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Fifteen dykes are standing behind the Pop Stop cafe eating fire. Or trying to, anyway. “Remember, it’s a 1-2-3 motion,” Margie says, sending a flaming torch into her mouth. The arching motion is crucial. If you go straight in by mistake, you’ll ignite the whole upper half of your face. Once you’ve got the arc down, you also have to remember to exhale as you go to avoid taking a big, deep whiff of flame.

It’s drizzly and miserable in the parking lot off of 17th Street NW, but all 15 women have to get this fire-eating deal mastered before we can go anywhere. As a veteran Lesbian Avenger, Margie has experience with the group’s fire-eating ways. But some of the newer recruits have never received formal training.

Someone passes around a bag of hair ties and gasoline-soaked sticks, and the ladies light up. A couple of novices bail on the first try, but they’re circus pros in under five minutes. “How does it work?” yells a short, nose-ringed woman named Karen. “Science!” everyone shouts, tongues soaked in petrol.The rehearsal is in preparation for the D.C. Lesbian Avengers’ mission of the weekend: a field trip to a gay bar in rural Pennsylvania that’s been under siege since it opened in 1997.

From D.C., it’s a four-hour road trip to the Casa Nova Lounge in Forwardstown, Pa. The Casa Nova is the only unapologetically gay bar in Somerset County. That’s presumably why someone fired a shotgun at the front door last March. That’s why the Klan rallied there in May. And that’s why the Lesbian Avengers are going to Bumfuck, Pa.: to rescue the place from itself. At least that’s the way they see it. The owners of the Casa Nova have invited them to drink and dance on this Saturday night in March, as a sort of in-your-face snub to the posse of locals who’ve been picketing their bar and harassing their customers on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights for one year and counting. Before they leave, the Avengers plan to swallow fire in front of the angry mountain men who are fond of claiming that gays and lesbians will burn in hell.

Once the group has tucked in the fire-eating lesson, a couple of rules for the road are put into play. No cussing; no taking any shirts off. This is an away game. “Even our allies are really religious, conservative people,” Kelli says. “The word ‘fuck’ can get you thrown in jail, but ‘faggot’ can’t,” Margie adds.

As a rule, the Lesbian Avengers like to mess with people and their precious dogma, running events designed to toy with the basest fears of a gawking audience. Like when they put on their “We Recruit” T-shirts and pass out Valentines to elementary students. Parents love that shit. So do the media. And the merry lesbians go home—or sometimes to jail—and pat themselves on the back for being so goddamn fierce.

Getting in the faces of a bunch of freaks terrorizing a remote gay bar sounds like a grand opportunity. But since they’ll be far away from their urban comfort zone, the Avengers intend to show some restraint to make sure the group comes back intact. The rules of engagement are a lot less forgiving in a place where the locals still think Prohibition was a sensible idea.

Plus, the Avengers know that their road version of Politically Incorrect could likely offend some of the very people they’re trying to support. In Somerset County, even the Sodomites have respect for proper attire and the Lord’s name, and may not share the visceral thrill of a shirtless lesbian showing off some mighty fine tattoos.

In Pennsylvania, rumors about the planned Chautauqua of lesbian emancipation have sparked talk of a “showdown” with the biblical forces arrayed against the bar. The Avengers would ostensibly prefer to stay out of any hand-to-hand confrontation. “If someone says ‘Lesbos, burn in hell,’ we say nothing,” one of the women orders. Listening to the warnings, some of the women look pensive and cautious. Others look like they just got double-dared.

And off we go. Three cell phones, one Joan Jett tape, and a couple of bags of chips. “Everybody grab onto the rope,” someone yells—the first of many, many peppy cheers to come.

On Sept. 26, 1992, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock burned to death when skinheads lit up their Salem, Ore., home with a Molotov cocktail. Cohens, a black lesbian, and Mock, a white gay man, were murdered during the time when Oregon voters were considering a constitutional amendment to classify homosexuality as “unnatural and perverse.”

