There is a dungeon in downtown Missoula and it goes by the name of AmVets. By definition, a dungeon is a labyrinthine subterranean setting, but to define it in such grandiose terms is to give it false representation. There is nothing remotely grand about Missoula’s only gay bar.
Even though, as the name suggests, it was intended to be a bar for American Veterans, AmVets has turned into a smorgasbord of small town gay culture that is truly one of a kind. Situated between a few bars that have been deemed “hick” establishments, the entrance to AmVets looks more like an abandoned hut than a welcoming nightclub. The wooden enclosure is a gateway to a rock staircase that looks jack hammered and unfinished and is usually scattered with smokers out for a quick puff in the frigid winter air.
The bar scene has been the last place on my mind over the past ten months, but when Blaine and David showed up in Missoula, I knew that I would have to make an exception. Being sober in AmVets presented it in an even scarier light than through drunk-goggles, so my two trips opened up my eyes in new ways.
Once you pass through the rickety wooden door, you are met by a bouncer who scans ID’s with the commitment of a supermarket attendant. His lackadaisical nature is made evident by the abundance of underage patrons who float around the cavernous space.
Both Blaine and David were immediately overwhelmed by the enormity of the bar, which has no natural light and is big enough that it could exist in a hollowed out mountain. Upon entering, there is a bar that offers Jello shots, Jaeger on tap, and cheap drinks served in plastic cups. Just beyond that is a collection of pool tables and if you step a little further you reach the dance floor, which plays a variety of top-40 pop.
It’s on the dance floor that the diversity of the crowd becomes apparent. Grinding against one pole you’ll find a lesbian couple dressed in overalls that are in no way an ironic fashion statement. Next to them you’ll see a leather daddy with a handle bar mustache observing the toothless men smoking continuous cigarettes. Every now and then a drag queen will make her rounds, cavorting with the crowd with an explosion of hair topping off a rainbow colored gown. Peppered between these icons of gay Montana are the college students with popped collars and beaded necklaces straight out of 1997.
(Jes and Blaine tear it up on the dance floor.)
Since I first discovered AmVets at eighteen, I’ve often wondered where these men and women are during the day. The diverse crowd meets only in the way that they party with such ferocity. Even though Missoula is a liberal college town, it’s not uncommon to be given dirty looks, get mocked, or at times even assaulted because of ones sexual preference. It’s a town that prides itself on being diverse and accepting, but one whose actions sometimes overwhelm its intentions. The suppressed nature of homosexuality in Missoula has only a few outlets where pretenses are disrobed, and the main one is AmVets.
To me and my friends from New York, it can seem like a very uncomfortable experience. Whereas we are free to be ourselves, sexuality and all, in our everyday lives, in Montana it’s still legal to be fired for sexual preference. Once ten o’ clock rolls around, the bar becomes scattered with people who are free to be themselves for a while.
Due to my sober lifestyle at the moment, I took the time during my past two trips to observe the crowd as much as possible. If I ever become a documentary filmmaker, AmVets will be one of my first subjects. It’s a fascinating study in gay culture on the brink of acceptance and the freedom that an overtaken bar can possess; it’s a genuine Montana experience.
(Blaine joins me at my observation post.)