Off the overgrown trench of Eubanks Creek, there is a shoebox-rectangle building with air conditioning units peeking from the rooftop. Five opaque, painted windows glow under lights wrapped around the awning: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. This is a code, if a bit on the nose. With no other sign, it is all that welcomes you to Wonderlust, one of Jackson, Mississippi’s few remaining LGBTQ nightclubs.
It’s only 10 p.m., but already faint, rhythmic vibrations beckon groups out of Uber cars, past security guards, and into the building.
Inside is dim but for glowing lights on the bar and lamps hanging over the two pool tables. The cover is a little expensive. But then again, it is a special night. It’s the bar’s anniversary, and, to celebrate, they are bringing in Jaidynn Fierce, of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Seven.
Jesse Pandolfo is perched over the bar, trying to decode a slur of drink orders. She and three other bartenders are all that hold ground against the wave of voices crashing through the music. Jesse whips around the other bartenders, grabbing bottles from dark iceboxes and slinging fifths for mixed drinks.
If she finds a moment when they aren’t out of Smirnoff and there are few enough people trying to order, Jesse will slip away to take a breather. On Saturday nights, the drag show starts at midnight. Toward the end of the show, the rush of people grabbing drinks slows down, and she can take her chance.
“I won’t go if the crowd needs something,” Jesse said. “If the bar is slammed, I just won’t do it. I can’t. It doesn’t feel right.”
Now she has just enough time to get a smoke in before the show ends and the drink crowd picks back up. To do so, she has to make her way to the relative peace of the DJ booth. But before she can creep past the bar:
“Hey, Jesse! She forgot her ID at the house. They won’t let her in. Is there anything you can do?” “Jesse! Come here! You have to meet my boyfriend!” “Jesse one of the queens wants a rum and coke.” “Jesse, the microphone’s not working.” “Jesse, the door needs change.” “Jesse…”
She said it can all be a lot sometimes. “They know who I am, and they want to feel appreciated,” Jesse said. “And it feels really special, you know. To be a part of something. To be building something.”
Jesse said that since the bar’s opening night in September 2015, the club has taken over her life. Sure, there are other bars, but, in the LGBTQ community, these spaces are special. She often talks about her responsibility to the patrons. Some of the bar-goers aren’t out to their families or to their coworkers. Any given night might be the first time someone gets to be around other LGBTQ people. For that reason, each night matters.
“Some of the gay boys call me ‘mom,’” Jesse said. “I see what they’re saying—it’s a joke, I know that—but at the same time a lot of them want something that ties it all together, and I think this bar is that. It’s up to me to keep them happy. To keep them safe.”
After ducking and dodging her way through the crowd, Jesse climbs up to the DJ booth tucked away in the corner of a small stage. Inside, with all the speakers pointed outward, she finds what might be the quietest place in the building. Mitch, a DJ prodigy, is getting everything set up for when the drag show ends and the crowd is ready to dance. Off to the side, there is a computer keyboard that controls the light show.
Jesse was there when the technician set it up. “A” floods the floor with red lights. “S” with blue. Farther down, “F” cues what Jesse calls “LGBT Scene” which shoots purple on the floor with rainbow beams that circle around the room.
Puffing on her cigarette, Jesse alternates through scenes of color. This is what she deals in. Atmosphere. She can trust the DJ. She can trust the bartenders. She has her girlfriend checking people in at the door. It’s all a stack of details that have to be done right.
“I think the community needs the bar,” Jesse said, “but I need them more than they need me. They all have fulltime jobs. But for me, this is what I do. Sometimes it feels like it’s all I do. It’s a nightmare working out every detail, but I need it, you know.”
Hanging in the bar, there is a framed picture of an Urban Dictionary entry: “Wonderlust – the stage in a relationship or phase of love when you’re not sure if you are lusting after or actually in love with someone.”
Jesse considered other names for the bar: The Purple Panda? Too weird. Needs to have more mass appeal. Wonderland? Don’t want people to think of little boys when they come here. Wonderland? “Why not Wonderlust?” Jesse said recalling the conversation.
And with that, she had a name. The rest was a flurry of months spent painting floors, moving in furniture, cleaning the mold left over from the former tenant’s renegade soda gun, and fingers blistering from hand-sewing curtains. In the end, she said, it was all worth it.
“They need a place to be free,” Jesse said. “A place where boys can kiss boys or girls can kiss girls and they don’t have to answer to anybody. A place where you don’t have to worry about not being served.”
