In Conway, 1605 Robinson Ave. is known as "The Pink House."
"I loved this house my whole life," says Shelby Hensley, who has rented a room in the iconic structure for the past eight months. "I didn't know what it was, I didn't know why it was here, but I just loved that Pink House."
To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, go to https://www.gofundme.com/save-the-pink-house.
The Pink House, a 3,053-square-foot Victorian-era house built in 1917, was purchased in 1986 for $1,000 by Robert "Bobby" Loyd and John Schenk, who were well-known activists in the gay community. Loyd, a Vietnam veteran, and Schenk, who worked at the bar at New York's Stonewall Inn right before the uprising started, were both hairdressers, and they opened a salon at 1605 Robinson and called it Special Effects. In 2004, they organized the first Conway Pride Parade.
They exchanged wedding vows in Canada in 2004, though their marriage was not legally recognized in Arkansas until 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban same-sex marriage. Loyd and Schenk married again on Aug. 22, 2015, this time in the Faulkner County clerk's office in a ceremony officiated by then Conway Mayor Tab Townsell.
Loyd died just a few months later, in December 2015. Schenk died in 2016.
During the nearly 30 years they lived in the house -- transformed over time from brown to a lively pink -- Loyd and Schenk took in countless young people who had been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation.
Justin Ray Rawls was one of those young people. He found his way to the Pink House when he was 15, and he inherited the house after Loyd and Schenk died.
Jonathan Neighbors, who performs as female illusionist Blaze Duvall, met Loyd at his first Conway Pride 12 years ago.
"I walked up -- I didn't know this man from Adam -- and I was still kind of nervous because I was from a small town in northeast Arkansas, and when I walked up, he just exuded this welcoming essence. He just gave me a big hug. I was kind of like, taken by surprise, and kind of shocked and instantly felt at home," Neighbors says.
Neighbors says Loyd and Schenk had that effect on many people over the years.
"It's just the power and the presence of Bobby and his partner," he says. "They just literally drew everyone in from all over the state. Conway Pride and the Pink House have actually helped more people than they realize because they not only help people in Conway, but they actually have helped people in Arkansas feel safe and feel wanted and everyone looks forward to Conway Pride."
Neighbors and Rawls have remained close after the death of Loyd and Schenk.
"When Justin sort of fell on hard times, he only let a few close friends know," says Neighbors, show director at Rumors Bar and Grill in Hot Springs. "Whenever I found out about it, like two months ago, he just wanted a way for someone to help. So me and the rest of the cast at Rumors decided to start a GoFundMe, and to do a pink box we're slowly passing around at our shows at Rumors. ... That way, we can raise money to keep an establishment open that has touched and motivated so many of us."
The "Save the Pink House" GoFundMe campaign, created July 1, has a goal of $75,000.
Organizer Nicki Hunter didn't respond to a request for an interview before press time, but wrote on the launch page: "We understand that we are asking for a significant amount of money, so we also wanted to update everyone on what these funds will specifically go towards. Although the owner has a full-time job, maintaining the bills AND the necessary repairs/outdated systems simultaneously has proven to be difficult. The funds will go to help pay for the following repairs, some of which have been competed, however, debt is still owed on them.
New roof (completed), electrical and plumbing updates, banister, foundation/porch repair(completed), and insurance.
The owner inherited the house in far worse condition that it is in, and has invested as much money as possible to help keep the Pink House, and all it stands for, afloat. The house means so much to our community and is a key part of LGBTQ+ history in Arkansas so we want to do all that we can to keep that legacy alive."
Rhonda Nolan, chief deputy of the Faulkner County tax collector's office, said property and personal taxes are current, though $1,390.84 will be due in October.
Rawls declined to meet in person or talk on the phone, but he explained by email that the Pink House isn't at risk of foreclosure "as of now."
"The crisis is that I'm doing the work of like 10 people keeping the house together," he wrote. "Making sure all bills are paid. While also doing things for the community such as Conway Pride, Disney drag night ... and we are also doing a gay mixer. Sometime in the next couple of months we will be having a weekly gay group for anyone that needs a safe space to be themselves in. This house existed before any pride parade started in Arkansas. It is a statement that we are here and queer even in Arkansas. Kids need to know that they are not a waste of space or that they are worthless because their parents kicked them out for being gay. This house is a beacon for the wounded and lost in Arkansas."
He wrote that he is applying for grants and "also working on the final things for us to become a non profit with a board of five people."
He was quoted by the Log Cabin Democrat as saying, "The possibility has always been there to sell but I kept taking out loan after loan and charged credit card after credit card," Rawls said. "It's to the point were [it] is sink or swim. My dads spent much of their [lives] trying to better others. Mostly young queer people. Selling isn[']t an option but if it comes to that it wouldn't be a [decision] that was made on purpose. We all want the house to stay. We all want their legacy to live on."
Rawls set out to turn the house into a museum to Loyd and Schenk back in 2016. Drawings of pinup girls and abstract artwork, all done by Loyd, hang in the hallway and walls are full of photos and news clippings of the former salon.
Ike Ferrell, who knew Loyd and Schenk from the Lantern Theater in Conway as well as through Conway Pride, is one of many who appreciates Rawls' attempt to keep their memories alive.
"The Pink House is a beacon of light in an often dark place for LGBTQIA+ people, especially youth," Ferrell wrote, responding to questions. "It is a symbol of defying adversity in the name of promoting diversity. And we're trying to make it into a community center. A place where we can talk about and celebrate the things that make us different and the things that bring us together. The house has at times been an inspiration, a healing tool, a home, and an escape for me. It is LGBTQIA+ history, right here among us. And hopefully our future as well."
Hensley says she wishes she had gotten a chance to meet Loyd and Schenk. She moved into the Pink House after Rawls posted on Facebook that he was looking for a roommate because his finances were tight.
"Bobby was part of this house. That's what he was about. Bobby was quick. He was witty, he was funny," she says. "John was more kind of calm, kind of more laid back. It was the yin and the yang -- that was definitely there, apparently. John was not so bothered by things, and Bobby was ready to fight."
Rawls gave her some of the bells that Loyd was known for wearing on his waistband, there for the shaking when people tried his patience.
He has been trying to renovate the house room-by-room over the years, she says, bound by the limits of his finances. She is working three jobs and contributes where she can, and Rawls has sold some items at estate sales to make some extra money.
Like Neighbors, Hensley met Rawls during Conway Pride. She needed to shower after performing as Shamus O'Family, a drag king, but she didn't want to drive to and from her home 45 minutes away before going to the next Conway Pride event. Rawls offered the use of his shower in the Pink House.
"He was just super cool about it. He gave me a towel. He showed me the bathroom, let me get myself together.... He was just very welcoming, and he's like that with everybody. He's the perfect person to own this house," she says. "We keep the guest bedroom open always in case somebody ever needs a place to stay. Typically, we like to reserve it for members of the LGBT community, but if anybody ever needs a place to stay, it's open."
The world outside the Pink House hasn't always been accepting, or even felt safe -- tires have been slashed and cinder blocks have been thrown through windshields of vehicles even in the driveway, vandalism has taken place, and threats have been made -- but things are different on the inside.
"It provides a safe space for these people to come, when they don't feel welcome at other places," she says. "They can come and genuinely be who they are that a lot of other people might not accept, they can just come and relax and put their guard down and be around like-minded people [who] understand the struggles that they're going through and be able come and talk with people [who] have also struggled, maybe not in the exact same way, but in similar ways, and just, you know, provide that comfort and support for people."
NAN Our Town on 08/08/2019
Print Headline: A safe place