By Scottie Andrew, CNN Photographs by Rana Young for CNN
Rodd Gray moved to Eureka Springs to rest.
Gray had done it all, or close to it, in his 60-plus years — the military veteran has been a hairdresser, computer programmer, award-winning AIDS advocate, and drag queen (he performed as Patti Le Plae Safe, a Miss Gay America winner). When a tornado blew through Dallas and destroyed his former workplace, followed shortly by the arrival of Covid-19, the Texan was ready to trade in the bustle for some quiet in the Arkansas town of 2,000.
But when he arrived in January of last year, retirement didn’t happen. Gray fell in fast with the locals, even reviving the Ms. Le Plae Safe act for charity gigs. Now he mans the front desk at a motel-turned-LGBTQ-friendly resort, the Wanderoo Lodge, owned by a gay couple who recently settled in Eureka themselves.
The only problem with moving to Eureka Springs, Gray said, is that he didn’t get there sooner.
It doesn’t have the legacy of San Francisco. It doesn’t draw the summer crowds of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and its performance scene doesn’t rival that of Orlando or other metropolises. But Eureka Springs has become the Bible Belt’s LGBTQ oasis. It’s a sleepy but vibrant small town where you know your neighbors and feel comfortable being your fullest self, its residents say. “Not even the streets are straight” in Eureka, goes one saying.
CNN spoke with several Eureka Springs residents, from newer arrivals to long-established townsfolk, about why they came to the town, why it’s so unique and why, in most cases, they never want to leave.
An abbreviated LGBTQ history of Eureka Springs
Eureka Springs is a town of contrasts: Rainbow-painted staircases are stacked in between restored Victorian buildings, where you’ll find Pride flags as abundantly as you’d find Confederate flags outside of town. A nearly 70-foot-tall Jesus statue gazes over a place once called the “gayest small town in America.”
Though it was first home to members of the Osage tribe before they were forcibly cast out of the area, Eureka has been a “warm and welcoming host to people of all classes, backgrounds, races and genders” since its founding in the 19th century, said Jeff Danos, director of operations at the Eureka Springs Historical Museum. Among the museum’s artifacts are vintage photos of a gay couple holding hands and a woman dressed in men’s clothes, he said.
It started out as a Victorian spa town, where the wealthy could convalesce in healing Ozark springs. Now, it’s a place where queer people and conservative Christians coexist with little conflict, Danos said, a reputation its residents are proud of and mention often.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s, Danos said, that Eureka Springs burnished its reputation as a safe space for the LGBTQ community. The town became a counterculture hub for creatives and hippies, earning the nickname “the place where misfits fit.”
“It was also during this time that the LGBT community began to publicly flourish here, both culturally and in business,” Danos told CNN.
Out gay men and women started running lucrative businesses — Gary Eagen’s Spring Street Pottery studio still stands. Other businesses included Dick Turner’s health food cafe and Bobby Wisdom and Warren Walker’s rug weaving store. John Rankine and his partner, Bill King, started a citizen-run newspaper with Mary Pat Boian, who also ran a book publishing company. Susan Storch, a professional photographer from New York, opened what Danos said might have been the first “old-timey” photo studio in the US. Soon, straight and gay couples were dressing in drag as sultry saloon performers or macho cowboys, poses that were “happily encouraged and commonplace,” Danos said.
Native Arkansan and visual artist Zeek Taylor moved to Eureka nearly four decades ago, largely because of its reputation as a stimulating arts destination and an LGBTQ-affirming, “liberal oasis,” he told CNN. Since then, he’s helped organize a popular art walk with neighbors who are more like family.
“There is a great sense of community and support across all types of people that live here,” he said. “We have our little struggles, but we always come together in the end.”
LGBTQ-owned businesses fill Eureka Springs today
The Gary Eagens and Susan Storches of Eureka Springs’ groovier days paved the way for a new class of LGBTQ business owners in town. Today, queer and trans Eurekans run everything from its acclaimed bars to its coffee shops and its restaurants and lodging.
