A place like no other

Rural town’s gay community growing in more ways than one

Salisbury couple Greg Ashley and Ryan Olsen are working to grow the only gay bar in their small town. Photo Credit: Jeff Olson

Salisbury couple Greg Ashley and Ryan Olsen are working to grow the only gay bar in their small town. Photo Credit: Jeff Olson

[Ed. Note — After Q-Notes press time for the Dec. 13 issue, staff learned that the gay nights at George’s Italian Bar had ended. We’re sorry to learn of the development so soon after the publication of our story. An update will be published in January.]

SALISBURY, N.C. — Stuck between Charlotte and Greensboro along North Carolina’s heavily-traveled I-85 sits the little town that’s home to the Food Lion grocery chain and Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

For the past few years, this little Mayberry-esque dot-on-the-map has seen a tremendous amount of growth in business, but even so, Salisbury seems like the least likely place for a strong and visible LGBT community.

But, despite all odds, it’s here where local LGBT community members and straight allies and parents have teamed up to create one of the most active Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) chapters in the state. They’ve been successful at working straight allies in elected office and have won employment protection for LGBT city government employees.

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With strong financial support, the local PFLAG chapter is now offering scholarships to worthy students and are still trying to make some headway with local school officials. (In 2006, the Rowan County Board of Education voted to ban all gay-straight alliances.)

And it’s here, in this small, unlikely town, where two high-spirited individuals have taken the next step toward a visible and strong LGBT community.

Greg Ashley, 29, and Ryan Olsen, 39, a Salisbury couple in a committed relationship for four years, decided it was time to spice things up in their little town. With successes on the city level brought on by local PFLAGers, Ashley and Olsen decided it was time for the city’s gay community to grow some more. Dedication and hard work have brought about Salisbury’s second-ever gay bar, downtown’s George’s Italian Restaurant. A popular eatery by day, the restaurant’s owner has allowed Ashley and Olsen to organize their very own gay nightlife events after hours.

“This has always been a dream of mine,” Olsen said. “It’s time we have a place in Salisbury where we can go within the community.”

Olsen grew up here, so he knows first hand what it was like not to have a place to go, especially when you’re gay. “When I was younger, I had to drive all the way to Charlotte every weekend, just to go out,” he related.

Like his partner, Ashley was also raised in rural Carolina, in a small town near Salisbury. “We just want to have a place where everyone is welcomed,” Ashley said. “Despite your race, sex, or whatever, you will always be welcomed here.”

In the mid-1980s, Salisbury saw its first attempt at a gay nightlife. The Closet was the first bar for the gay community in the Salisbury area. Immediately shut down by local officials, Salisbury’s since been without any gay nightlife; if there’s going to be a party, it’ll be in Charlotte or Greensboro, Ashley and Olsen said.

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Ashley and Olsen said they believed they could make it from the start; they’re determined to make it prosper.

“We were unsure [at the beginning], but we thought since we live here, let’s make the best of it,” Olsen said.

The gay-focused events began only on Wednesdays at first. As the night became more popular, George allowed the couple to expand through Saturday night. Two drag shows serve as the highlight on Wednesdays and Fridays now, and karaoke takes center stage on Thursday.

Ashley and Olsen said they’re excited about what the future might bring and are looking forward to future expansion. As the community in Salisbury grows both politically and socially, places like George’s will continue to thrive — and, you know, no city’s really all that until it has a gay bar.

“I wish a place like this came along years ago,” said David, a first-time visitor who came from Greensboro. “Where else can you have this much entertainment on this side of the state?”

Salisbury still has miles and miles to travel on their road to LGBT equality, but it might just be, in the words of Rakeena, another first-timer at George’s, that this small town is finally on its way to catching up with “modern times.”

— This story was originally published on Olson’s You Know What? Community Blog at youknowwhat.q-notes.com.

 

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