Barry Wick is very proud of his office. It has two rooms, some bookshelves, and a conference table. It's also the only safe place for gays and lesbians to gather in the western half of South Dakota.
Wick is the president of FACES of South Dakota, based in Rapid City, the central city in a metro area of 150,000 people. I spent a day in Rapid City last month and took a tour of the town with Wick, the local media's favorite big queer. Actually, he's the city's only big queer, one of just a handful of gay activists in the entire state.
Located just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, Rapid City welcomes thousands of tourists every week, but it hasn't got a gay bar or a queer B&B. It has a big state university, but no gay student group. Cowboys are ubiquitous, but Rapid City has never hosted a gay rodeo. There are no gay businesses of any kind. Just FACES.
Not that there aren't a lot of gay people in Rapid City; FACES has a mailing list of 250. But being out remains dangerous. The culture of tolerance that is spreading across much of America hasn't reached the Badlands yet. Ask Wick. Nobody wants to be seen with him in public, so he doesn't date much. He had a successful broadcasting career in Chicago for years; now he drives a cab. Wick once had a quiet life; now he regularly gets death threats.
Riding along on his late-night shift, I ask Wick if he's ever afraid. "I used to be, but not anymore," he says, nonchalantly whipping out a loaded pistol from under his left arm. He carries the gun wherever he goes.
I can't imagine living in such a place. For the first time in ages, I feel nervous most of the time. I wonder if I look "too gay" as I enter a local pub, Fat Boys, which I've heard is something of a hipster joint that might even have a gay patron or two. After spending a few minutes at the bar, staffed by a college guy with several earrings, a drunk in a cowboy hat turns to me and asks, "Are you a homosexual?" Following my mother's advice to always tell the truth, I nod and get a belligerent lecture -- complete with grunts of disgust -- on the special place in hell for sodomites. Earring boy slinks away, pretending not to notice. Later, he tells me that a few local queers do occasionally hang out at the bar. The unspoken rule is the queers can stay if they keep quiet.
The same thing is true across the street, at the Cowgirl Grill. The place is classic lesbian chic. The waitresses are all slim tomboys in boots and denim. The owner, Jill Maguire, resembles a young Lauren Bacall, in a tailored blue suit and open white collar. The only male employee is a hunky cook, sporting a goatee and a ponytail under his cowboy hat.
After dinner, I ask Maguire if she's capitalizing on the lesbo-chic craze. She almost chokes, but manages to assure me that she has no idea what lesbo-chic might be. "Of course, we wouldn't turn anyone away," she says. "As long as, you know, they don't, you know, do anything. We think of this as a working-man, family kind of place."
So we're back to FACES. Wick knows there's a bigger gay world out there, but he can't leave Rapid City. His mother is sick and needs him close by. Wick could choose the closet and have an easier time of it, but he refuses to keep quiet.
"This is my hometown," he says. "If I don't change it, who's going to?"
A 300-pound cabdriver who packs a gun is not likely to be on the cover of Out anytime soon. He's not likely to be asked to chair a committee for the Human Rights Campaign. He doesn't have much to say about the morality of promiscuity, or the dangers of steroid use, or whatever the New York gay intelligentsia is talking about this week. But I wouldn't trade him for 15 Michelangelo Signoriles. Wick is a loose cannon and a bit of an oddball, but he's doing something most would run from: He's fighting the good fight in hostile territory, behind enemy lines.
Every time we come out to a colleague or a neighbor or a fellow church member, we big-city queers help change the world a little bit. But the Barry Wicks of Gay America -- from the Dakotas to the Deep South to small-town Minnesota -- are carrying the heaviest load and doing the most important work. They're the real heroes.
If you'd like more information on FACES of South Dakota, visit their Web site at www.rapidnet.com/~facessd/. Ken Darling can be reached at email@example.com
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