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As candidates talk LGBTQ issues in Cedar Rapids, Belle's Basix will be watching

Cedar Rapids gay bar patrons want hopefuls to address government policies

A neon ‘Pride’ sign is seen on the wall at Belle’s Basix in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
A neon ‘Pride’ sign is seen on the wall at Belle’s Basix in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Michael Young attends presidential debate viewing parties at Belle’s Basix whenever possible.

Young, 41, has been coming to the gay bar since it opened about 22 years ago. It feels like a safe space to engage in free thought and debate, he said.

“With a gay bar comes a sense of community and safety and being around people who welcome and respect you,” Young said.

Basix, at 3916 First Ave. NE, is hosting a watch party Friday evening for the LGBTQ Presidential Forum where 10 Democratic presidential candidates in Cedar Rapids will address issues affecting the LGBTQ community. An after party will follow with The Box Lunch food truck serving food, and a drag show at 11 p.m.

The presidential forum at 7 p.m. is being co-sponsored by The Gazette, GLAAD, One Iowa and The Advocate. Tickets for the forum at Sinclair Auditorium on the Coe College campus are sold out, but the event will be livestreamed including on TheGazette.com. Basix is holding the only watch party in Cedar Rapids registered with One Iowa.

Young would like to see candidates promise to make the Equality Act “a central part of their first days in office.” The Equality Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Although Young has never been fired simply for being gay, it’s something he has worried about over the years.

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Throughout his career as an elementary school teacher, he has felt there were times he couldn’t fully express himself for fear of how his students, their parents or the school administration would respond.

“Everyone can have a picture on their desk of their spouse, and I can’t,” Young said.

Basix hosts viewing parties for almost every presidential debate. As the 2016 election heated up, 60 to 70 people would fill the bar during debates, said Andrew Harrison, owner of Basix.

Harrison said being political is a reality for LGBTQ people.

“We fought for gay rights. It’s a big issue for me when I vote. ... We don’t want to be second-rate citizens anymore,” he said.

Harrison would like to see candidates address the rise in murders of transgender women of color, which the American Medical Association called an “epidemic” in June, and an Iowa religious freedom bill he said is “a homophobic bill that takes away my protections for the sake of somebody else’s beliefs.” The measure failed to advance earlier this year in the Legislature.

As a gay man, Harrison said it would be nice to live without the fear of getting beaten up or murdered because of who he loves. He would like to be able to hold hands with a partner without fear while walking down the street.

Harrison doesn’t expect protesters to camp outside Basix during the watch party. But if they do, he sees nothing wrong with that as long as they are civil, he said.

Basix has two bullet marks in its window from BB guns. The bar has been egged. People driving by scream profanity. After 49 people were killed in a 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Harrison’s anxiety is up on Friday and Saturday nights when Basix is at its busiest.

“I’ve got to protect my customers, but I can’t stop an AK-47,” he said.

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Melinda Johnson, 47, a bartender at Basix, said she checks customers’ backpacks for weapons when she’s working. If someone comes in who appears a little uncomfortable, she stands by the panic button as she greets him or her.

Johnson has bartended at Basix for three years. She found a home at the bar, however, long before becoming an employee there.

When she moved from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids around 2011, she would wander into Basix after work for drinks and to hang out.

Watching presidential debates isn’t Johnson’s favorite thing to do, but she said it’s her civic duty.

“It’s a little less frustrating when you’re watching with a lot of other people rather than sitting at home and yelling at the TV,” she said.

The LGBTQ Presidential Forum is a sign of progress, Johnson said.

“It’s not some fringe element,” she said. “We’re real people, a voting bloc.”

Johnson served in the military before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy instituted by the Clinton administration in 1994 that allowed gay people to serve as long as they didn’t disclosure their sexual orientation.

The policy was repealed by the Obama administration in 2011.

In July 2017, President Donald Trump said transgender individuals would not be allowed to serve in the military. He rescinded the Obama policy in March 2018, replacing it with a new one saying that “transgender people with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery — are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.”

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Johnson would like to hear candidates at the forum address the treatment of transgender individuals by the military.

“You can’t just start chipping away at the rights of certain people, and not expect it to eventually come for you,” Johnson said.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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