That’s part of the reason the Avengers eat fire—appropriating the tools of the oppressor and all that. The Salem terrorism sparked the first meeting of the Avengers—an organization that is “not for everybody, nor should it be,” as the manual reads.

“Some people want to do theoretical development. Some people want to be in therapy groups,” the manual states. But the Lesbian Avengers

is “for women who want to be involved in activism, work in community, be creative, do shit work,

take responsibility on a regular basis, have their minds blown.”

As is the case with most fringe groups, the membership of the D.C. chapter has fluctuated wildly since its inception. But these are the golden days. Weekly meetings at Lammas bookstore have drawn over 20 people lately. Tonight, counting a couple of carfuls from D.C. and Baltimore, a total of about 25 Avengers will converge on the Casa Nova. The participants are mostly white girls of varying degrees of privilege. They say they like the group because—unlike so many all-talk activists—the Avengers refuse to compromise their fantasies in the interest of pragmatism.

But on this trip, the compromises have already begun. There are risks involved in bringing wisdom and Grrrl Power to the hinterlands, as a lawyer who advises the group en route is quick to point out. Cathy rattles off a list of tips on how not to get arrested and end up spending a little more time in Forwardstown than they plan. Mostly, she advises them to resist the urge to strip down and arm-wrestle. “I’m not coming up here to watch a bunch of fine ladies get arrested,” she says.

Then comes the real downer: “Don’t eat fire if you don’t want to get arrested.” Local public defenders have told Cathy that fire-eating could bring public disturbance charges. The concern prompts a debate about the worth and risk of getting busted in a backwater outpost. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is validated.

At length, fire-eating is deemed too risky. The verdict is declared final, but you get the feeling the temptation to flame out may be too great.

The white Chevy van, plastered with Day-Glo Lesbian Avenger signs and the accompanying bomb logo, rolls through the mid-Atlantic, a missile of estrogen, ferociousness, and good, clean fun. Giggling girls, talking trash, going ’round and ’round describing their worst haircuts ever and then breaking into a Neil Diamond song. Cross your eyes just a bit, and the van holds all of the irritating bubbly and shiny faces of a Tri-Delt spring-break posse. Only this ain’t Daytona Beach, and no one here will be sucking any cock tonight, no matter how drunk they get.

Someone has scrawled the words “Love Van” across the fogged-up windows. It’s an apt description for this mobile support group. Every time we change lanes, the whole van offers up a chorus of “OK, looks good, you’re all clear.” It’s all flashing bright teeth and big hugs, as WGAY purrs in the background.

Since the Pop Stop, Beth has been videotaping every minute of the experience. It’s hard to know whom to focus on, since every one talks at once. Eventually, though, the group is called to order. The night before, the Avengers threw together a skit to put on for the patrons of the Casa Nova. Now they use the van ride to rehearse—not one, not two, but three times.

The skit will be sort of an erratic/erotic amalgam of The Dating Game, Love Connection, and Singled Out. And one person will play Vampa White—so there’s a dash of Wheel of Fortune in the mix. Host Butch Woolery will ask Spud to describe her date with Muffy Diver. As they work out the kinks, the validation runs free. “Isn’t that good? I love that line.” The women laugh and cheer at all the right moments, even on the third go-round. “I love us!” someone yells.

There’s some debate about the cultural connotations of the skit’s plot—the thrust of which is that two lesbians who have a terrible first date end up moving in together on the second, as lesbians are wont to do. It’s decided that humor trumps politics, and the joke stays. Then there’s a short-lived discussion over whether to say “whoopee” or “nooky.” Majority rules in favor of “whoopee.”

In the end, the only modification is a slight softening of the bumfuck jokes. “I don’t want anyone thinking that we’re making fun of rural dykes,” says a woman named Marina.

Marina’s wide-eyed commentary would be unbearable if it weren’t delivered with such a poker face. She never breaks character, charming everyone in the van with her dreamy voice and sky-blue eyes, capped with startlingly gray, spiky hair. When she talks, she streams her consciousness all over the conversation.

