Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the untimely passing of Miss Lexus DeVaughn.
We get lost on the way there. It’s to be expected. Never have we made an odyssey to a gay bar in Butler County our Friday-night plan. And with a name like Vertigo, we expect a variable amount of confusion.
But my friend and I drive for more than an hour—over highways and country roads, with two full rotations of our new “Lez Mix,” and twice as many gas-station stops to ask for directions—because this place is different. The out-in-the-country queer destination is a symbol of progression. And Friday is its Independence Day.
Kirsten Huf started the concept of Vertigo eight years ago when she rented rooms at the local fire halls and Holiday Inns, inviting her gay friends to hang out for a night of reverie for which they didn’t have to drive into Pittsburgh.
The once-monthly event traveled from venue to venue, as building owners and operators consistently displaced and discriminated against their gay neighbors.
“It was really hurtful and really ugly,” Huf says. “They even went as far to make accusations that we were stealing from their registers just for an excuse to drive us out.”
She got weary of the bigotry and put her project on hold for a few years.
Three months ago, with renewed motivation and a community desperate to unite behind her, Huf leased an old boxing gym and stocked it with a hodgepodge of craigslist couches, lamps and armchairs. The ambiance looks a little like my living room, but the beat bumps like a club.
There’s a makeshift bar, where Huf sells mixers for her BYOB clientele’s totings of Bankers Club vodka and Gordon’s gin. (Most are drinking Coors Light from a can, though.) And on the wall behind the bar is poster board with a photo and a magic-marker branding of Vertigo’s “Gay of the Month,” a spotlight that’s sort of a sexy version of a want ad.
“I’m so excited to have my own building,” Huf says. “Planning a moving party every month was like coordinating a wedding.”
Huf hosted her first event, with all of her old friends, two weeks after signing the lease. Looking around, it’s easy to imagine The Eagle in its early days or 5801 before the deck was populated with pretty boys and (recently, finally) pretty girls.
We enter, and, for a moment, Butler County’s attention is diverted from the sequined drag queen lip-syncing to Beyonce’s “Halo.” We stand out—in our weekend wear—as outsiders among this close-knit family. But the group is friendly; they take to introducing themselves, where Pittsburghers would have started mentally penning their pending “Missed Connections.”
Billy Beaver has been going to Vertigo since its inception. “I’ve only missed four,” he says. “I don’t get to see these friends otherwise.”
I prod him to recount his favorite Vertigo night ever, and he blushes. “You don’t want to know,” he says and then makes an allusion to an intimate New Year’s Eve rendezvous with his now boyfriend.
Tonight is arguably more exciting for us. There is, after all, a drag show happening here, in the middle of nowhere.
Marcia Hill, a self-proclaimed dyke, is made into a queen, carefully high-heel stepping around to The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons” while cat-callers put dollars in her plaid schoolgirl miniskirt.
Anastasia is my favorite in the show. In her tight black get-up, corset and knock-off designer shades, she achieves drag immortality: a look sexy women actually want to copy in real life. A woman after my own heart, she cracks a horsewhip on her highest tippers—a weapon that might be authentic.
Miss Lexus serves as the evening’s emcee and takes a liking to my friend, giving her a lap dance and then, later, pulling her into the center of the room for a bump-and-grind that would rival the dark dance floor of Cattivo. Vertigo erupts in whistles and screams.
To be fair, the drag queens are just as outrageous as ours, with faces that could hold their own against any queen that takes the stage at Pegasus — except the babes of Butler County wear their pleather panties a little tighter.
Hill is the winner of tonight’s competition, scoring two free ($5) entrants to Vertigo. She celebrates by changing into her “real” clothes. This resident dyke in drag looks drastically different in her preferred shorts and sandals, but her smile is still as beautiful.
“A couple of my friends here thought it would be a good idea,” she says. “And I thought, ‘What the hell; why not? I can look like a girl for once.’” She takes a sip of her Killian’s Irish Red and adds, “Here, you can be whatever you want. That’s the point.”
Two girls definitely get it. In the mostly-male crowd, a buxom brunette and her spiky-haired lover attract attention. Juliet Seaman and her partner got engaged two weeks ago and are celebrating tonight.
“I love her,” Seaman keeps saying, “And here, we can be ourselves. We’ve been dating for 14 years. We can celebrate here.”
Derrick MacDonald agrees. He was the original DJ when Vertigo was still a traveling party. He recently moved back to Pittsburgh after a three-year stint in Texas.
“The scene has changed a lot,” MacDonald says. “The crowd’s the same, but back in the day everyone was so reserved and uneasy. We were basically a traveling herd of outcasts. You can tell people are more comfortable, happy.”
Miss Lexus has high hopes for the club. “It’s coming along,” she says. “I’d like to see it rival a Friday night in the city.”
She gets back on the mic, and, in a voice louder than her lipstick, offers the group some friendly encouragement. “Tipping… it’s not just for cows, people,” she says. “But up here, we do that, too.”
Vertigo’s new address: 100 Pillow St., Butler, PA 16001.