Anyone who has visited Fiesta Cafe, Emerald City, or C-street over the last twenty years has probably met Amy Ramirez. She can be seen constantly on the move, serving food and drinks while chatting up old and new visitors alike. Amy, who herself came from the small midwestern town of Canton, Illinois, has a history in Champaign-Urbana (C-U) of creating safe entertainment spaces for LGBTQ people from C-U and the surrounding area.
Public I: How do you feel safe spaces for the LGBTQ community have changed in the past twenty years?
Amy R: It is completely different. Things have progressed, now gay people can go any place, it used to be (in my opinion) that people were coming to gay bars and nightclubs mainly to hook up, so if you wanted to meet people like yourself, that was all you had because there were no other options. There wasn’t the internet and other things like that. Now we have the technology where people can hook-up … so bars and restaurants are just to be social and go out. If you create a fun, creative event, people will come to it. People are trying to find their own group of friends: their own little family.
Public I: Do you feel that C-U has something unique to offer in the area of safe spaces for LGBTQ people?
Amy R: Definitely. I moved here with my best friend right after high school because we liked the diversity that the University brought to C-U. Back home we used to get beer cans thrown at us when we walked into bars … I still wouldn’t be comfortable going into a bar in Bement, for instance, with my wife. C-U is the closest we’ve got to Chicago or St. Louis, there are a lot of very welcoming places here. A lot of people in smaller towns feel like they have no other place to go, but they can come here and find unity and make friends.
Public I: You had an interesting experience of acquiring a marriage license in one of the smaller surrounding towns, tell us a little bit about that experience.
Amy R: My wife and I had a very unpleasant experience in Mahoment at our venue. So I looked up Allerton Park in Monticello, they were supper supportive and helpful, the ladies were awesome, they watched our wedding and said it was one of the most beautiful weddings they had ever been to. We had to get our marriage license in Piatt County. The ladies in the office were really nice. There was one woman who seemed stand-off-ish, and she probably wasn’t gay-friendly, but she stood over in the corner and did her own thing, while the rest of us were laughing and having a good time.
Public I: Even as same-sex couples gain broader acceptance, transgender people are still experiencing a lot of hate. How do you feel about your role in creating safe spaces for transgender people, specifically:
Amy R: I am definitely trans-friendly. I have always felt that everybody is welcome. I create spaces where people can come together and have a good time, and not by putting a label on people. As the bartender, whenever I saw a transgender person there for the first time, and it looked like they might feel a little out of their element, or even people who were new, or straight women looking around, I always went up to them and would go the extra mile to let them know that if they needed anything or any resources, I was there to help. You never know what people are going through, talking to them for ten minutes might make a big difference in their life.
The new thing I learned is that lesbians are not always supportive of transgender people, and I don’t know what the big deal is. I’ve been asking questions and reading and researching. I’m lucky enough to say that right now I am currently friends with over 20 local transgender people. I know a lot of them are having problems at home or with other people in their lives judging them. I’ll sit down and talk to them confidentially and do anything to help. I’m trying my best to embrace each person with my life.
What do you think, A.J.? [Amy turns to A.J., who has recently started to transition]
A.J.: It’s the highlight of my week! It’s something that is refreshing for people to have. And [Gay Nights at Fiesta Cafe] being on Wednesdays, it gives me something to do in the middle of the week. I can meet new people and feel supported. A lot of people have to work through the week and may not have support, so if you have to wait for the weekend, it can be hard. It just feels really great, I’m thankful for it.
Public I: In general, your events are body-positive, for cisgender and transgender people, you set an example by bartending in a pair of daisy-dukes and a half-top.
Amy R: I remember that night! I had my stomach sticking out, it made everybody laugh and it made me laugh and so many people took their pictures with me. I’m down for everyone having a good time. No one should feel bad about their weight, and if they do, I want to help them change that. I just feel like I love myself and I value myself, of course I wish I were 50 lbs skinnier! That would be great, but I’m happy with who I am. You’ve got to find happiness in who you are.
Amy currently hosts “Gay Night” on Wednesdays at Fiesta Cafe in Champaign; and brings in a Mistress of Ceremonies for Ru Paul’s Drag Race event on Mondays, which features games such as bingo and `pin the wig on the drag queen’. A recent event was hosted by local queen, Honey Dijon, who came dressed in elaborate drag that looked like a taco.