Early in my young gay life, one gay club meant everything. The part of my coming out in Wichita, Kansas that didn’t happen late nights at Denny’s with friends happened at a place called “The Our Fantasy Complex,” which everyone called “Fantasy” for short. From its opening in the 1970s until closing for good just a few years back, the club was a haven from the rest of a profoundly un-gay-friendly world.
Fantasy was a source of entertainment and vice, just like all nightclubs, but it was also an institution of refuge and community. There was a restaurant, a patio with a pool, a country bar, and a disco club that provided the only drag venue in town. It was a place where some of us explored coming out and where those who had already done that tough work were free to be themselves. A few dressed up as sequined divas and lip synced to Judy Garland and Liza Minelli and Whitney Houston and Diana Ross; others sat and drank away sorrows. Many just danced, most hung out with friends, and some did it all.
I was 17 years old the first time I ponied up to the Fantasy bar – it was a dead weeknight, and I was a naïve high school senior just off of work from a part time job at the local hardware store. I was eager but afraid, dipping a tentative toe into a world I knew nothing about except that I desperately needed to know more. The bartender, who later became a friend, must have known I wasn’t really old enough to be there – but he also knew I needed what Fantasy offered, so he served me anyway – a whiskey sour, the only cocktail I knew by name. It was an off-night for the drag show; I had no idea at the time that the bartender was also the club’s headlining act and didn’t even really know what a drag show was. He was dressed as any Wichita bartender might have been – in fact the place seemed “normal” as could be. He was definitely as sweet as could be, and I didn’t mind his casual flirting even a little bit; I did my best to flirt back.
I had two drinks in three hours and left, exhilarated and confident that my world would never be the same. And it wasn’t – I went back for so much more. I spent more nights at Fantasy than I can count; throughout the mid 1990s the place became my home. I learned to dance with abandon – with friends, with anyone who was around, and by myself. I learned to talk to strangers. I learned how to tip drag queens. I learned how to pick up guys, and I learned to let myself be picked up. Looking back now, at the age of forty and with my clubbing years way behind me, I wouldn’t take a minute of it back.
And through it all, Our Soundtrack was always there – I had never heard of any of them before crossing the Fantasy threshold, but I learned to love them all. Queen, Gloria Gaynor, Erasure….and on and on and on.
I have never been to Pulse, the nightclub in Orlando where Omar Mateen killed 49 people and met his own tragic end early in the morning on Sunday, June 12. But I have to imagine that the club has given many young people the same life-affirming gifts that Fantasy gave me. I mourn deeply for the victims, and I mourn deeply for a culture that values some lives over others. We have come so far as a species, yet we still have so far to go.
I’m leaving in a few minutes to march in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade with other members and families of a wonderful community that works toward health and nonviolence. We have printed signs that “Welcome Immigrants,” that insist that “Black Lives Matter,” and that implore our fellow citizens to “Stop Islamophobia,” to “Stop Transphobia,” and to “Be and Ally for Peace.”
Our community – and especially our young people – give me hope.
Thanks for reading.