When she was 5 years old, Marina changed her name to Jack, she tells us out of nowhere. It just seemed right. “But it didn’t go over too well with my teachers,” she says. Then she gets distracted, rubbing her girlfriend’s shaved head across her quickly reddening cheeks. “It’s rouge!” she exclaims, in her wondrous girl voice.

Last year, Marina got arrested at the Promise Keeper’s rally on the Mall. She looks harmless enough, but the cops had been hassling her all

day over her Lesbian Avenger T-shirt, she says.

The charge was disorderly conduct. “It was

icky,” she says now. “I just put it in a little box and threw it away.”

When we stop at a Taco Bell in Frederick, Md., the Avengers get lots of stares. Marina notices a mother glaring at her and then pulling her son closer to her side. Marina is used to seeing fear that’s based on nothing more than a haircut and a T-shirt.

Back on the van, the skit rehearsals fade out, and the crowd erupts into a raucous game of that old standby, Gay/Not Gay. Lisa Simpson: “Gay!” (“Can we say lesbian?” Marina asks. “Can we say ‘unnatural and ungodly’?” someone else yells.) Jada Pinkett: “Cute!” But straight. Amelia Earhart: Hmm, unknown. But Marina thinks she may have been gay: “She seemed pretty happy.”

Madonna is roundly declared straight. All Scientologists are stamped gay. There’s some bickering about Marilyn Manson’s true sexuality. Is he gay, or just selling records? Or does it even matter? “He sucks the dick of his bass player on stage, ladies. I think that’s revolutionary, and I support it,” someone says, closing the debate.

Then comes the challenge round. Hillary: “Bi.” “She dated women at Wellesley,” someone reports. (“But isn’t that a requirement there?” someone else asks.) Bill Paxon: “Who’s Bill Paxon?” Monica Lewinsky: “You can say what you want about Monica, but she has really nice lips,” Marina offers.

We turn off the highway and start winding down dark country roads. The bar is not far off. Having run out of celebs, the van turns to fielding random questions. The endless chatter helps keep out the darkness of the roadside and the specter of the welcome wagon up ahead. “How many people were beat up in high school?” asks legal adviser Cathy. She gets three yeas. “Get over it,” she answers, to applause.

Next topic: leather dildos. “Is it rolled leather? ‘Cause you could maybe get toxic shock from that,” says Marina. “Are the reporters OK in the back?” someone inquires.

We’re getting close to Forwardstown. The girls start oohing and aahing at the cultural clash. “Fashion Bug and a Payless. We are so in Pennsylvania,” someone says.

We whip past white silos and dark little houses set back from the road, minutes away from the Casa Nova. Karen erupts into a Pat Benatar song, and everyone joins in, shouting, “We can’t afford to be innocent!”

Popping up around a corner without any warning, the Casa Nova squats humbly in a clearing among the looming pine trees. A modest, 60-year-old stone arsenal, the bar looks like a low-budget castle—a guest house to the real castle. Across the dusty street, a campfire glows in the darkness. The van goes quiet. Beth is still silently videotaping.

Seeing us approach, about a dozen men in orange and green hunting gear leave the fire and slowly take their places. They space themselves in a long line along the driveway, stoically holding up picket signs. In the middle stands Bible Anabaptist Church Bishop Ron McRae, the leader of the vigil. He wears his trademark uniform: flat-rimmed hat, long, gray beard, and trench coat. In his left hand, he carries a leather-bound Bible. By the time we pull up to the parking lot, we can hear his rhythmic shouts:

“You’re not women! You’re not ladies! You’ll never get a husband! You’re gonna burn in hell!” During the shouting, McCrae’s face is expressionless behind his wire-rimmed glasses. It’s a well-worn saw, doled out in his raspy Southern drawl. And it’s the only sound there is, bouncing between the trees, as the women gather their things out of the van.

