Ellen Braun: Getting schooled on longtime State College staple

Ellen Braun: Getting schooled on longtime State College staple

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Big-city snobs like myself have a tendency to think that a small-town gay bar would have an isolated crowd. But Ellen Braun from Chumley’s Bar soon dispelled me of that myth. Situated in the heart of State College, the bar gets an interesting mix of local and international students, teachers, residents and visiting conference-goers. In true bar fashion, we did this interview after closing hour, at 1 a.m.


PGN: How would your parents describe you as a child?

EB: Shy. I was a big reader and I liked to play outside. My dad worked for a big company and we moved around a lot, so I grew up in the suburbs of a lot of big cities.

PGN: Which did you spend the most time in?

EB: You know, we never stayed around long enough, so I don’t have a place that I’d call home except for where I am now.

PGN: How do you think moving so often with no “roots,” so to speak, shaped who you are?

EB: I think it made me more sympathetic to people who were not … who are seen as being on the outskirts of certain social circles.

PGN: Where did you go to high school?

EB: I went to Radnor.

PGN: Any siblings?

EB: I have two brothers. I’m the oldest.

PGN: What’s a fun memory with your siblings?

EB: We used to go to the shore every year. Ventnor.

PGN: I only know it from the Monopoly game.

EB: We’d go to the boardwalk in Atlantic City too. It’s right near Ventnor.

PGN: Did your mom work too?

EB: She was mostly a housewife but when I was in high school she started working for an insurance company.

PGN: Where did you go after high school?

EB: I went to Penn State, then stayed here in State College. I was probably tired of moving all the time so I put down roots here, but since it’s a college town, it’s pretty transient so I still satisfy that need for newness and an ever-changing circle of friends. But I don’t have to pack up and leave every three or four years like before. And I do have a nice core group of friends who live here all the time.

PGN: That’s kind of neat the way you reversed the circumstances so that they stayed the same but different.

EB: I know, I like it myself.

PGN: What was your major at Penn State?

EB: I studied English.

PGN: What was your first job?

EB: I worked on a farm in Doylestown. I picked strawberries and tomatoes and things like that. I babysat a lot when I was younger too but that was the first “real” job.

PGN: Do you ever watch “CBS Sunday Morning”?

EB: [Laughs] No, I never get up in the morning!

PGN: Ha. I don’t either but I DVR it. In fact, I was just watching it before you called and they were doing a piece about the plight of tomato pickers. How odd is that? They were saying that the tomato workers, especially in Florida where they grow 90 percent of winter tomatoes, had the worst conditions. They ran a piece of Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 piece “Harvest of Shame” and clips of Dan Rather talking about the same problem in 1995. Apparently, things didn’t get better until recently when one activist decided that, since trying to shame or boycott the tomato-farming companies wasn’t working, they’d go after retail stores like Acme and Target and shame them into only buying from companies with fair labor practices.

EB: Oh, really? That’s cool. Yeah, it really was tough. I was about 14 and it was hard work; you had to get up really early in the morning, which no one wants to do at 14. That was just a summer job for me but it was hot and the tomato plants were itchy. It hurts your back and you find squishy, rotten tomatoes all the time. I did a bunch of other jobs too, so it wasn’t just tomato-picking, but that was one of the worst ones.

PGN: How did you navigate from produce-picker to English major to bar manager?

EB: Well, I was always really academically oriented but when I graduated from Penn State, I realized that I was too shy to become a teacher. I was horrified at the thought of being in front of a classroom. I figured I needed to learn how to be in front of people, so I got a job at a bar. I loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since. [Laughs] I’m not shy anymore!

PGN: Yeah, dealing with the public will cure that pretty quickly.

EB: Yes, I’ve thought about going back to school and getting certified as a teacher or something like that but I’m pretty happy with where I am. I bought a house and I get to be social and it’s an interesting place to work. I really love my job.

PGN: Funny, the other thing on the Sunday morning show was an interview with Jon Stewart and he spoke about how he lives kind of like a bartender because it’s sort of like being out, but you don’t actually have to be out. You’re on the other side of the bar.

EB: Yeah, he’s so smart. And actually Jon Stewart was a bartender at a place near Trenton. I think it was called City Gardens.

PGN: Do you play any instruments?

EB: No, but I love music. One of the things I’m excited about is that we’ve started having a lot more live music in the past few years. It really makes me happy to have that.

PGN: How long have you been at the bar?

EB: I’ve been at Chumley’s for 22 years.

PGN: Wow! Is this the same bar you went to right after college?

EB: No, that was a real dive bar. It was really popular though. We served a lot of shots and beers.

PGN: Tell me a little about Chumley’s.

EB: It’s a gay bar. It’s a little unusual because it’s right on the main street instead of in a back alley or in a bad section of town like a lot of small-town gay bars were. It’s right in the center of town. It’s really small. In State College, most bars cater to a football crowd or students or both. But Chumley’s is really different. As a gay bar we get more international students and adults who are either gay or open-minded and happy to be in a diverse crowd. It’s more grown-up than a lot of other local bars and more of a neighborhood bar. It’s very welcoming and friendly.

PGN: There’s a hotel I stayed at in Spain that bills itself as “hetero-friendly.” It sounds like you have a similar vibe.

