Des Moines Gay Bar Owners Reflect On A Shattered Safe Space

The Blazing Saddle in the East Village

By Pat Rynard

June 12, 2016

The show went on for attendees and organizers at the Des Moines Pridefest in the East Village today, but the celebrations were mixed with sorrow over the tragic news from the Orlando terrorist attack. Some first learned of the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub upon arriving to the annual LGBT festival.

The news took on a particularly disturbing toll for a community that has found refuge and acceptance at gay nightclubs and bars. Long before the East Village earned its role as the hip, up-and-coming neighborhood for young professionals, The Garden and The Blazing Saddle bars anchored the area as the place in Des Moines for gay nightlife. In the decades before the Varnum decision or the growing LGBT acceptance as a whole, it was the only place where members of that community could be themselves.

“We’re celebrating our 32nd year here,” said Ray Aguiniga, one of the co-owners of The Garden. “This was always the place you could go and have a good time and feel safe.”

“The harassment is not nearly what it used to be,” said his husband and co-owner Chad. “Obviously it’s more acceptable to be out these days. We still feel that The Saddle, The Garden, these are our bars. It’s our community. When things like this happen it brings the community even more together, keeping us safe and keeping it a home for people … We’ve had drive-by name calling, and the protests, but nothing like this around a community.”

Pridefest-goers congregate around The Garden

Pridefest-goers congregate around The Garden

The feeling was the same for many of the drag queen performers at the festival. Derek, who danced on the Pridefest’s stage as Boo Belle and was named Mr. Blazing Saddle recently, worried what it could do for the local LGBT scene.

“I’ve been in the gay bar scene for 5 or 6 years now, and I always go in there and make friends,” he said. “It’s just like hanging out with all of your friends – you can walk in and know everyone and enjoy yourself. For something like this to happen is scary.”

For some of the older members of the community, the magnitude of the attack and murder was shocking, but not the sentiments behind it.

“I came out in 1982, been an onstage female performer for 35 years,” said Marty Larson, the show director and community outreach coordinator for The Blazing Saddle. “I’ve watched it from being a two-block march to being a mile-and-a-half parade. I’ve watched people grow in acceptance, but yet I’ve watched people think they no longer have anything to worry about.”

“I don’t think it’s shocking at all,” he added while wiping away a tear, sitting in the stairway by the bar. “The youth of my community need to realize that it’s not always been this easy. There are still people out there that hate us, and we can still be a target.”

Pridefest attendees await the parade

Pridefest attendees await the parade

The attacks produced mixed feelings for Pridefest – many were horrified, but wanted to remain strong in the face of it all.

“My first reaction was to start crying. Distraught, gut-wrenching sorrow for that community,” said Des Moines resident Benjamin Schnurr, who brought signs to the festival with messages of solidarity for the people in Orlando. “I believe firmly that we have to come out in numbers, show our pride, show that we exist, that we’re not second-class citizens and that we belong here.”

“I personally know two of the queens that were in that nightclub,” Larson said. “I’m hoping they’re still ok. It’s really, really hard because I’m trying to celebrate pride in my own city, but I have a lot of fear for my own community. This is about 34 years of Pride for me. I ran the parade here for 8 years. It gives me fear.”

Signs of support at Pridefest

Signs of support at Pridefest

With the news still so recent, and right in the middle of the biggest LGBT celebration of the year, few had taken the time to fully process the terrorist attack yet this afternoon. Most hadn’t heard that the shooter might have ties to ISIS. And they’re not yet sure if it will change any policies at Des Moines’ gay bars.

“With big events like this we have the additional security we hire,” noted Chad Aguiniga. “They are very visible, I think it helps.”

Larson, who works closely with the owners of The Saddle, also wasn’t sure yet what impact – if any – it would have on the bar.

“I don’t think it’ll change our policies – we might tighten up our security a little bit,” he said.

For many – both attendees and community leaders – there was doubt something similar could happen in Des Moines, but also a sense of fatalism around it.

“It’s going to strike wherever it’s going to strike,” said Schnurr. “You can’t live in a shell, waiting for something to happen to you. You have to do what makes you happy.”

“It’s one of those things if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” added Belle. “You try to enjoy who you’re with while you can.”

“Everyone has to realize when it’s their time, it’s their time,” said Larson.

Crowds line the street for the Pridefest parade, despite the heat

Crowds line the street for the Pridefest parade, despite the heat

The attacks brought back into sharp focus the difficulties the LGBT community still faces. Despite the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage across the country, full acceptance is still a major issue, and acts of violence – even mass shootings – are still possible.

“We have a long way to go as a society,” said Schurr. “We may have gay rights, but we don’t have trans rights, we don’t have protections for everybody. In some places you can still be fired for being gay or trans. So I feel as a country we have a long way to go.”

“It’s sad to see there are people out there who hate us so much when we are doing nothing to offend them,” commented Larson. “What we do is within our own homes, in our own lives, and does not affect the people who are out there to hurt us.”

An impromptu candle light vigil was being organized for 7:30 tonight at the steps of the Capitol in Des Moines. Many volunteers at Pridefest spread the word to attendees and on social media. More gatherings are being planned for Monday.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 6/12/16

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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