One of the Country’s Best Gay Bars Is Hiding in Alaska
The website says it best: “Over 22 years of fabulous in the Last Frontier. We’re all a little mad here.”
There are only two gay bars in Anchorage, Alaska—population, just under 300,000. One, The Raven, is the reason I know what farm-grade lube is. As explained by local Lon Embley, it starts as a powder, mixed with water, and is not in fact used for machinery, but “for artificially inseminating cattle, and things like that.”
A massive amount of this viscous solution was used a few years ago at the northernmost gay bar in the US, during a charity Pride Week wrestling event. Audience members would bid to slather up the contestants, who would then go at it in a blow-up kiddie pool. As to be expected, people, and things, slip. “They’re always in their underwear,” says Embley. “I’ve definitely seen some buttholes.”
On a regular, non-Pride day, the Raven is more subdued, catering to an older crowd that drinks beers with names like Moose Drool. There’s a pinball machine, a pool table, TVs playing sports games, and a massive back patio to soak up the endless summer rays. A plastic penguin mascot called Winston gets dressed up and placed around the bar for events like Kentucky Derby watch parties. Like most of the places in Anchorage, it’s ridiculously laid-back.
But if it’s a glitzy over-the-top drag show you’re after, head down the block to the second gay bar in Anchorage: Mad Myrna’s, hosting some of the best queens in the world.
Anchorage is not known for its aesthetics. Sure, it’s surrounded by stunning feats of nature, but it’s a bit of an open joke that Anchorage itself is, well, bland. There’s even a cheeky Instagram account, @keepanchoragebeige. From its dull grey exterior, it would seem like the inside of Mad Myrna’s would follow suit. But then you go in.
The interior is a jewel box of colorful carpeting, which looks downright psychedelic under the cabaret lights and disco balls. On stage, dramatic jewel tone drapes lift to reveal a glittery silver curtain backdrop. Black chairs and tables with mushroom lamps dot the floor and on the walls are large portraits of the performing divas, with appropriately gilded frames.
Open since 1999, Mad Myrna’s got spruced up during the pandemic. Its small patio was expanded to 3,000 square feet of outdoor space. Gone is the vending machine dispensing beef jerky; now there’s a full menu offering house pizzas, chicken and waffles, and soba noodle bowls. From the cocktail menu you can order A Classy Trashy, which tops Absolut mango, peach Schnapps, and orange, pineapple, and cranberry juices with a can of Champagne. Or choose from the Good Morning Motherfucker and the Power Bottom—both floated with Red Bull.
As for the crowd, “It’s a very mixed scene,” says manager Chris Jones, who began at Myrna’s as a bar back and met his husband there when he was 21. “Because we are a smaller community we welcome all. In larger cities it gets to the point where you have your bear bar, your dance bar, your leather bar, your lesbian bar. We’re one big mixed group of people up here.”
On weekends, the bar hosts legendary Diva Variety Shows that, some 20 years later, still draw 300 people a night for $5 a pop. Originally just Friday nights, they eventually had to add Saturday to accommodate the demand. The roster includes fourteen dedicated performers—about seven or eight nightly who sing, dance, tell jokes, and do whatever needs doing to entertain the crowd. The bar also fosters new talent with amateur shows and mentorship.
And out in the Last Frontier, queens stay a while. “There’s one queen named Reyna, and she’s gotta be like seventy-something years old,” says Embley. “She only does Tina Turner, and it’s amazing—she has all the mannerisms down, and has the same wig that she’s used since I was 20. She’s definitely not as flashy as some of the newer queens, doing backflips in three-inch heels, but she’s a staple there.”
The variety of the Diva Variety Shows extends to the host: a drag king (rare in any city) who goes by the name Hank VanDickerson. A junior high school teacher and animal rights activist by day, by night his personality is as enthusiastic as his goatee and admirable collection of flashy jackets.
Like the Raven, on non-show nights Myrna’s is a chill neighborhood bar and a gathering space for the LGBTQ+ community. Though Anchorage is in a somewhat progressive bubble—the first in the country to vote down their Prop 1 anti-trans bill—it’s still in a very red state, and one where its residents can openly carry.
But that doesn’t mean the queer community sticks behind closed doors. Anchorage goes all out for PrideFest, usually with a full week of events. RuPaul’sDrag Race queens like Alaska Thunderfuck, Bob the Drag Queen, and Ben DeLa Crème have flown in. There is a parade, which serves as a visible reminder for how far the city has come since it’s first-ever march in 1977.
Even just in Embley’s lifetime, he’s seen change. “It’s funny because we always used to do Pride at the very end of the [Delaney] Park Strip, hidden away from everybody,” he says. “That’s what I was used to growing up, and I never thought about it as like, hiding along the side. But now in the last five years or so they’ve relocated to the dead center, to be a little bit more out and proud.”
Other Pride events have included pageants, drag queen story time, “fabulous” makeovers, brunches, karaoke, amateur drag nights, dance parties, movie nights and 5K runs. And every year people look forward to Myrna’s wildly popular drag queen bingo. “The winners have to dress in drag, and go around the crowd collecting money for charity,” says Embley.
“This isn’t just a club; it’s been a home and safe space for so many in the community over the 22 years our doors have been open,” says Jones. “As long as the LGBTQ+ community continues to feel safe in our space, we’re doing it right.”