Mobile and its environs make the Deep South feel surprisingly gay-friendly
In tiny Monroeville, Ala. (pop. 6800), Sandy Smith, executive director of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, wears a Truman Capote T-shirt. She stands proudly in a section of the town’s museum dedicated to the gay author who spent his early childhood there.
It is not an image that easily fits the stereotype of small-town Alabama. But there isn’t a lot in the state that does.
Smith lights up in a broad smile. She proudly describes how Capote stood out even as a little boy. When he went swimming, he always was impeccably decked out in small fashionable bathing suits while the other boys wore cut-off hand-me-downs. He always made a grand entrance during the many times when he returned home.
"When he came back, you knew he was in town," she says
But the late author is not Monroeville’s best-known citizen; Capote’s close friend, Harper Lee, is. The reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird still lives here; she is 83. (Although she does not grant interviews, she did respond in writing to a much-speculated issue of whether she is lesbian. "I am not even remotely gay," Lee wrote.)
Capote, Lee and several other authors have made Monroeville — a 75-minute drive north of Mobile, about halfway between Mobile and Montgomery — the undisputed literary capital of Alabama. The charming town’s biggest attraction is the courthouse upon which the dramatic courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird were based. Each April and May, a play based on the movie is staged outside and inside the courtroom. The town runs a literary walk that includes the courthouse and other parts of the town that are reflected in Lee’s book.
Still, many of the more than 30,000 tourists who trek up to Monroeville start out in Mobile. The city’s population of 200,000 (double that if you include the suburbs) is more than enough to support a lively gay scene. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, thousands of evacuees from New Orleans two hours away permanently relocated to Mobile.
Seated on Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile very much resembles New Orleans. In fact, this is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the U.S. — it began here in 1703, 15 years before the Crescent City was founded. The city marks Mardi Gras with a series of celebrations, including 34 parades in the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday.
The most sought after of all the balls is the one put on by a gay organization, the Order of Osiris. The event, usually held near the beginning of the city’s celebrations, has been growing in popularity since it began in 1980 (the next one is Jan. 15). The city’s Pride celebration is in April and it is marked by a series of activities spread out for three days and highlighted by a parade.
Mobile’s downtown has seen a huge resurgence over the past 15 years. Many of the older French-style architecture that is more commonly associated with New Orleans can be seen throughout downtown. That’s also where the city’s gay bars and nightclubs are concentrated.
Like New Orleans, Mobile’s bars can stay open round-the-clock, leading to a very late nightlife scene. (Many are licensed as private clubs, which allow them to sell alcohol even on Sunday mornings.)
B-Bobs, a mixed gay-lesbian (but mostly male) bar in the heart of Mobile’s rainbow district takes up two levels with a dance floor and its renowned drag shows and dancing on the second floor. Gabriel’s is Alabama’s oldest gay bar. It is officially a private club, but if you don’t want to go through the hassle of getting the bartender to sign you up for a membership, you can get a free temporary pass through the bar’s Web site. Gabriel’s has a very friendly neighborhood atmosphere and is known for its late-night crowd and its decked-out patio. The lesbian-owned Vision’s Twist is just a block away from Gabriel’s, but it cultivates an earlier crowd
The Mobile Bay Area has a number of inviting small towns that surround the bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
The upscale community of Fairhope is about a half-hour from Mobile on the east side of the bay. The town of around 16,000 boasts a 40,000 square foot public library and a very active arts community. It is famous for the flowers that line the town’s downtown sidewalks. Foley about a half-hour southeast of Fairhope claims the Holmes Medical Museum, a fascinating attraction. The museum is in the building where Foley’s hospital once was until the hospital closed in 1958.
The famous Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area is on the Gulf of Mexico, just 15 minutes south of Foley, east of Mobile Bay. It is about an hour’s drive from Mobile and a must-see for any visitor to the Mobile area. Besides the beach itself, Orange Beach is known for its great dolphin watching.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 16, 2009.