Navigating the Weirdness of Alton, Illinois

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dave Clark

Columnist Chris Andoe (Photo by Sara Bannoura)

I consider Alton, Illinois, the undiscovered Sausalito of the Mississippi River. It’s a picturesque town about 22 miles north of the Arch, a place with dramatic topography and grand vistas. It also happens to have mysteries below the surface. And a Historic Museum of Torture Devices.

The museum’s proprietor is Janet Kolar, Alton’s hearse-driving (and hearse-racing) “Mistress of the Macabre.” A couple of years ago, I was writing a Halloween feature for the Vital Voice and I wanted to profile her. My interview requests went unanswered, so one Saturday afternoon I stopped by the Mineral Springs Antique Mall, where her museum is located. Inside the lobby I passed several shops packed with glassware, then turned down a long, dimly lit corridor leading to the museum. The gates were foreboding — and padlocked. I began to leave.

“Who are you looking for?” asked a nearby shopkeeper.

“Janet Kolar,” I replied, “but she’s not here.”

“Oh, she’s around. Just have a seat and she’ll be back by.”

So I downshifted out of my city rhythm and settled in. Before long, she arrived. I introduced myself, asking if this would be a good time to talk.

“I’m here and you’re here,” she replied serenely, “so this is a good time.”

What followed was part discussion and part seance — and one of the most fascinating interviews of my life.

That anecdote speaks to the way one should approach Alton. Unless you downshift, settle in and observe, you’ll miss the story.

That’s especially true at Bubby & Sissy’s, a bar that hosts several highly attended drag shows each week. After I began dating my husband, who is from Alton, I became a semi-regular at the bar. While the employees and owners are “family,” the patrons, at first blush, seemed largely straight. But as I met people, I heard stories about the times some of them fell into what I call the “Bi-Muda Triangle”— a realm where long-established sexual preferences can momentarily fade or vanish altogether. I realized there was something about Alton that lowered the barriers between queer and straight.

A drag show at Bubby & Sissy’s (Photo by Elain Marschick)

Treva Swain works the door at Bubby & Sissy’s. She talks about girls crowding in for bachelorette parties only to make out with women by the end of the night. Then there’s the trans woman who sometimes arrives with a boyfriend, and sometimes a girlfriend. And then there were the shows in which entertainer Trixie LaRue randomly assembled a group of mostly straight men from the audience and within minutes had them all dancing through the crowd in their underwear.

Drag Show Director Teighlor Demornay says that at Bubby & Sissy’s, labels are not central to one’s identity, and self-exploration and experimentation are common.

“Our bar’s famous for our tagline, ‘An open-minded place,’” Demornay says. “So people know it’s safe for them to lower their inhibitions and be themselves.”

Sarah Edington is a regular who makes the 40-minute drive from St. Charles just to enjoy the vibe, which to her feels more welcoming than anywhere else.

“In most bars, bi folk get open hostility,” she says. “But Bubs is friendly to us.”

In Alton, the relative openness to bisexual activity extends past the confines of one bar. Native Brian Ray, who doesn’t even frequent Bubby & Sissy’s, estimates that 90 percent of his sexual encounters in the area have been with men who identify as straight. Similarly, Chris Keidel, the openly gay owner of the burger bar Bottle & Barrel, spends much of his time with straight male friends. “And that leads to me hanging out with a guy having a great time, and every now and then, it leads to something much more fun with someone no one ever suspected would be in a same-sex relationship.”

You might think you know LGBT St. Louis inside and out. You may have even visited Alton, utilizing all the navigational tools at your disposal, and found nothing out of the ordinary. But when exploring the town’s Bi-Muda Triangle, it’s important to understand those tools are of little use. Here, you can’t even rely on your gaydar.

Chris Andoe, a.k.a. “The Emperor of St. Louis,” was a columnist for the Vital Voice and is the author of the book Delusions of Grandeur (Cahokia Press, 2015). You can contact him at [email protected]

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