Escaping to Rural America

Thu. August 15, 2013 12:00 AM
by Greg R. Baird

The summer is half over and its been a busy one for me in preparing for my 2013-2014 lecture tour. I am excited to get back on the road to lecture on LGBTQ issues to colleges and universities. I will be speaking on community, acceptance, inclusion, bullying and a variety of other subjects. My work takes me not only to the urban areas of large cities, but the rural areas as well. This for me is where I find the true hero's of our LGBT movement in creating community. I really feel that the LGBT community needs to focus less on Hollywood and NYC and more on American South, Midwest and the Heartland. This is where real change is happening with gay and lesbian families, single folks and couples changing our world one person and one neighborhood at a time.

Michigan is my home state and as a proud former resident of Northern Michigan, I have seen many changes happening. Unfortunately, not all of the changes are good for the LGBT community as they suffer prejudice, discrimination, fear and sometimes lack of community. There are however strong and determined gay people across the state that are creating change. They are fighting for equality, adoption rights, anti bullying measures and so much more.

It is so important that we look past our "gay bubble" in Chicago and look out in the rural areas across America and see what is going on. The most important work we can do in gaining equality is supporting those in our rural areas and with local grassroots organizations. Recently, I just discovered two men that are creating change in Cadillac, a small town in Northern Michigan. Cadillac is about a 4 ½ hour drive from Chicago and usually a pit stop for me going home to Petoskey, MI.

Longtime Cadillac resident, Lonnie Burkett and partner David Artt looked around to open up a bar where it would be a comfortable setting for people to meet & greet, inclusive of the entire community and offer a safe place to be yourself. What they found in their search for a place was the Northwood Hotel, built on the site of the former Mckinnon House which was considered one of the most advanced and luxurious hotels in the country at the time. They purchased the old hotel and the Escape Bar & Grill and the Escape Underground was born!

At first, they really didn't have the intention of opening up a gay establishment in conservative Cadillac, MI. After some discussion, they thought having an inclusive space for all would be perfect for people to meet. There are no video screens in the bar to stare at, but just a great atmosphere for good music, drinks, food and socializing. Lonnie laughed as he told me some folks in the town thought when they opened the bar were going to paint the building pink with a big rainbow out front. That would be a lot of paint!

When you walk in on the main floor of the hotel this is where the Escape Bar & Grill is located offering great drinks, burgers, salads, and Angus steaks bought locally. There are also special events with drag queens coming to perform from downstate Michigan or locally in Traverse City. Downstairs is Escape Underground with a more rustic atmosphere. There is bar area and a nice space to hang out and play pool or darts. I was also told the hotel itself is haunted which I am sure adds to the excitement to the overall atmosphere.

When asked on how the community has responded with this new bar which now has been opened since December of 2012, Lonnie mentioned, "There has been no backlash in the community. Only a few have come in asking if this was a fag bar. They were asked to leave."

The local newspaper, Northern Express, has done an article on Escape Bar & Grill and Escape Underground which helped getting the word out. Social media has also helped with Facebook, Twitter, Craig's list, Scruff, Manhunt and others.

I was happy and surprised to hear during our interview that the church across the street during gay pride even put a gay pride flag up outside. Many people are still closeted in Northern Michigan and most that come into the bar for the first time are nervous. Lonnie and David make a point to engage with the customers, get to know and introduce them to other people in the bar.

What they are doing is knocking down the walls of fear and rejection in their area while creating a safe, friendly and inclusive place for all. These are the kinds of people who are changing America. Living in the city we often forget where we came from and people within our small communities doing what they can, often in the face of adversity. Thank you to Lonnie, David and so many others who believe in our LGBT community and embracing our allies in our quest for equality.

Get away to beautiful Northern Michigan and stop by Escape Bar & Grill and Escape Underground. They can be found on Facebook and at their website at www.escapecadillac.com.