EB: Yes, I think as LGBT people are becoming more accepted, we have more and more of a mixed crowd. It’s kind of funny, as the community has become more mainstreamed and LGBT people are welcomed everywhere, we’ve had to fight to stay open. So we’ve had to diversify too. We’ve brought in music and other things to broaden our crowd. I was afraid that bringing new people in would drown us out and we’d lose our identity as a gay bar, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, it has had real benefits. This town can be very homogeneous and for many years we had a mostly young, white gay male clientele, a very narrow niche. We didn’t have many of the subcultures within the community, such as bears or radical faeries or even many women. Now it’s so much more interesting with a much more varied expression of the LGBT community. It’s still just as gay as ever but a lot more diverse.

PGN: That’s great. I think it’s the key to survival.

EB: Yes, we get a lot of people coming here from all over for conferences and I love hearing about how other places are dealing with all the changes. I spoke to a woman from Denmark and she said, “Oh, we don’t really have gay bars anymore. There are a few, but they’re considered quaint relics from the past. Homosexuality is so accepted that it’s unnecessary to have separate bars.” I spoke to a guy from Colorado and when he came out to his coworkers their only reaction was, “OK, that’s cool … let’s get a beer.” They totally didn’t care. Not good or bad reaction, they just didn’t care. It’s interesting to hear how things are changing and evolving. No one cares much anymore, though I sense that a lot of older gay people miss the sense of community that once was part of the struggle when you’re a disenfranchised group.

PGN: I talk to a lot of people, both older and younger, about the fact that though there’s more freedom, there’s less and less to draw us together.

EB: Yeah, I like it the way things are now, in that they’re better, but I understand why people are sad to see the culture get watered down.

PGN: True, the dangers of assimilation. But as I told a relative recently, it’s still cool being gay. We still have our own newspapers, film festivals, books, magazines, films, community centers and bars, etc.

EB: Yeah, it’s interesting to be a part of a culture where I feel like wherever I go there’s a good chance that I’m going to know someone. Maybe because I’m in this small niche, although it gets bigger all the time. We get a lot of people who may feel like outsiders, from redneck gay people to international customers who don’t always feel welcome in a college town. Jeez, the other day we had more people in here talking in foreign languages than people whose first language was English. It’s really diverse and everyone gets along. I’m really lucky to work here.

PGN: What was one of the moving stories you’ve heard?

EB: There was a guy from Saudi Arabia; I don’t think he knew he was gay or even knew what it meant when he first came here. He was a really smart kid and had a gay friend who brought him into the bar. Over the years, he got in touch with himself. He took women’s- and gay-studies classes, realized that he was gay and became a huge advocate. He moved back to Saudi Arabia and I think he thought he’d go back and change the world, only to find that his mother had arranged for him to get married. He managed to come back to the states for grad school and now he’s a civil-rights lawyer, but he had to leave his family behind. There’s a really nice kid from Taiwan who comes into the bar and when gay marriage passed, he wrote a beautiful note saying how happy he was to see it legalized in America and how happy he was to be here because back home in Taiwan it wasn’t accepted and his father had disowned him because of it. It was a really poignant moment to think what it would be like to be an international student here at this time and to be able to celebrate it with him. It was a happy and sad moment.

PGN: Since you bartend as well as manage the place, you must have heard your share of coming-out stories.

EB: Yes, right now it’s mostly all about marriage; every day there’s a new couple tying the knot. I’ve worked here for 22 years so I’ve known generations of people, like the two gay men who adopted a daughter; who’s a lesbian and now has a wife. It’s very moving. When I started working here, I never thought I’d see these changes. I love being right in the thick of things.

PGN: Have you had people stumble in not knowing it was a gay establishment?

EB: [Laughs] All the time! Especially during football season, when there are a lot of tourists in town. There’s a big rainbow sign out front, but they either don’t see it or don’t know what it means. Inside, we’re a pretty neutral-looking bar, complete with a deer head (Pearl Buck) on the wall — though it’s usually covered with beads and earrings.

PGN: Early favorite artists?

EB: Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell.

PGN: I often crave …

EB: Oysters.

PGN: I forgot, what was your coming-out story?

EB: I’m actually straight! I think I probably appear to be a lesbian; in fact, when I first applied for a job with the company that owns the complex, the HR director looked at me with my short hair and dress with no makeup and said, “I think I have just the place for you.” I came down and talked to my future boss and he said, “Have you ever been in a gay bar before?” I said no and he said, “Well, come in on a busy Saturday night and see how you feel.” I came in and saw a million people I knew and thought, This is going to be fine. Twenty-two years later and most people still think I’m a lesbian. I’m totally comfortable with that. I do have a boyfriend and he’s comfortable hanging out here too, so is my whole family. My mom and brothers are regulars here.

PGN: Ha. I have the opposite problem. I write for a gay newspaper, program for the LGBT film festival and I worked in a lesbian bar for 17 years and people still think I’m straight.

EB: It’s funny, I know a lot of gay women who have that problem. Even I would buy into the stereotype sometimes, thinking someone was gay or not by the way they looked, but I’ve stopped doing that and I’m glad. We all have a place at the table, especially here; we have the coolest place around. Come visit!

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