In the South, service has never been a guarantee to all citizens. From Black Codes to Jim Crow, White supremacy has been codified in laws that demarcated White and Black people in nearly every aspect of life, from the serious––who can marry whom––to the mundane––who can order a burger where.
Though the work of racial justice is hardly over, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created legal recourse against private businesses that discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. However, this federal law does not extend protection to sexual orientation.
Some states and municipalities have anti-discrimination laws that do protect LGBTQ people.
But in recent years, conservative state lawmakers have pushed bills to dismantle those laws or to entrench a lack of protection in states that have none. These legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights are frequently couched in language promoting “religious freedom,” as they often include provisions allowing businesses and individuals to refuse service to LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.
In 2015, Indiana’s then-governor Mike Pence signed a highly controversial “religious freedom” bill that gave business owners grounds to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Other states have come close—in Arizona and Georgia, similar bills passed the legislatures but were vetoed by their governors.
Last year, in North Carolina, the legislature passed House Bill 2, the notorious “bathroom bill,” which requires transgender people to use bathrooms marked with the sex that appears on their birth certificates. Among other provisions, it struck down local ordinances that made sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes. Despite widespread opposition, then-governor Pat McCrory signed H.B. 2 into law.
Natalie Offiah was not surprised when Mississippi followed suit. Some nights, she is among the crowd at Wonderlust. Most days, she’s attending undergraduate classes at Jackson State University. Around town, Natalie is known for her work as an organizer. She is a member of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), which organizes queer communities throughout the South.
But Natalie said she is a “non-policy” person. She doesn’t check bill registers for new legislation or follow think tank blogs to find out the newest initiatives that other groups are pushing. She’s an organizer and, when she hears from SONG leadership, or regional partners like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), she goes to work. Last spring, Natalie got the call.
Mississippi lawmakers had introduced House Bill 1523, or the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, in early February, 2016.
The law would enable individuals and religious organizations to refuse goods and services to anyone based on three “sincerely held religious or moral convictions”: marriage is the union of one man and one woman; sex is only proper when between married people; and gender is determined by a person’s anatomy at the time of birth.
By February 19, the Mississippi House of Representatives had passed H.B. 1523. That’s when Natalie knew she needed to begin spreading the word about the bill. If she was going to get people out to protest, she had to educate people on what the bill would mean for the state.
Natalie builds networks. She keeps a long list of contacts ready so when a protest is called, she has people to mobilize. But Natalie said that there are greater obstacles to organizing around LGBTQ issues in Jackson, compared to other Southern cities.
“Outside of the clubs, it's hard to see a strong LGBT presence in Jackson, especially a [person of color] presence in Jackson. And that's not to be negative, it's just that we are just a little bit behind other cities,” Natalie said.
With the help of some friends, she drafted a press release and, sitting in front of a camera zip-tied to a tripod, she helped lead a Twitter town hall.
“People were surprised to realize all of the effects,” Natalie said. “Like for example, you know, because the bill only recognizes sexual relationships between hetero[sexual] married people, that means that unmarried mothers are equally impacted by this bill.” This intersection where harm to one group necessarily hurts another is a piece that Natalie cannot say enough about.
"When I talk about the movement, there is so much that goes into that. When people say ‘What's the movement,’ they might say the Black liberation movement. Someone else might say the immigrant rights movement. Someone else might say the women's justice movement. Some might say the LGBT rights movement. I consider them all a part of the same movement.”
Some days before the Twitter town hall, Natalie met a friend at a coffee house to prepare, and a guy who overheard their conversation started asking them questions. “At some point while we were working, he and all his friends became part of the conversation, asking questions,” she said, “and I’m thinking why are we talking to this guy? He doesn’t care.” She described it as the kind of conversation where they were trying to have some fun, but she was actually trying to convince them why they should care.
Eventually Natalie left, and the guy decided to leave with her, saying his car was parked near hers. They end up stopped on a flight of stairs, and the conversation got really heated:
"You may not be gay, right. You may not be queer, and you may not be trans or anything like that,” Natalie said. “You may identify as a cis, straight man. But your best friend may be [queer]. Your cousin may be. Your little sister may be, right? And you wouldn't want someone to treat someone you care about differently because of something they can't control—who they are.”
This is how Natalie works. She makes it personal.
“And now that guy is on my list,” she said.
