Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Norman Jones cannot let go.
Even at 70, Jones, who has run gay clubs in Arkansas for 40 years — including Little Rock's Discovery, lovingly called just "Disco" by generations of young nocturnals, gay and straight — must be involved in nearly every decision made at Discovery and Triniti, Discovery's sister club, both situated in a cavernous warehouse space on Jessie Road in Riverdale.
In the middle of our interview, for instance, on an afternoon when Discovery was a hive of activity as his most trusted employees prepared for another summer weekend, Jones excused himself after being told workmen were there to measure a window. Not install a window, mind you. Just to measure it. "I've got to handle this," Jones said, then rushed off, his face set like a man about to do battle with fire.
Though he has been telling people for years that he will eventually retire to Florida and while away his days on a beach with the waves lapping at his toes, talk to Jones or anybody who is around him on a day-to-day basis and you'll know the smart money is not on him breathing his last into a margarita straw in Fort Lauderdale. No, when he goes, it will likely be at Disco. And then, maybe, he will haunt the place, restored — if the universe is kind — to the fresh-faced drag queen beauty who won the first Miss Gay America crown back in 1972. He speaks as wistfully as Norman Jones gets of wishing he could clone 25 copies of himself, so he could do everything without having to rely on others who might not do it his way. If home is the place where you feel most in control of your own time and destiny, Discovery surely is his home. Inside those walls, Norman Jones sees even the sparrow fall.
You don't run clubs for 40 years, and especially LGBT clubs, without pissing people off, and Jones has surely pissed some people off. The first result when you Google "Norman Jones, Discovery" for instance, is a blog post by a group called "Fed Up Queers" from 2009, discussing what they call a "No To Norman!" protest — it would be the "first of many" the lone post states — apparently organized because Jones' club Backstreet, now called Triniti, started charging a $15 door fee to patrons between the ages of 18 and 21.
So yeah, Jones has some haters. But any cross or catty word ever said about him must be balanced with the good: He is a man who fought prejudice in heels and a pageant gown decades before it was OK to be gay in America; who attended the first national gay pride march in Washington, D.C., helping carry the banner for Arkansas with friends who are now all dead; who bankrolled, often out of his own pocket, some of the first outreach and financial assistance to Arkansans dying with AIDS. That's all in addition to the fact that he has somehow — by sheer force of will — opened and kept alive clubs that served as some of the only safe spaces for LGBT people to congregate and socialize in the days when gay people were openly and proudly hated. These clubs continue to work as a crucial melting pot of gay and straight, now that attitudes have changed. While those who don't like him might call him a control freak, an optimistic person might see it differently: He is a man who believes his mission in life is important enough to sweat every detail, even window measuring, and so he does.
A native of the tiny town of Sparkman, Jones was born in a plank shack with no indoor plumbing in June 1946, the son of a sawmill worker. Eventually, the family moved to Malvern, where Jones' father had taken a job at a Reynolds Metals Co. plant. When Jones was in the third grade, the family moved to Hot Springs. Picked on in school as a boy for his flamboyant mannerisms, Jones said he eventually gained some measure of relief from taunting when he became the manager for the football and basketball teams at Lakeside High School. "Everybody knew I was effeminate," he said. "Back then, gay wasn't a word that you used. It was, 'somebody is a fag.' But all of that stopped as soon as I became associated with the basketball and football team. I was protected by the coaches and I'll never forget them for that. It made my high school life much easier."
During his senior year in high school, Jones said, he started frequenting a local pool, where he soon found he was obsessed with staring at a handsome male lifeguard. Still without a concept of what it meant to be gay after growing up in a religious family where even mentioning sex was taboo, Jones said the feelings troubled and confused him. But from that moment on, he knew he was different. He had several dalliances with male friends over the next few years, even as he continued to date girls from his family's church.
After graduating from high school in 1964, Jones went on to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, but lacked focus and flunked out in his sophomore year. With the Vietnam War being fought, Jones feared being drafted into the Army, so he joined the Navy and was assigned to work as a dental technician at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C. While Jones had tentatively sampled some of the few gay-friendly bars in Arkansas at the time, it was in D.C. that Jones started experiencing gay life and nightlife that was different from anything he'd ever experienced in the South.