Many of these business owners, like David and Ethan Avanzino, are recent converts to the Eureka way of life. The couple, originally from the Dallas area, first visited Eureka in 2018 for one of its famed Diversity Weekends, a Pride event held three times every year. That trip led to several more, until they finally caved and bought a cabin — right before the start of the pandemic. What better place, they thought, to ride out the craziest days of their lives than a gay small town?
The Avanzinos decided to try something new while they were at it. Despite having no experience running a lodge, bar or restaurant, they bought the local Wanderoo Lodge, a former motel.
Now, that lodge has become Eureka’s “front porch,” Ethan Avanzino said. It’s where leather-clad bikers and off-duty drag performers can mingle at the bar and chow down at the restaurant, and where LGBTQ families can cool off for a safe summer vacation.
“Our progressive Pride flag outside the lodge has always served to be a beautiful filter,” he said. “People who see that flag, if they’re not allies, they just don’t make their way into our bar.”
Belén Arriola, who runs nuJava Coffee Company and the Just Bee Coffee Bar, settled on the coffee business before she settled on Eureka. But she wanted to own a business where she could make a real difference locally — she sources coffee from women-run, conservation-focused farms — and she wanted it to be in a town willing to support an LGBTQ person of color. She found that and more when she came to Eureka, she said.
“Eureka Springs seems to have something that calls people here,” she said. “For me, it was coffee and friends, and when I arrived, I felt Eureka Springs pull me in and say, ‘You belong here.'”
As a queer woman of color, she had to seriously consider her safety when moving to small-town Arkansas. An avid hiker and jogger, Arriola is outside frequently, often alone. She decided to make Eureka Springs her home because of her friends in the area.
“Being a minority and looking different, standing out, is not an easy feeling to shake sometimes,” she said. But in Eureka, “I know I am as safe as I could be living anywhere else in the country.”
Eureka Springs has a history of coexistence
There’s a jarring contrast in Eureka between its thriving LGBTQ community and conservative Christian legacy. It’s the site of the Great Passion Play, an elaborate live reenactment of Jesus’ last days as told in the Bible, and the aforementioned Jesus statue, his arms outstretched, erected decades ago by an avowed anti-Semite. (The two seemingly opposing sides of the town are explored in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel of Eureka,” which juxtaposes the play’s crucifixion scene with a montage of drag queens lip syncing to gospel music.)
But it’s a divide that its residents have mostly been able to bridge with kindness, said David Avanzino, who speaks fondly of a Wanderoo regular — “your typical Ozark man” — who once told Avanzino that he’d never met gay men before patronizing the lodge. Now, Avanzino said, the man’s become a friend, someone who doesn’t hesitate to pull him close on the dance floor.
“Here you have the extreme left and extreme right and of course the middle, and for some reason, it all works out,” David Avanzino said. “Everyone gets along with each other.”
Eureka Springs’ “coexistence” ethos is legend: The New York Times wrote about it in 1972, when anti-Semitic Christian leader Gerald L.K. Smith opened his birthday party to all the townspeople, including “longhairs” (read: hippies), and later thanked them for their attendance.
In the same article, Spring Street Pottery’s Gary Eagen said even though Smith’s Jesus figure “looks like a milk carton with head and arms,” Smith had as much of a right to his slice of Eureka as Eagen did.
“If I’m going to be free in this town, certainly he has to be free,” Eagen told the Times.
The town doesn’t lack conflict
For all the talk about the magic of the town that dissolves contradictory creeds, Eureka is no utopia, said Blake Lasater. Instead, he likens it to the “island of misfit toys,” a community of “broken people” who migrated there for “hope and healing.”
“You come to Eureka because you don’t fit in anywhere else,” the pastor and former military chaplain said. “You can always find a place to belong here.”
He moved to the town eight years ago, when the town’s First United Methodist Church decided it wanted to become an “open and reconciling congregation,” meaning it would welcome LGBTQ worshippers without conditions. Lasater was tapped to lead the Eureka congregation as it navigated the unfamiliar terrain.
Some churches in Eureka disagreed with Lasater’s blanket policy of accepting his LGBTQ parishioners. The local ministerial alliance banned the church from marching in a 2015 Easter parade because it had brought a banner that said “Jesus loves all,” Lasater said.