After the Twitter town hall, Natalie and her friends gathered a group of college students to go to the Capitol and watch as the Senate voted on the bill. Earlier that year, Governor Phil Bryant made a statement to young Mississippians to “grow where you were planted.”
“The whole point was to show them that, as college students, we will not stand for hateful legislation being passed in this state,” Natalie said. “If you want us to stay, you're not going to sign this bill.”
They planned to sit in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor. But when they showed up, Natalie said the police were there in force. She heard from a friend in the Capitol that their plans had been leaked to the police, who had come ready for an out-of-hand group of protestors. With the raised police presence, Natalie decided to change up the strategy. They began circulating stacks of petitions, hoping to show the bill’s lack of popularity.
That day, the Senate passed H.B. 1523. The bill only needed a signature from Bryant to become law. For Natalie, the days that followed brought a constant stream of emails, phone calls, and errands as she helped plan a protest outside the governor’s mansion. Dozens of people from across the state were bussed in, and, by the time Natalie was leading chants with a bullhorn, the crowd numbered in the hundreds.
“We had been going for days straight, just going. I remember coming back after the rally and regrouping at the Lumumba Center. We talked about what went good and what went wrong. The strategy going forward. We all got dinner together, and after that they were on their way.”
Natalie went home and laid in bed. She began composing a to-do list of things she hadn’t done because of her organizing work: “I haven’t done laundry this week. I haven’t done grocery shopping this week. I haven’t gone to school this week—like the entire week. I kept putting off the car mechanic,” she said, “I was tired.”
She said she still felt the urge to work, but, in that moment of exhaustion, all she could do was lay there looking at the ceiling. The next day, Bryant signed the bill.
“Did we fail? Yes and no. Yes, because the whole purpose of us organizing beforehand was to prevent this bill from happening. So yes, technically, we did fail. He signed it. We pushed him, and he signed it anyway. No, because out of that came a spotlight on Mississippi, and especially on LGBT Mississippians and how we're organizing here.”
Natalie said the campaign brought fundraisers for LGBTQ rights groups. Out of it came Mississippi PRIDE, the annual LGBTQ parade held in solidarity with other parades throughout the country. Out of it came straight people who saw the bill the way she did.
“That was extremely rejuvenating to all for us,” Natalie said. “We have so many more people who have been funneled into the work that we are doing down here, all because they realize that you can’t just live your life as an LGBT person and think that people’s beliefs about you don’t affect you.”
As a Black organizer in former slave-state Mississippi, Natalie spends a lot of time working in de facto segregated spaces. She said racial lines do not disappear inside the gay clubs:
“I love watching the show at Wonderlust. It’s a cool spot,” she said. But, “They didn't have much Black music. We dance because we're going to have fun regardless. All I’m saying is, there aren’t a lot of spaces for queer folks in Mississippi in general.”
Wonderlust is located in the Fondren area, a quickly gentrifying district in Jackson, Mississippi that’s not always welcoming to everyone.
“When we're in [Fondren], and you don't fit a certain standard, it can be dangerous,” Natalie said.
“There are certain places in Jackson where being Black is a red flag. And that's just the world we live in. And I think every Black person is aware of that. When you have a police officer watching your club, and it’s not a security guard, but an actual police officer, that can change things.”
Jesse said Wonderlust’s clientele is mixed but predominantly White, despite the fact that she intended it to be an inclusive space. She said that when she meets LGBTQ people of color, she’ll try and pass out some free drink cards. But it is an uphill battle.
“I want Wonderlust to be a great place, a diverse place,” Jesse said. “Like if I heard someone call it ‘the White bar,’ I’d lose it. But it’s a hard thing to control.”
In the past, Jesse worked at clubs that had racial quotas on people coming into the bar. “They would say, ‘That’s enough Black people. Don’t let any more in.’ That’s unbelievable to me. That’s unreal.”
Unfortunately, that unreality is part of life in Jackson for people of color.
Over in West Jackson, Metro Reloaded is the only other LGBTQ dance club in town. It caters to a predominately Black audience.
“I don't want to say that it is segregated because that is not what it is,” Natalie said. “And I can understand there being different types of spaces for different people. But I also think there is a lack of middle ground.”
Finding that middle ground is a big part of Natalie’s work with SONG, which brings together LGBTQ Southerners across race, class, and culture. Each year, SONG holds an annual membership event called Gaycation, where LGBTQ folks from across the South get together for a few days of camping, partying, relaxing, and building community. A couple months after the ordeal with H.B. 1523, Gaycation rolled around.