"We had a gay club here in Little Rock in the basement of the Grady Manning [Hotel]," he said. "It was dangerous. You could be stopped on the street, especially if you were going into the bars. We had one here and one in Hot Springs, and you would be jeered at, people would get out of their cars and throw stuff at you. You'd be called 'faggot' and things. When I was in the military, that kind of thing didn't happen in Washington, D.C."
After he got out of the military, Jones returned home to Hot Springs and took a job with the state in the Employment Security Division. But he soon found himself thirsting for the club life he'd known in D.C. Eventually, he found a bar frequented by gay men in Hot Springs, befriending several of the close-knit group of regulars there. He was taken under the wing of a friend named Charles, who performed in drag under the name Tuna Starr.
It was still a very dangerous time to be gay in Arkansas, a fact of which the local community was constantly reminded. Soon after he returned to Hot Springs, Jones said, a new gay-friendly club that opened near the Hot Springs airport was shot up by homophobes while the bar was full of patrons.
"We were sitting there one night, and all the windows were shot out," he said. The shooters "were in Jeeps, and they drove around and around the club and they took shotguns and just shot all the windows out. Fortunately, the windows were way up and the walls were concrete block to the floor. All the glass started coming in on us. We had to wait until it was clear, but when we left, we never came back. It put those people out of business."
In 1970, still being mentored by Tuna Starr, Jones started his drag career, doing performances in Hot Springs. He was eventually approached by the owners of a local bar about entering a pageant to select Miss Gay Arkansas. Though Jones said modern drag has become more like performance art, with wild outfits and makeup that can be as intricate as having a portrait painted on your face, success in drag in his day was largely judged by one thing: How well can you carry off the illusion of being a woman? Always small-framed, it turned out Jones was particularly good at that illusion.
Performing under his then-stage name "Norma Lou," Jones came in second in the Miss Gay Arkansas pageant, which was held at the Drummer's Club, the gay-friendly establishment in the basement of the Grady Manning Hotel. A few months later, the organizers of Miss Gay Arkansas informed Jones — by then performing as "Norma Kristie," with the "Kristie" taken from the name of a model in a Playboy magazine a friend was reading on the way to a pageant in Texas — that the reigning Miss Gay Arkansas would have to step down. They asked Jones if he would assume the title, and he accepted.
In June 1972, Jones, Starr and two friends traveled to Nashville, where Jones was to compete for the title of the first Miss Gay America. With only $400 to make the trip, eat and rent rooms for the multiday event, the group soon ran out of money. They spent the two days leading up to the pageant surviving on crackers and tomato soup made from a bottle of ketchup lifted from the restaurant of their hotel. In his 2014 self-published autobiography, "My Life, My Pageant, My Crown," Jones wrote that he was so sure he wouldn't even come close to winning in Nashville that he didn't prepare for the on-stage interview portion of the pageant, which was open only to finalists. After days of competition, however, the field was whittled down and Jones was the last queen standing, crowned as the first Miss Gay America (his interview question, by the way, was: "How do you think President Nixon is doing as president?" to which Jones began his reply with, "I think he's doing a hell of a job!")
"Going to that pageant and winning it was the best decision I've ever made," Jones said. "Out of all these drag queens, here I was, a little country girl who sat back there in the corner, and they called out the winner and it was me. I said, 'How in the hell did that happen?' " Fifteen years later, Jones said, he was in Indianapolis when he happened to run into one of the judges from the pageant, and finally got to ask the question — why had he won?
"He said, 'You looked like the girl next door,' " Jones said. " 'You looked more like a girl than anybody up there, and that's what the owner told us to look for.' "
During his reign as Miss Gay America, Jones traveled the country, doing drag shows and perfecting his performance — sometimes by way of painful rejection by audiences who disliked his stage presence. Jones eventually bought shares in and gained an ownership stake of the Miss Gay America pageant, which he would run for the next 30 years.
Visiting clubs as Miss Gay America, Jones got a feel for the idea that opening a club of his own in Hot Springs might not be a bad way to make a living. In 1975, he borrowed $15,000 from a Memphis investor and opened a club called Norma Kristie's on Central Avenue, just across from the Arlington Hotel. It was the first true disco in Hot Springs, and the music and energy of the place soon drew in throngs of customers, gay and straight.
