It’s been a little over a year since the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In the wake of that tragedy, two bars in the Rogue Valley started hosting parties specifically for the LGBTQ community. Organizers and participants say the events are a welcome change in a mostly-rural area that historically has had few such social opportunities.
On the first Saturday in July, the Vinyl Club in Ashland was packed, with groups of people spilling out into the alley. Everyone was there for Dancing Queens, an LGBTQ-oriented dance party held once a month. A quick word about labels … a lot of the people in this story use the word “queer” as a catch-all term for any gender identity or sexual orientation outside of the mainstream.
JPR spoke with some of the party-goers outside the club.
“I’m Carly, I’m from Ashland actually. I didn’t realize there was a queer dance party going on and I figured why not come.”
“The DJ played a set of very gay music. Like, Culture Club, and Cher. I noticed that most of the straight dudes started standing to the sides with their arms crossed.”
“This is the one event I look forward to every month. I get really excited whenever this comes up, because it brings everyone together.”
The Vinyl Club has held Dancing Queens for the past four months, and it’s now the second event of its kind happening in the Rogue Valley. The first, called Dancehaul, started in Grants Pass. And the inspiration for that event came last June, after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Shane Skinner, like many people in the gay community, felt echoes of a violent past.
“That tragedy had triggered old feelings, that may have been lost in the last number of years with marriage equality and what not,” Skinner says. “Being reminded that there are still folks out there, obviously, who would do harm on us.”
Shortly after the shooting, Skinner went to a local vigil, and one of the speeches stood out for him.
“And it ended with a call to the community to keep dancing. In essence not to let this tragedy keep us from being ourselves and being proud. And that really inspired me,” he says. “It really helped- helped me in my grieving around the Pulse shooting.”
Skinner was working as a bartender at The Haul in Grants Pass. He felt inspired to do something. So, last June, he organized a dance party at The Haul, specifically for LGBTQ people, as a fundraiser for families and victims of the Orlando shooting. Skinner grew up in Grants Pass, and, he says …
“There wasn’t a lot of public queer events happening in Southern Oregon. I think most people traveled to the city to experience queer culture, queer community.”
Holding this event just after the shooting made him nervous.
“And it was scary because Grants Pass is a pretty conservative town, and being so public about coming together was a scary thing,” he says. “But it felt good to face that fear, and come together and celebrate.”
The party was a huge success.
“The first event there must have been 100, 150 people there,” Skinner says. “It felt like a historical moment. It’s not something I would’ve ever expected to happen when I was growing up here.”
The event, now called Dancehaul, has been happening every month since. Larry Locke, an administrator at Southern Oregon University, attended one of them earlier this year.
“I think I was at the February dance up there,” he says. “And on the way back, my friends and I were just talking about how amazing the experience really was, living in a small town to be able to go to a dance party, with other queer folks, and I was like but why don’t we have one in Ashland?”
Locke started contacting local businesses, and eventually organized Dancing Queens at the Vinyl Club in Ashland. Locke says that Dancing Queens, and events like it, help unite Southern Oregon’s LGBTQ community.
“Queer events in rural spaces are unique. People look forward to this. It’s not like this is an option every weekend.”
Fox Ballara is a regular at Dancehaul. And she agrees that isolation can be a problem.
“Many of us live, like, a whole hour, hour and a half away from each other,” Ballara says, “so it’s not very often that we get to see each other so it really takes a special event for people to really come out and we get to reunite. And I swore I knew every queer in these neck of the woods and I have been completely amazed to notice that 90% of the people, I do not recognize.”
The disconnected nature of the Rogue Valley’s LGBTQ community has made hosting these events a challenge. Dancehaul recently switched from a monthly event to a quarterly event, due to a drop in turnout. But organizer Shane Skinner is looking at the long term.
“Whether or not it continues forever, we’ve created a space for the local LGBTQ+ community,” he says. “And if it happens to go away, I’d hope someone else would step up and create something new.”
For now, there’s a place for LGBTQ people to dance, in public, at either end of the Rogue Valley. And for Larry Locke, the power of dancing can’t be overstated.
“Having a chance to, like, go be queer and go to a dance party, and just let loose is- I think it’s an essential part of the human experience.”
Dancing Queens is held the first Saturday of every month, and Dancehaul is held four times a year- their next event will be in September.