Natalie said that it was a beautiful couple of days.
“It's exactly what it sounds like,” Natalie said. “It's just a bunch of queers, gays, our families, grandparents, little kids, and everyone in between at a campground in the middle of the woods. We had campfires and dance night. Cooked together. Slept in cabins. There was a lake. It was a really great couple of days.”
On the morning of June 12, Natalie woke up around 8 a.m. in her bunk. Her phone was ringing. She let it ring for a while, but it would not stop. She eventually shook off enough sleep to go check it. It was her mom.
“Where are you?” her mom asked.
“I’m in Tennessee. I’m camping with SONG.”
Since Natalie came out to her mom a year prior, their relationship had been strained.
“So you’re not in Orlando?”
“No, I’m not,” Natalie said. “What’s happening in Orlando?”
“There was a mass shooting—they killed a lot of people.”
“There was a mass shooting—I just wanted to make sure you were safe,” her mom said. “We never know where you are. We never know if you are okay.”
Natalie told her she just woke up. She was in Tennessee. She was safe.
After saying her goodbyes, Natalie got on Facebook and started reading.
“I didn’t understand what was happening,” Natalie remembered.
All she could think was that she needed to get out of her bunk. She needed to move. She took a shower and cried in the hot water. The death toll was climbing. Exiting the shower, it was at 23.
She threw on some clothes and headed outside. She saw friends and chosen family members she had spent three days laughing with wandering around in tears.
"The one thing we wanted to do was not let our people find out through social media,” Natalie said. “But we know the first thing people are going to do when they get out of bed is check their phone.”
Natalie helped gather everyone in a common room. Some members of SONG’s leadership explained how an armed man went into a nightclub in Orlando. And how it was an LGBTQ nightclub. And how a lot people were killed.
Someone cried out.
Much of SONG’s membership is Latinx. The news had come out that the nightclub, Pulse, was a staple for LGBTQ Latinx people.
"I started to feel angry. I was so incredibly angry and not knowing what to do,” Natalie said.
“All I could think that day was that there will still be people who will blame us. Who will say, ‘If they weren’t queer, if they weren’t gay, they wouldn’t have been there, and they wouldn’t have gotten killed.’ And in that moment, it was like there is no place we can go that is safe. There is no place we can go.”
It was the last day of Gaycation. People were packing up. People were calling home, calling friends. Letting them know they were safe.
“How were we supposed to leave there after that?” Natalie said.
“Knowing that you may never see them again.”
She remembers telling someone, “I love you. I see you. Be safe—please be safe.”
All the while, Natalie thought back to the battle against H.B. 1523.
“People don't realize that the decisions they are making in the legislature are affecting people’s lives,” Natalie said. “And it may not look like you pass 1523 so you gave the person the gun to go and kill 49 people. But what it does look like is that a state passed this bill that makes it okay for you to look at me and say that I'm different from you, which makes me less-than.
Even if it starts with [a business owner refusing to sell an LGBTQ couple] a wedding cake, that trickles and trickles until it becomes a river. It's starts small, and it starts innocent. But it doesn’t stop there.”
The ripples from Pulse were felt across the nation. In Jackson, Jesse remembered seeing people with their heads down at the bar. The mood was heavy. There was a prayer vigil for the lives that were lost in Orlando.
“I mean it was really scary,” Jesse said. “If that could happen in a place like Orlando, what was possible in Mississippi?”
In the aftermath, though, there was some good news. On July 30, 2016, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves struck down H.B. 1523 in its entirety, just one day before the law was set to go into effect. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood refused to file an appeal on behalf of the state, saying the law was unconstitutional. Bryant hired private attorneys to appeal the decision, so the case is still pending, but Natalie said momentum is on the side of queer rights.
“We just have to get people together. If we can do that, I think we could change this state,” she said. “It’s not perfect, what we have down here, but it’s going somewhere.”
There’s a video that Jesse keeps saved on her phone. It was late one night, after the drag show. Jesse said something was in the air. The DJ’s playlist landed on a Whitney Houston song, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and suddenly people jumped off barstools and put out their cigarettes. They packed onto the dance floor.
There, in the grainy footage on Jesse’s phone screen, something had risen. It’s fleeting. The stage lights circle around the dancers, and the dancers circle around each other, throwing their hands in the air and embracing each other, celebrating for each other.
In those moments caught in the recording, the dancers transcend Jackson, Mississippi in 2016. They transcend the violence of legislation and guns. In those seconds, they look free.