“When I was growing up in Carollton, I used to daydream about gay bars in the big city and what it would be like to go there and dance to all the music I loved. In some ways, working at Big Bar is like living my wildest dreams.”
Carrollton is a small community nestled among the beautiful rolling hills of north central Kentucky. It’s mostly known to the rest of the state as the “SITE OF FATAL BUS CRASH MAY 14, 1988.” A stark road sign marks the spot on the side of I-71 between Louisville and Cincinnati. For Mark, Carrollton is the first place he called home and the place that taught him how to find home anywhere he traveled beyond its borders.
Mark was primarily raised by his grandparents after his parents were unable to continue raising him. His father had fought a long battle with brain cancer that left him a shell of his former self. His mother had her own mental health struggles and it was decided to remove him and his brother from their care. His father’s condition continued to worsen until he passed in 2009 when Mark was 19. Mark’s mom still lives in Carrollton and he makes regular trips to Carrollton to spend the day running errands and taking her out to lunch. The grandmother that was his primary caregiver passed away a few years ago from COVID, but she is undeniably the most influential person in his life to this day.
THIS DOESN’T SOUND LIKE CHRISTIAN MUSIC
Mark came to live with his grandmother when he was 8, a year after she had retired from a long career as the head chef for the local middle and high school’s food programs. At this point in her life, she had fallen under the spell of a charismatic young preacher who had taken over the pulpit at the local Pentecostal church that her family had built. He was an ex-con from Cincinnati that preached the kind of hellfire and brimstone repentance gospel that makes much more sense in prison than in the mind of an 8-year-old boy. He says that his grandmother had some wild years of drinking, smoking and traveling and decided that it was time to return to church when he was born, to “set a good example.” Once he came to live with her, the church became even more, a part of his life. Since it was such a small town, the preacher made a regular habit of calling parishioners out by name and accounting their sins for the congregation. Mark spent every Sunday in his most formative years terrified that his name would be called next, that his secret would be announced to the world.
He attended the same schools that his grandmother had worked for, so she still had friends keeping an eye on her wild child while he was there. By the time middle school rolled around, whispers were already circulating that Mark wasn’t like the other boys. His grandmother searched his room for some kind of proof that he was gay, or wasn’t, and found a contraband CD under his bed. It was 2003’s Metamorphosis by Hilary Duff. To her, it sounded sinful. Not like the Christian music she had approved for him. To Mark, it was an aptly named album for what was to unfold in the years to come.
In high school, the rumors intensified. When he was 15, he was dared to kiss another boy at a Model UN conference and a girl snapped a photo. The photo was later stolen from her backpack and his secret was out. His secret wasn’t exposed from the pulpit, but public school can be just as scary.
A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
Mark’s sexuality became a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” situation at home. He quit church and his grandmother didn’t want to acknowledge it even as family members urged her to send him to conversion therapy. Meanwhile, at school, Mark was defiantly living out loud.
“I wanted to be the biggest faggot that county had ever seen. Oh you hate me for being gay? I’ll be the gayest motherfucker you’ve ever seen. Lime green flip flops. Orange toe polish. Avon cucumber melon body spray. Neckties worn as belts. The whole nine yards,” he laughed across the table from me during happy hour at Nach Bar one afternoon.
I met Mark a year after he moved to Louisville at 18 to attend Bellarmine University. I was in the process of transferring there from Columbia College Chicago and received a friend request and message from him in the weeks before the spring semester started in 2010. “Your friend Ashlee says that we’re going to be best friends.”
She was right. I clung to Mark throughout college because he seemed fearless. He made me braver in those fraught years of learning how to drink and be drunk in public. I reigned him in and made sure he got home safely. Mark admitted that he didn’t feel as fearless as he seemed. “Gay bars were really intimidating spaces for me for a long time and I didn’t have many gay friends back then so I almost always had to go with a group of girlfriends to feel comfortable.” I was with him on many of those nights and had never realized until this conversation how closely he clung to us but I don’t remember seeing him venture outside of our group often. Similarly, Mark wasn’t in many serious relationships in his early 20’s. That all changed when he met his now-husband Eric in 2014.
Mark had finally met someone he wanted to bring home and when Thanksgiving rolled around, he asked to bring Eric along. His aunt discouraged as it would “upset his grandmother” so Mark expressed his disappointment in a Facebook status that was seen by many eyes in Carrollton. To Mark’s surprise, they came to his defense. Most people chastised his aunt and asked her, “Now why are you bein’ mean to that boy? He’s your kin. Treat him like it.” Eric came along but spent the afternoon in a cousin’s house nearby that year. Mark’s Grandma asked where Eric was and upon finding out he was nearby made sure that he brought Eric a nice plate of leftovers.
Some of Mark’s favorite memories from growing up are learning how to cook from his grandmother. She subscribed to tons of cooking magazines and was constantly baking and experimenting in the kitchen. She clipped her favorites, handwrote the classics she could remember and kept them all in a tin box. She would supervise Mark from the dining room table when he tried his hand, watching him intently and only speaking corrections when he needed them.
Before she got into cooking and became the head chef for the school system, she was a waitress and Mark thinks that both sensibilities were always present in her. “She always said that the saddest thing that ever happened was when the school system said she couldn’t use her recipes anymore. She fought them and said there was no way the kids would eat peas ever again unless she could cream them first,” Mark’s sentence trailed off with a smile and I asked what his greatest lesson from her was. He said that was a big question, hard to answer without some thought so we started chatting about the years we spent in the service industry.
I used to visit Mark at Cheddar’s Casual Cafe in college where he would serve us big plates of baked spaghetti in a crisp white shirt and tie before he got a job at Hillbilly Tea and could wear whatever he wanted. He even put my face on one of their tea tins when they gave him some graphic design responsibilities. A few years later, I got him a job alongside me at The Silver Dollar, where he stayed for 8 years before landing his current job at Big Bar.
Mark has been in Louisville for almost 15 years now and has been out for 17 years. He is a hell of a bartender. He’s won many drink competitions and can handle high volume with a smile and professionalism. These days he can play the Carly Rae Jepsen videos we used to watch on the floor of his living room on the big screens at Big Bar and watch his community dance to them. These spaces are no longer intimidating to him, they are his home away from home.
This reminded me to circle back to the question about his big lesson through all of these years. “I think, if anything, we should be willing to have conversations and give people a chance to change if you see a glimmer of hope in them. My grandmother went through a long process and a lot of arguments to try to come to terms with me being gay. But she loved me and even though she was scared she would jeopardize her faith she went out of her way to make sure I knew that, and to accept me as best she could. If I would have cut my family off completely because of the many slights they threw at me, I think I would have been devastated when she died knowing that we weren’t okay.” And when she did pass in 2021, Mark’s aunt made sure to add his husband to the small list of people invited to the funeral. And for that? He is thankful.