AVA, Mo. » Rick Fausett bobbed onto the deck of the campground pool, clutching a Busch Light with one hand and waving the other like a wand. He wore nothing but flip-flops and a top hat decorated with long pheasant feathers and fabric-spun magenta poinsettias.
"Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up," he said, repeating a line from the 1950 movie "Sunset Boulevard."
Across the pool, a bald man with a large stomach sitting naked in a chair turned to a friend and murmured out the side of his mouth, "You think that’s just a tad gay?"
These rolling woods of the Ozarks – where a billboard along a major highway proclaims that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, where a "Jesus Saves" sign and other Christian symbols decorate front lawns – seem an unlikely place for gay people to feel comfortable being out and open.
But tucked in the backcountry here is a place where gay men are unabashedly celebratory and self-deprecating about their lives: Cactus Canyon Campground, a 700-acre, clothing optional, all-male hideaway.
In its 15th season, the campground has become so popular that the owners are in the process of tripling its RV capacity, adding more spaces for tents and installing a second pool.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the way local residents generally react to the camp nowadays: with a shrug, or maybe an awkward grin. Once the target of notable harassment – gunshots, vandalism and runoff from a strategically placed hog farm – Cactus Canyon now enjoys a much more peaceful existence.
"Live and let live," said Jim Luellen, 68, who owns a convenience store in nearby Gentryville.
His sister, Kathy Haynie, 72, said: "It’s not right for men or women being homosexual or whatever you call it. But it’s their lives. It isn’t bothering us."
Nearly a decade ago, Missourians voted overwhelmingly for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and there is no sign of a serious effort to overturn that anytime soon. Still, the story of Cactus Canyon offers one example of the evolving gay experience in this country.
After vacationing in the region, a gay couple, Chaz Franzke and Jim Thideman, became so enamored of the scenery that they left their jobs in Wisconsin, bought property and opened the campground in 1999. They sought to establish the delicate balance of engaging with the community while not being bold about their lives. They started a Yahoo Group, Out in the Ozarks, that organized various gatherings for gay people, like breakfasts at a local diner. They had a stand at the farmer’s market. They let in a local television station to do a news story.
Some in the community did not take too kindly to them. Neighbors fired guns around the camp to scare them. Someone posted threatening signs on trees and painted a message with a derogatory term on their front sign.
"I couldn’t leave here without feeling I was going to be gunned down," Franzke said.
The last straw was when some people put hogs on an adjacent hill and then carved out channels in the land so runoff from the site would trickle down into the campsite.
Franzke and Thideman, who broke up as romantic partners a decade ago but continue to run the business together, quickly got the hogs removed with a lawsuit. It was settled in 2009, and Franzke said the harassment had since ceased because, he thinks, opponents finally got the message that they would stand up for themselves.
For the campers lounging by their RVs and the pool on a recent Saturday, concerns extended little beyond whether they were getting the sun to hit all the right places. Here, campers said, they do not have to answer questions about why two men are sharing an RV or endure funny stares.
"I feel a lot more comfortable around gay people than I do around straight people," said Craig Nelson, 62, sitting beside his 32-foot camper on a plot decorated with elephant ears, weigelas and other plants.
Although Franzke and Thideman said their primary concern at Cactus Canyon was providing their campers with an enjoyable experience, they acknowledged that the campground’s presence might play some role in easing concerns that locals had about gay men and lesbians. Businesses are generally welcoming, Franzke said, and one liquor store even offers the campers a discount.
In each of the past two election cycles, Franzke even got both sheriff’s candidates to do a forum at the campground, after one of them wanted to rebut a rumor that he had once said he would run gay men and lesbians out of the county if he was elected.
"For a place that, before, people used to hide and not be out, it’s now a community," Franzke said. "The gays and lesbians are out in the community and proud of it. We’ve come a long ways."