"It became very successful overnight, because it was the only bar left over there for gay people," he said. "Nobody else was playing gay dance club music except for us, so people were lined up on Friday and Saturday night, gay and straight people both, to come in the club. But it was straight people who understood they were coming into a mostly gay facility." Though the clientele of his clubs was predominantly LGBT in the early days, Jones believes the allure of gay dance clubs like Norma Kristie's and Discovery brought straight and LGBT people into close proximity every weekend and greatly promoted gay acceptance into the American mainstream.
Relatively flush from his success in Hot Springs, Jones opened his second club, Discovery, in 1979. The first iteration, called "Discovery 1" by Jones and his longtime employees, was located in a former One-Eyed Jack's restaurant at the corner of Asher and University avenues in Little Rock. Eventually overwhelmed by the headaches of trying to run both Norma Kristie's and Discovery, he closed the Hot Springs club the same year.
As Norma Kristie's had been, Discovery was a hit with Little Rock clubgoers, attracting large, predominantly gay crowds on weekends. Out of room and offered a deal to lease more space, Jones moved Discovery to its current location, a 22,000-square-foot warehouse in Riverdale, in 1982.
Jones said that while problems at Discovery were minimal — tiffs, spats, a few months where local kids stood outside a fence near the club and taunted the patrons until Jones and some "rough customers" from the bar convinced them to go away — regular police harassment was an issue starting out. In his book, Jones writes of being raided while 200 people were in the club, with police forcing patrons up against the wall at gunpoint, demanding I.D.s and taunting his customers with homophobic slurs, which Jones believes was an attempt to evoke a violent response so officers could respond in kind.
In terms of keeping Discovery up and running, an equally daunting problem was just getting service and delivery people through the door of a place they knew catered to gays. "I couldn't get service technicians to come, air conditioning people, they barely wanted to deliver beer to me. I couldn't get things done," Jones said. "Because we were a gay club, people wouldn't deal with us — beer distributors, alcohol distributors ... they didn't want to deliver. They just treated us so differently. If a plumber had to come, we'd get charged double or triple what everybody else was charged, because they didn't want to come here."
By the mid-1980s, Discovery was the biggest club in the state, and served as a haven where gay people from all over could meet and mingle. Then AIDS came to Arkansas. Ken Brown started as a doorman at Discovery 1, and has risen to the position of general manager. He has worked for Jones, who he calls a close friend, for 38 years.
"It was a devastating time for us," Brown said. "We saw friends of ours who were healthy, vibrant people one week, and two or three weeks later, they were at death's door. They didn't know where to turn for help. They didn't know what to do. [Organizers] were starting all of these AIDS organizations, but it seemed like only certain ones could get help."
Jones remembers the early days of the epidemic as a time of fear. His friends were dying, some of them left destitute after losing their jobs or being turned away by their families. "I can remember guys driving up and their parents had disowned them or they'd gotten fired from their job or something like that," he said. "I had an office over there across the street and they would drive up over there, or they'd call me at home, because everybody had my number. They'd say: 'We've had to move, we don't have any money for an apartment, we don't have any money for food. And I'd just take them personally — and I'm not saying anything about being a hero, at all — I'd take them to load up on groceries for them, pay their rent, help them pay their utilities for them. The club was paying for that."
In 1984, Jones and a group of drag queens, several of whom would eventually succumb to the disease themselves, started Helping People With AIDS, or HPWA. It was one of the first groups in the state to provide direct financial help to people suffering and dying from the disease. Jones still gives 1 percent of the proceeds from his clubs to the fund.
Ruth Coker Burks, who worked as hospice care and emotional support for hundreds of Arkansans dying with AIDS in the 1980s and '90s, remembers Jones and HPWA as being crucial to helping those suffering and dying in the early days of the epidemic. HPWA bankrolled much of her work, she said, and Jones allowed her to come into his clubs to distribute condoms and talk to patrons about safer sex. She spoke glowingly of Jones, saying what you often hear about him: That underneath the hard shell he has had to cultivate to thrive in the club and drag pageant business, he has a soft heart, and will bring his formidable will to bear to help those in need.
"He would pay for whatever they needed," she said. "He would pay their rent. He was paying for medical care. He has the softest heart of anyone I've ever known. He would go to the hospitals. That's just not his thing, but he did it. He overcame his fear of doctors and hospitals and how they treat gay people in general. He would go up there and make them bathe them, and if they wouldn't bathe them, he'd bathe them himself. He did so much."
