How Mississippi’s oldest gay bar survived the COVID pandemic
Last March, after Lynn Koval saw cases of COVID-19 spread across the United States, she bought several thousand dollars worth of beer and liquor before closing the doors of the Just Us Lounge, the oldest gay bar still in operation in Mississippi.
The small storefront on Division Street survived Hurricane Katrina. It withstood the BP oil spill. He has organized fundraisers for countless community members in need. And it has been a place to find community and refuge in a conservative state.
Koval knew her bar would survive the pandemic because she knew she couldn’t let him die. And so, as a veteran of the southern Mississippi nightlife scene, she thought about it in a practical way and stocked up on supplies.
“I had no idea what it would look like on the other side,” she said of those days last spring, when no one knew how much the pandemic would transform our lives and for how long.
Koval shut down Just Us on March 20, long before Gov. Tate Reeves released a shelter in place on April 1, 2020, which required bars and restaurants to stop serving.
“It is never a difficult decision when it is for the betterment of this community,” said Koval.
Throughout the pandemic, Koval’s decisions have been driven by this philosophy: that his goal as a gay bar owner is not profit, but service.
When you open a gay bar, she said, “You take charge of a movement, a community – all of its needs, everything. “
It reopened at the end of July 2020 because if it had not done so, it might have lost the business. And that would have meant much more than closing a bar.
“BUT I AM GAY”
Koval started out as a bartender to pay for her college education, still working in 24-hour bars. They weren’t gay bars, so whenever her straight customers made a mocking comment about gay people, she saw an opportunity. “But I’m gay,” she said.
“No, you are Lynn,” they would reply.
It doesn’t work that way, she explained, and at the end of the night another person would come home knowing that someone in her life, someone she loved and respected, was gay. (Polls have found that the surge in support for same-sex marriage has coincided with a dramatic increase since the 1990s in the number of Americans who report personally knowing someone who is gay.)
When she opened her Sanctuary bar on Veterans Avenue in 1996, the Coast could be a violent place to be openly queer.
“We were getting our ass flogged,” she said.
Alcohol was what Koval knew, so a bar was what she opened to serve her community. If she had had any experience with donuts, she jokes, she would now own Mississippi’s oldest gay donut store.
A few years later, Koval moved his bar to Division Street, and it became Just Us.
THE MEANING OF A GAY BAR
The first pride march and celebration in 1970 commemorated the police raid on a New York gay bar called the Stonewall Inn the previous year and protests by the LGBTQ community; this raid and the riots also accelerated the American movement for gay rights.
In many communities across the country, the local gay bar is the only space clearly dedicated to the LGBTQ community. Unlike large cities, the coast does not have an LGBTQ community center, although one is in the works. Rob Hill, the Jackson-based state director for the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi, has held community meetings at Sipps, a gay bar in Gulfport, when he comes to the coast.
Christopher Davidson, who ran a bar at Just Us for 19 years, is retired from Lockheed Martin. Decades ago, before going out, he visited Dallas and was stunned to meet LGBTQ men and women having an after-work drink, dressed in tight-fitting suits that he still vividly remembers. Growing up in the Deep South, he didn’t know that there were openly gay businessmen, and that he could be too.
He believes Just Us offers the same kind of opportunity to young gay men who don’t have LGBTQ people in their lives.
“You need role models,” said Davidson, who is 59. “They can come into the bar and see us old people and realize that no matter what we’ve been through, we’re still here.”
Before the pandemic, Koval had closed its bar 24/7 only once, although it had “disappeared 70%” after Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic stand out as two of the most devastating events in Just Us history.
“They are both heartbreaking because both situations involved having choices,” she said. “It is very difficult to sit idly by and watch a community make bad choices.
PRECAUTIONS IN CASE OF PANDEMIC
When Koval shut down Just Us, she and her employees kept in touch daily through a Facebook Messenger group.
The bar got a $ 15,000 loan under the Paycheck Protection Program and employees received extended unemployment benefits.
They took the opportunity to renovate the bar, coming one or two at a time to work. They installed new floors and renovated the bathrooms. They enlarged the bar to give people more space to spread out. And they filled a patio space with picnic tables to allow for outdoor socializing.
As of July 2020, Koval could no longer afford to stay closed any longer. On July 30, his wife Tamara’s birthday, they reopened.
“No matter how crazy it can get while we’re sorting out our issues, we’re home,” the bar’s Facebook post said that day. “We are here! We are just us!”
The reopened Just Us took precautions that were not common in bars and restaurants on the coast. There were temperature controls at the door and a temperature log for the employees. They hung plexiglass along the bar to protect the bartenders. Everyone wore plastic gloves.
Davidson said Koval was adamant about following safety procedures.
“She said,” We survived 26 years without putting people at risk. Why start now? ‘ “
Koval has spent most of his time at home due to health issues that would make COVID-19 an almost certain death sentence.
But she has remained closely involved with the business, especially when it comes to coronavirus precautions. She could see on the bar’s security camera if an employee’s mask was hanging over one ear, and she called to ask them to cover their mouths and noses.
As far as Koval knows, no one close to him has contracted the virus.
A RETURN TO NORMAL
On a recent Tuesday night, Davidson was tending to the bar in the cool darkness of Just Us. A handful of regulars were watching “Wheel of Fortune” at one end of the bar.
The plexiglass was gone and no one was wearing a mask. Koval said all of its employees, except those with specific medical conditions, have been vaccinated.
Davidson checked the beer supply, unsure of what was left in stock after a busy pride weekend. This event had marked a kind of return to normal for the bar: since it reopened almost a year ago, Just Us had barely put on any shows or events, as Koval didn’t want to pack the place. Regulars, coming alone or in small groups, kept them afloat anyway.
In big cities like Los Angeles and New York, gay bar owners feared the pandemic would force them to shut down permanently, destroying pieces of queer history and current community. In Los Angeles, at least four have closed permanently.
On the coast, thanks in part to the less stringent Mississippi restrictions, things looked different.
Jeffrey Mayeux, owner of Sipps Bar in Gulfport, said his business actually doubled once it reopened during the pandemic. People came from New Orleans, where the bars were less open. And a bunch of older straight people started coming to Sipps every Tuesday and Friday first because their regular bar was closed and then because they found they liked Sipps better.
LYNN KOVAL, KING OF PRIDE
On the evening of Saturday June 26, Koval’s bar was full of people from the Biloxi pride celebration. They drank, chatted and danced to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston.
Koval was back at Point Cadet, crowned the Coast’s first “Pride King” in recognition of her contribution to the Coast LGBTQ community. Koval hosted the first Coast Pride Festival in 2017.
Davidson, president of the Gulf Coast Association of Pride, which now hosts the event, said she was the obvious choice.
At around 6 p.m., Koval walked into Just Us wearing her crown.
His regulars came to tell him that they loved him. And the newcomers came to ask, in the muffled and slightly disbelieving tone of someone who meets royalty (which it was, after her coronation at Pride), “Are you the owner?”
Koval was devastated by the death toll from the pandemic, by its continued rise, by the limits of America’s empathy and collective willingness to sacrifice that it had revealed.
“What a ball of mixed feelings out there – how can you say you love the person next to you when you’re not ready to be disturbed?”
But that night, as Pride was in full swing and the bar filled up, it looked like Just Us had passed to the other side again, still standing.