French Village, Mo., is a unique setting for a gay bar. The hour drive down Interstate 55 from St. Louis is a scenic trek – exiting on Highway Y, one must pass through the pastoral green and farmland along the hill-crowned blacktop to the entrance of Goose Creek Lake to reach their destination.
Norma Jean’s opened its doors on Friday, July 18, 2014. It was a labor of love for Farmington, Mo., native Jamie Gore, who saw the need for an LGBT establishment for Southeastern Show-Me-Staters.
The bar boasts a large, welcoming space, warm tones, 50’s décor and a lot of Marilyn Monroe photos greet patrons.
There’s no attitude at Norma Jean’s – it’s a “family” feel – a brick and mortar community presence in the unlikeliest of places.
Earlier this year, neighbors of Gore had told him about the property, which sits next to quaint gas station and general store frequented by lake goers at the edge of the village of approximately 450 people.
“I had them bring me out here and I looked in the windows and automatically I saw the bar with the glass block and I thought wow, what a wonderful building – that it would make a fantastic gay club,” Gore explained.
To quote Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” – and that’s Gore’s logic in opening the bar.
He conducted a demographic study and estimated that St. Francois and its surrounding counties have around 140,000 residents. If you go by the five percent rule, that’s approximately 7,000 LGBT people in the area.
“The response of the local gay community has been so supportive,” said Gore. “For so long we have been made to feel that we had nowhere to call home; nowhere to meet the same individuals who are in the same boat that we’re all in.
“It’s like a relief, that something positive is happening in the LGBT community here. It’s been a tremendous outpouring of support,” he said.
Opening night was indeed an event – word travels fast in rural Missouri, after all.
Gore has brought down entertainers from St. Louis the past two weekends, including Akasha Royale, Chastity Valentino, MaKena Knight, Victoria Rose, and Eva Destruction. Other events have included a “play with our balls” pool tournament and “pump it up” night (wear a pair of high heels – and the first drinks on Norma’s).
Article continues below“It’s quite an undertaking and it’ scary – believe me, it’s really scary,” said Gore, of launching the business. “We had a great grand opening, but we had a show. And there were a lot of people who had never experienced a drag show. Those people were screaming… I mean they were having the time of their life.”
“A lot of people go to St. Louis because they don’t feel comfortable coming out of the closet down here,” he continued.
“So if anything, if I can make it easier for them as a person to feel comfortable coming out of the closet and being themselves – and loving oneself is so important – if you can’t be who you are how can you love yourself?”
The name Norma Jean’s (Marilyn Monroe’s given name) was inspired by the art deco glass block that forms the bar – there’s also a glass block divider on the restaurant side, which he hopes to open later this year.
“It’s very art-deco and that comes from the 1950’s and Marilyn was the biggest icon of that era,” offered Gore. “I wanted a fifties kind of theme for the bar.”
Gore realizes that Norma Jean’s is an improbable idea – but he believes in helping his community and this is just the the latest in a lifetime of challenges he’s met head on.
“I came out in 1982, I was the first openly gay man in Farmington,” said Gore. “I was shot at, I was beaten one time. I’ve been called every name in the book but it’s made me stronger. It’s also made me want to make a change and make a difference in other people’s lives.”
“The younger generation probably has an easier time coming out because of my generation who came out at an earlier time. It took a lot of courage but it also took a lot of sacrifice on our part.”
Gore is every bit an inspiration. Born with a congenital heart defect, he had his first open heart surgery at 27 and a debilitating stroke at age thirty. At 35, he had an aortic aneurism and two years ago had his heart valve replaced for the third time.
He’s candid about his health – in fact, it drives him.
“I’m terminal, but we all die at some point,” Gore explains, his voice drifting off. “I’m dying to live, not living to die. I want to make something of my life and I want to make a difference.”
Gore is folksy and forthright, telling the story of three brothers who came into the bar one afternoon right after it opened. It was clear they weren’t there to welcome the new LGBT establishment to the village.
“If some of the people from across the lake come over and they misbehave, I’ll just ask them to leave. And if they don’t, well, ya know, I’ve got something for that too,” he said with a Puckish grin, nodding to the holstered hand gun he keeps close by.
“I have so many friends from all walks of life,” he continued.” I was with the Patriot Guard of Missouri – I rode a motorcycle and I stood in the flag lines for the soldiers who were killed in the wars. We were standing up against the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.”
Gore’s dedication is palpable as he describes the need for LGBT visibility in rural Missouri. He spent six weeks working late into the night (with the help of his best friend) upgrading the property in preparation for the opening.
Gore is also keeping on his landlord to make some needed repairs.
“My landlady has put me in a very awkward position because I still have no water on over in the restaurant side. I still can’t get my inspection, and I think a lot of my money is going to come from the food,” he explained. “I would hate for everything I’ve done here to be lost.”