“You’re just a bunch of trash! You’re gonna burn in hell because you’re wicked! There’s something very sick about you! You don’t fit up here! You don’t fit on God’s earth! All a bunch of weirdos. Failures! Failures as women…”

As the screaming grates on, the suddenly quiet group of women slips into the bar. The Casa Nova’s not much to look at—basically a big room decked with some balloons and colored lights, all surrounded by faux-marble columns that actually fall over if you bump into them. It’s more VFW than nightclub. While the men picket just 20 yards away, the Avengers sit down for a spaghetti-and-salad dinner. The feast is a little forced given the hostile backdrop, but the $1.25 beers gradually work their spell.

Pat Cramer, the bar’s 51-year-old co-owner, buzzes around welcoming the biggest crowd she’s had in months. She and her husband have clashed with their neighbors ever since they started advertising the bar as a gay night spot a year ago. They’ve held out through one Molotov cocktail, two shotgun blasts through the front door, and multiple death threats. Last May, 30 hooded Klansmen paid a brief visit to the Casa Nova to pray for the doomed gay patrons. News reports quoted Klan leader Barry Black announcing through a bullhorn: “Please don’t make the next call have to be a business call.”

Perched on the edge of her pool table, Cramer watches the ladies from D.C. rock out on the small dance floor next to the buffet. “I don’t feel that the hate has the right to tell me who to allow in,” she says.

Cramer says she’s straight (she calls her patrons “homosexuals”), but the local queers have adopted her in full. “They call me Mother,” she says. “I always wanted a large family.” Cramer’s 24-year-old daughter died of AIDS five years ago after acquiring the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Now she’s got a bar full of surrogate daughters.

Inexplicably, the DJ segues from Abba to that frat-boy favorite, “C’Mon ‘N Ride It” (aka “that train song”). The lezzies happily comply, falling into formation. Cramer jumps into the middle of the fray and choo-choos it around the buffet table.

Outside, the bishop is still shouting. A group of lesbians eye him from the front stoop of the bar. Beth videotapes him. And a teenage boy standing next to the bishop videotapes her right back. The boy—who Cramer says is the bishop’s son—also holds a sign, which reads, “Casa Nova Customers: Child Molesters, Strippers, Whores, Cross-Dressers, Prostitutes, Sodomites, 5 Drunkards, and a Handful of Wackos.”

The signs will have to do, because neither he nor the bishop cares to talk. “I ain’t talking to no homosexual reporter,” the bishop growls, barely interrupting his diatribe. The boy says, “No comment,” but offers up a sly smile and considerately turns the sign around so I can read both sides.

A subcaucus of the protesters, led by neighbor Larry Eschleman, claims to be mostly interested in the “sewage issue.” Eschleman has lived in the house next door to the Casa Nova for decades. For the past three years, he says, the bar has been leaking sewage into the creek across the street. It’s only in the last year, though, that he’s started picketing the place every weekend. That’s also when the bar went gay.

Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket, Eschleman says he doesn’t preach hatred toward gays. “I really don’t care what you do in your own home,” he says, generously. He’s just all worked up about the sewage—and the HIV and hepatitis viruses he thinks it may carry. (Cramer says it may be true that the bar does not fully comply with the local sewage rules. But she says neither does any other establishment in the area. Her lawyers are currently fighting the sewage battle in court.)

Eschleman leads me across the street to smell the sewage myself. I don’t smell anything, I tell him. He’s incredulous. “I know what you’re gonna do,” he says. “You’re going to go back to D.C. and turn this all around and make it about the hate,” he says. No matter. Eschleman promises he’ll be out here every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night as long as the bar keeps operating.

At his side is Bob Snyder, the caretaker of the nearby cemetery for the past 42 years. Snyder also seizes the sewage issue, distancing himself from the violence that Cramer claims has plagued the bar. Had he been behind any shotgun blasts, he says, you would have known about it: “We’re not city slickers. We’re all hunters. If we wanted to do something, we would.”

The bishop preaches on, his sallow face lit by the glow of the sign for the “godless strip joint.” And then it starts to snow.

