Pocatello Idaho sits at the north end of the Portneuf Valley as it spills into the Snake River plans. This area of Idaho was home to the Shoshone and Bannock Native American tribes for hundreds of years before Europeans started to intrude into the area. The first Europeans into this area were fur trappers. In 1834 the first permanent European settlement was established at Fort Hall, just north of present day Pocatello. Fort Hall started out as a fur trading post but in the next decade became an important stop along the Oregon trail.
Up until the 1860’s Fort Hall was just a pass-through point for many people. When gold was discovered Europeans began staying and settling in the area. Eventually some of the settlers stayed and began farming.
The city of Pocatello was originally part of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. The original settlers in the city itself were squatters occupying land that did not belong to them. For the European settlers of this time they did not see the Native Americans as having any right. In 1889 the United States Government “purchased” land from the tribe to be used as a town site. It became an important railroad junction for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1901 Idaho State University was established in the city.
In 2004 the city had a population of over 51,000 where 75 percent of the residents identified as Mormon. Located at 331 E Center Street, part of Old Town Pocatello, is Charley’s Club. In 2004, it was called Charley’s bar. In the early part of 2004 I found myself there on a Saturday night.
I had only been living in Utah for less than a year and having come out of the closet only a year previously I was still trying to navigate my way in the gay community. As a child growing up I was very smug about right and wrong having given myself almost no room for my emerging sexual orientation preferring to instead label it as a “same sex attraction” problem. As a problem, I suppressed everything about me that might break down that view. All that pressure finally exploded destroying the closet I was hiding in from the world and myself. I was naive about the world and knew almost nothing about what being gay would mean for me.
I had grown up only 55 miles north in a small town of Ammon Idaho right next to the City of Idaho Falls. Wanting to integrate my new identity as a gay man into my childhood I began to make friends with the gay community in Southeastern Idaho. That is how I found myself in the City of Pocatello at Charley’s Bar in the early part of 2004.
I would like to say that the gay community is a caring and supportive community but in my experience, it is not always the supportive community that people need and are looking for. The coming out process is often followed by trauma with family, friends and religious institutions. We find ourselves wounded seeking out this new community of gay men for support and friendship. This community of gay men often feels like being thrown into den of hungry lions.
I was vulnerable, lost and was really struggling to find my place in this new world. The reality of life was more complicated then I was prepared to handle. Making friends was so important to me when I was often feeling I might drown in feelings of loneliness.
That winter night I was hanging out with a group of people I thought were my friends. My experience with alcohol was very limited at that point, having only started drinking a few months previous. The bar tender that night wanted to have sex with me and I was not interested. Unbeknownst to me, my “friends” decided that I would going to be the brunt of a cruel joke and conspired with the bar tender to make it happen.
Drink after drink was bought for me. It was the most alcohol I had consumed at any one given day up to that point. Right before the bar closed while I was in the restroom, all my “friends” snuck out leaving me. I was stupidly drunk and now alone. The bar tender informed me all my “friends” had left. He was very clear about his offer to spend the night at his house in exchange for sex.
I was not very clear headed, but I turned down the offer. Stumbling across the street I found my car in the parking lot covered in a couple of feet of snow. Climbing into my car I knew I could not drive and I was not sure I would survive the night sleeping in my car in the middle of a snow storm. I stumbled back to the bar and accepted the bar tenders offer. The next morning hung over and sober I was devastated.
That ended my desire to connect with the gay community in Idaho and for a few years made it difficult for me to feel safe in the gay community in Utah. It has only been in the last few years that I have made good friends with any gay men.
There I was a number of years later on July 14, 2017 walking into Charley’s Club for the first time since that night. The name of the place has changed from bar to club. Gone are the booths replaced by tables and chairs. This time the bar tender was a lesbian. I ordered a beer. I walked out to the outside and asked if I could join a couple of gay men sitting at a table.
I met “Shelly”, a younger gay man who grew up in Pocatello and is currently a student at Idaho State University. We soon established a common connection to Sweden. He lived in Sweden as a child. When I walked into the bar he was a complete stranger. Four hours later when I walked out I had made a new friend.
All of the devastation I had felt years early was left on the table that night. The hours of conversation with Shelly became my transformation of healing. I arrived in Ammon at my father’s house shortly after one where I spent the night alone and sober.
I do not know if as a community, gay men will figure out how to be a community, but I have hope. If the community has more “Shelly’s then we will figure out what it means to be a community. I see small act of kindness. I see healing. I am experiencing my own healing. I remain hopeful.