Just as important as the funds provided by HPWA, Burks said, was that Discovery provided a place for people to be among friends when fear and confusion about the disease was at its peak. As happened with gay-friendly clubs all over the country, Discovery became a kind of stand-in support system for those with AIDS who had been left with no one else.
"He provided a place for people to go and mingle and get out of their houses. They knew there was something seriously wrong. They knew they were dying. And when you're dying, to not have any community or friends? The gay bar is the community center. It's the only physically safe place they could be."
Brown, who managed and distributed the HWPA fund for years, said Jones doesn't help people "for the credit. He doesn't like [the spotlight]. But he feels so lucky that he missed the disease. We lost so many of our friends."
"For some reason," Brown said, "we were spared the disease, and we feel like we were left for a reason," he said.
The center of the universe at Discovery and Triniti is Jones' Formica-topped desk, tucked into an open nook just inside the office of Triniti. Every decision made at the club, with few exceptions, crosses that desk first. While Jones doesn't seem to have slowed down a bit with age, his focus still laser sharp when a problem arises, he does seem kind of tired of being in charge. "Every time I walk through that door, it's something," he said. "With every step you take, it's: 'Let's solve this!' Sometimes, they don't even let me get in the door."
If he had to do it over again, he said, he wouldn't have gone in the club business. He would have stayed with the state, and would be retired by now, drawing a check for staying home like the rest of the old bureaucrats. Knowing Jones, however, you have to wonder just how true that is. A life of elderly leisure with his feet up just isn't ... Norman.
Jones, who sold his stake in the Miss Gay America pageant a few years back along with two other clubs he owned in the area, said that Disco and Triniti are no longer "gay clubs." They're "alternative clubs" now, open to all, but often with more straight patrons than gay these days. He said that's a good thing for society, and a good sign of the acceptance of LGBT people. Acceptance, he said, is liberating.
"Any club you go in in Little Rock — even Electric Cowboy, the straightest place in the world, we call it Straightland — there are gay people there," he said. "There are gay people everywhere you go. ... Every restaurant I go into, every club, there are always gay waiters, gay people there. We just had lunch at Loca Luna and there was a whole table full of gay people there. You probably work with a gay person or two and don't even know it."
He tries, he said, to be accepting of everybody, as he himself has always wanted to be accepted. As transgender issues have come to the fore in recent years, Jones said he has come around on trans rights, mostly from talking to trans people he trusts and trying to see their perspective.
"In my business, I've realized that I have to try to learn and be accepting of everybody for their beliefs, and their acknowledgements about themselves, but I have to be understanding of myself before I can," he said. "That's the reason I say, 'I'm still learning.' I may say, 'I've got a question about that,' but once I have it explained to me where the person is coming from, then I'll say, 'That sounds fine for you. I'm going to accept whatever you say, and I'm going to do everything I can to learn more about it.' "
Ken Brown thinks that when Jones leaves, so will Discovery, but Jones said he is willing to turn over the reins to someone younger and more energetic for the right price, with the caveat: "You're buying a job."
"I make that one statement — you're buying a job — and all of a sudden, their whole countenance changes," he said. "Their face changes, and they say, 'I think you're probably right. This may be more of a job than I want to do. You're here every day, or try to be here every day. You're always running around talking to people. You're always doing something for the business.' "
Running a club is harder these days. There are more options, and more avenues to connect. For the cost of a six-pack at the grocery store, Jones said, you can find someone on Grindr, invite him over, have a good time, and have two beers left when you're done. But his real product, Jones said, is socialization, something social media can't provide. The beers are more expensive at Discovery, but that's not really what you're paying for. "Socialization is not on social media," he said. "It's you and I talking."
He realizes his blessings. Life, he said, has been like riding a carousel, and he's glad he grabbed the brass ring the first time he went by, because you don't make it around again for another shot. Part of that has just been about knowing himself and what he needs from himself and others. One of the few things Jones remembers from college, he said, is a line from Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," "to see ourselves as others see us." In his drag career, his personal life and business, he has tried to strive for that ideal.
"Others may not like me," he said. "Others may love me. But I have to consider how others see me. That's one of my lessons. Today you see me in work clothes. Tomorrow you'll see me all shined up like a new penny. You may see me different today than you will tomorrow. But if we could see ourselves each day as others see us, we'd all be much happier."
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