to Hell(fest)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

GHOUL!  | Diablos Nick Hughes, Stephen Mitchell, Dustin  Abercrombie, Ryan Cavender, Will Padilla and A.J. Tello expect HellFest to be a scary fun time. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
GHOUL! | Diablos Nick Hughes, Stephen Mitchell, Dustin Abercrombie, Ryan Cavender, Will Padilla and A.J. Tello expect HellFest to be a scary fun time. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Every tournament has its hook, but for the Dallas Diablos Rugby Football Team, that hook comes at the end of a bloody stump.
Or maybe a fairy princess or Sarah Palin impersonator. Point is, it’s Halloween.

The Diablos didn’t really expect HellFest, their one-day rugby tourney to be held Oct. 30, to be such a hit, even though they knew they had a good idea.

“Originally, what we wanted was to have two or three teams come down, play some games, hang out for the [Cedar Springs] block party,” says Will Padilla, team captain and one of the organizers of HellFest. “We said, ‘Let’s try it out and see if we can get people interested in coming.’”

The interest was there and it grew exponentially. The previous year, an attempt to attract gay rugby teams from around the country resulted in only one attendee: the Minneapolis Mayhem. But word of mouth spread, “and more people asked to come, then more and more,” says Padilla. “I eventually had to cap it because it’s only a one-day tournament and we wanted everyone to get to play.”

Right now, 160 players representing eight teams from as many cities as far away as Atlanta are set to descend on Dallas for what looks to be one of the bigger gay rugby matches going.

“Austin, Houston and Dallas used to compete for a trophy called the Texas Pride Cup,” says Diablos co-founder and president A.J. Tello. But the Houston and Austin teams folded in recent years. “We haven’t had anything like that for a while, other than in Seattle, which has several teams in the area, and Bingham Cup every other year. We’re trying to get that back with an invitational with a national reach.”

“What I’ve found is that the majority of people on these teams have never been to Dallas,” adds Padilla. “Lots of them want to see what nightlife is like in Dallas.”

It’s an astonishing sense of camaraderie for a sport known for its aggressive play. But Padilla says rugby is one of the few sports where teams have no problem socializing with each other after the match is over.

“You play hard to party hard. Everybody who comes out is hyper-competitive and wants to win, but afterwards, we’re here to promote the game. You leave the anger on the pitch. After, you talk war stories and live it up with the guys. A lot of sports you don’t get a lot of commingling of teams; that’s not the case with rugby — not all.”

The openness is also true of the membership. “All of the teams are part of the IGRAB, the gay rugby union, and each is classified as openly diverse, but none of them are strictly gay,” Padilla says.

“We’re all inclusive. It’s not about who’s gay or straight — unless you want to date,” says Tello, who notes the Diablos have several straight players.

Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no difference between a gay rugby team and a straight one.

“We play other [non-gay] rugby clubs. After games, we go to the straight bars and the straight guys come to the Eagle,” Tello says. “We bring a little kick to it: We ask one of the members from the other team to get on the St Andrews cross, we get some paddles out and a whip and ask one of their girlfriends or wives to whip them. They have a ball and laugh.”

The tournament is intended to allow the players to enjoy a competitive round-robin of rugby, but there’s more motivation behind it. The Diablos  — both the men’s and women’s teams — want to spread their passion for the game throughout the community. (Although the women’s team is not playing, they have been instrumental in planning the tourney and will be active running it on game day.)

“I’ll judge its success by how well the teams receive the tournament, but we also wanna pull people in the community here, to come out to watch a tournament,” says Padilla. “There’s been nothing like this for rugby in Dallas.”

Those who don’t play are still welcome to come watch or even buy a “participant package” including tote bag and T-shirt, and come by the mixers or meet up with them during the block party.

Whether HellFest continues next year may also depend on the satisfaction of their sponsors, though Padilla says many were enthusiastic about helping out.

“It hasn’t been very hard — we’re promoting deeply within the community,” he says. “The host hotel is Hawthorne Suites and they gave us a good rate and helped us acquire shuttles to go to the venues. The Dallas Eagle is hosting our happy hour after the tournament and MGD64 is donating beer.”

That sounds like a sporting event all ghouls and boils can enjoy.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas