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Mississippi town rejected gay bar out of bias, lawsuit alleges

SHANNON, Miss. -- For years after O'Hara's bar closed, old customers and friends would implore Pat "PJ" Newton to reopen. There were no other gay establishments within a 100-mile radius.

Newtown had moved to Memphis and thought her time behind the small-town bar was over. But the appeals encouraged her to reconsider and she decided to return to Shannon and reclaim her old post on a part-time basis. "If you really want it and you're going to come out and spend money, well I'll do it,'" she recalled telling friends.

The owner of the building was happy to lease the old space, and Newton began pouring thousands of dollars into renovations. To save money, she did most of the work herself.

Everything seemed to be going to plan, until Newton arrived at a Town Hall meeting in June seeking a local business license. She said a roomful of "stone-faced" elected officials and local residents had come armed with two petitions to prevent her from reopening O'Hara's, claiming the bar would have a negative influence on the town and its young people.

Nobody in the room used the word, but it didn't take Newton long to size up the situation. "I was like, 'Oh okay, this is a gay thing,'" she said.

Newton and the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit accusing Shannon's mayor, Board of Aldermen, and the town itself, of an unconstitutional denial of Newton's application, motivated by prejudice toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Newton is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, and a court order allowing her to open the bar.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, accuses the town's mayor of conspiring with aldermen and local residents to keep the bar from reopening. It also accuses Shannon officials of repeatedly turning down other people who tried to open bars or recreation centers intended to serve the LGBT community, while allowing a bar that was not "associated with LGBT persons."

The complaint accuses the town and its officials of stifling Newton's desire to create a place where gay people could feel safe in a Deep South state that has neither legal protections for gay citizens, nor a track record of treating them justly.

"There are a lot of LGBT people out there who have not yet received the benefits of all the headlines we see in the papers every day, and we're looking to find those people and make sure they do," David Dinielli, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Huffington Post before the lawsuit was filed. "By choosing to bring a claim on PJ's behalf that asserts that her business is something that is expressive, we hope to affirm that there are certain sorts of things that LGBT people do for each other that have meaning beyond simply the running of a business."

The mayor and other town officials did not respond to requests for comment about why they denied Newton's application for the bar.

At the town hall meeting, Newton, a 55-year old lesbian with short white hair, recounted her fond memories of operating O'Hara's in the '90s, and told those gathered that her former customers had urged her to reopen. The new O'Hara's, like the old one, would attract customers from Mississippi and Alabama, she said.

Newton said locals asked questions that "shocked" her.

"How can you call yourself a Christian?" one asked. "I don't want my son playing soccer anywhere near your bar," another told the crowd. The lawsuit says Newton overheard a zoning consultant tell the mayor and aldermen that Newton met all the requirements for her application, but if the board wanted to deny it, "it could do so anyway by citing concerns about public health and safety."

"Defendants denied Plaintiffs’ business license for the same reason they denied licenses to the earlier applicants who wanted to open the gay bar: to prevent anyone from operating a business in Shannon that would demonstrate that there are LGBT people in Shannon and its environs, and that those people are entitled to lead full and open lives," the complaint concludes.

For some of Newton's old customers, O'Hara's was the first place where they felt comfortable being openly gay. Eric White, who grew up in nearby Tupelo, said he was "very, very, nervous" when he stepped into the bar.

White said he had just turned 19, and had told only two other people that he was gay. "So this was really stepping into the unknown," White said in a recent interview. "I remember walking through the door and immediately feeling this sense of relief, like there were answers in that bar."

White soon was taking part in the weekly Saturday night drag shows. He ended up tending bar at another gay bar that operated in the same building from 1998 until 2010. "When I think back to that little bitty place and how young I was, and the fact that we don't have that for young people now, it terrifies me," White said. "We have apps like Grindr, and these young men are reaching out to strangers to learn things about themselves."

Back in the the old days, White recalled, customers from the bar often spilled into other establishments that lined the two-lane highway near O'Hara's, especially a truck stop and gas station down the street. Now, both establishments are closed.

According to the lawsuit, Shannon has been in economic decline in recent years, with falling median household incomes and a poverty rate of 32 percent. On the town website, Mayor Ronnie Hallmark urges citizens to open new businesses: “We have the potential for growth and are ready when something comes our way," the mayor's page reads. "If you are interested in knowing what we have to offer give me a call."

On Monday, a sports bar across the street from the small one-story wooden building that once housed O'Hara's was empty, except for a woman watching "Dr. Phil" on a TV behind the bar. Vicki Tidwell said she normally runs a nearby liquor store and flea market, but was filling in for the bar's owner, who was on medical leave for a few weeks. "Everything's been dead and quiet, no customers, nothing like it used to be," Tidwell said.

Tidwell said she remembers when the gay bar was open across the street. It never caused problems, as far as she knew. She didn't think much of the town's decision to deny Newton's license. "If it brings money into the town, they don't have a whole lot going for them right now," Tidwell said, shrugging. "I have a cousin who is gay, and I say, 'To each their own.'"

In the weeks since Newton first applied for a license to reopen O'Hara's, the responses have ranged from threatening, anonymous late-night phone calls urging her to leave town, to old customers pleading for her to keep up the fight. In one email, reprinted in the lawsuit, a former customer told her, "That place helped save my life from suicide."

Newton said emails like that strengthen her resolve. "There's been discrimination that we can't even imagine that goes on in towns like this. And most people just walk away from it because they don't have the time or money or resources to pursue it. I'm blessed that I do."

To visit HuffPost Gay Voices, a content partner with SDGLN, click HERE.