Calvin Sellers Jr. leaves the Casa Nova with his girlfriend well before midnight, disciplining himself with an early night after his recent DUI arrest. He grew up in this town, but he says he has little else in common with the hunters and preachers parked out front. “Nobody really minds the bar except for a bunch of sheepfuckers,” he says. “Can you print that?”

The Avengers outnumber the locals tonight. It used to be wall-to-wall people, before the picketing started, says Lisa Ribblett. Now it’s just the few, the brave. Ribblett—a 22-year-old construction flagger and National Guard member—plays a slow pool game in the back. Behind her too-large glasses and black Country Appeal baseball hat, there’s no vestige of femme left. And there’s no fear. Ribblett came out as a lesbian in the military. “Whatever they got,” she says about the guys outside, “let them come out with it, because I got ten times that.”

Tonight was supposed to be her wedding night, she says, with a wide smile. She introduces her fiancee, Kris, whom she met in the 11th grade. Because of money problems, they had to reschedule for July. The wedding will be held right here at the Casa Nova.

Outside in the falling snow, the protesters are getting cold. One of them comes to the bar door in search of compassion. “Can we have some of that wood there?” he asks. “It’s gay wood,” answers a passing Avenger. “That’s all right. It’ll burn the same,” he says. “Our fire’s going

down. We don’t have the warmth that you have in there. We got sewage out here with us.” But Cramer’s not feeling generous. She fires back a concise “no” as she hustles between the bar and the cash register.

All told, there are only about 15 locals here—most of them gay men who don’t hesitate to share their personal business. When Marvin Shaffer approaches the Casa Nova, someone shouts that he’s going to die of AIDS. He rolls his eyes and says he recognizes one of the protesters from his church. He says the conflict has divided the small contingent of gays in the area—the ones who keep fighting for their rights vs. the ones who stay home. So he’s happy the Avengers have come out tonight. “I like women,” he says. And then, leaning in, he whispers, “I used to be married, you know.”

Megan is the only local I talk to who doesn’t offer up her last name. She’s a firewoman in the area, but she’s given up on discussing her orientation around the station. “I told two of my female friends there, and now they won’t talk to me,” she says. Plus, she’s not so sure what she is these days. She ended a two-year relationship with a man last Thanksgiving. But not before they had an enlightening threesome with another woman. “I pleased the woman, and that made me happy,” Megan says. “I don’t know where I belong,” she adds. But she’s not scared of the men outside. “They tell me I’m gonna burn in hell and all that shit,” she says, “but I gave up giving a shit about what anyone thinks of me a long time ago.”

It comes as no surprise when the women—as they pack up to go home—decide to indulge in one quick exhibition in the parking lot. Outside, the men line up again at the driveway, the snow starting to accumulate now on the pine needles under their feet. The shouting starts anew. “Freak! Go home!”

In front of them, the women form a semicircle and start to chant: “The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.” Their torches touch in the center and ignite all at once. Then they raise the flames and swallow them whole.

The image thrills everyone there. Especially the bishop: “Sodomites! You can eat fire, you can splash in fire, you all can burn

in hell!”

Back in the van and rolling homeward as the shouting recedes in the distance, the women let it all hang out. “Fucking motherfucking goddamn assholes!” one screams. “Naughty, naughty boys,” says Marina. They play Count-the-Churches all the way out of town. Then they watch Beth’s epic videotape from start to finish.

Around 4 a.m. the van crosses the Taft bridge, just blocks away from the Pop Stop. Oblivious to the time, the Avengers are chatting away, looking relieved to be back in D.C. Just then a siren pierces the banter and the whirly lights bounce around the van’s interior. People start groaning in dismay while the driver looks around, panicked about whether and where to pull over. “I just want to be gay,” Karen says in a miserable voice. There’s a sense that something like this was bound to happen. Encounters with zealots and fire can’t possibly go this smoothly. So the Avengers ease over to the shoulder, bracing themselves for the final round.

But the cop just speeds on by. And after some embarrassed laughter, the yammering starts anew.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.