Sometimes the small contingent of anti-LGBTQ residents is especially vocal, Lasater said. He recalled a past Diversity Weekend event during which a group of men loudly protested the proceedings. Lasater started a conversation with one of the men and the two talked about their military backgrounds, their opposing beliefs and their humanity. The men never returned to another Diversity event, Lasater said.
There have been other flare-ups between conservative Eurekans and their liberal neighbors: In 2015, the town passed an ordinance that banned discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation for residents and visitors in areas like employment and housing. It was then the broadest law in the entire state, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported at the time. But it inspired some spirited disagreement between residents and sobs of relief when the ordinance was upheld.
However, not even the current movement to roll back LGBTQ rights nationwide has significantly changed Eureka’s emphasis on coexistence, residents said. If anything, Taylor said, it’s only made its queer and trans residents more determined to keep Eureka as safe and welcoming as it is.
Ethan Avanzino said he remains committed to making Wanderoo a safe space for LGBTQ people, a need he realized when he came out as trans years ago. When he lived in Texas, he was hyper visible, appearing before state legislators to argue on behalf of trans people and delivering presentations on what it means to be trans. Those efforts were important, he said, but felt impersonal.
Less than two years after the Avanzinos opened the Wanderoo Lodge, a young trans person and their extended family — whose support of the teen varied — visited the lodge’s restaurant. Ethan introduced himself. Being able to show the child’s father what a successful, married trans business owner looks like has been more meaningful than his activism in Texas, he said. The smallness of Eureka means it’s possible to see a person fundamentally change before your eyes.
“I know he’s not the only one that has felt an impact of seeing LGBTQ folks visible as fellow business owners,” Ethan Avanzino said.
Why Eureka Springs matters
Everyone in Eureka has a favorite memory, a story that reminds them of why they’ve built their lives there and why they never want to leave.
Here is Zeek Taylor’s.
These days, Taylor said he doesn’t even “think about being gay because it seems so normal here as a couple to go out among straight couples.” But for most of his time in Eureka, he wasn’t able to legally marry his now-husband.
In May 2014, he got his chance when a judge struck down a statewide ban on same-sex marriages. Still, few, if any, court officials in Arkansas were willing to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Weeks later, word got out that a clerk in Eureka would.
So Taylor asked Dick, his partner of more than 40 years, to marry him. Dick agreed, and the two dreamed of a backyard wedding with their dear friends in attendance. The pair lined up at the country courthouse early one morning, along with a few lesbian couples, to obtain their long-awaited marriage license.
It was a protracted process — Taylor said the county official on duty refused to issue marriage licenses to the couples at first, and those in line were threatened with arrest for refusing to leave the courthouse. But eventually, that same day, another clerk stepped in and issued Taylor and his long-time love a marriage license. A friend and former mayor was at the courthouse, too, and he married the couple on the spot — they became the first male gay couple to legally marry in Arkansas.
It wasn’t the day the two had imagined — it took place inside the cold halls of a county building, for one, instead of the vibrant greenery of their home, which for years had welcomed friends and visitors to the town they so loved. But it was perfect nonetheless, Taylor said, the final affirmation from Eureka that it loved him and Dick back.
“I would not have changed my wedding day for anything in the world,” he said. “We made history. We made a statement.”
Eureka Springs is home
Gray, the hairstylist-programmer-veteran-drag queen turned receptionist and volunteer, is busier than he’d ever been in Dallas and happier, too. Making friends in town is the “easiest thing in the world,” he said — even his landlady feels more like his sister, offering to cover Gray’s rent if he painted her house.
“That’s how it is here — simplicity at its best,” he said.
Even though he’s living on around a fifth of his former earnings, Gray said his life is full. He bought land and plans to build a home there this summer and even scored a spot in a gallery for one of his abstract art pieces.
And if that weren’t enough, Gray said he’s thinking about running for the Arkansas House of Representatives next. If he wins, he’d have to frequent the Capitol in Little Rock — luckily, just three hours from his beloved Eureka.
“Why would I want to live anywhere else?”
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