Thursday 31 Jul


OKG Newsletter

Home · Articles · News · News · From closet to community

From closet to community

How OKC’s gay and lesbian community emerged.

James Cooper November 2nd, 2011

Editor’s note: It’s been 30 years since the first AIDS case was reported in the United States. This is the first of a two-part history of the disease’s devastation in Oklahoma City, and the story of how a community emerged to fight back and save itself. Much of the reporting is based on Aaron L. Bachhofer’s 2006 dissertation, “The Emergence and Evolution of the Gay and Bisexual Male Subculture in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1889- 2005,” and interviews conducted this summer.

A local, non-emergency transport service refused to take the 17-year-old Oklahoman to his hospital visits, insisting that medical officials first explain precisely how AIDS moved from person to person.

After each hospital trip, they sterilized their van from top to bottom; medical technicians wore hazardous material suits to avoid touching him and used a telephone to turn the pages in his chart.

Following a brief stay at Oklahoma Memorial Hospital, his parents refused to and were unable to care for him. Only one of the 50 nursing homes that health officials contacted on his behalf agreed to accept him. The nursing home’s parent company, meanwhile, forced the facility to use an array of exaggerated safeguards in dealing with him.

In late 1983, the young man died. In January 1985, writer Keith Smith told his story in The Gayly Oklahoman, introducing the ninth victim of AIDS in the state to Oklahoma City’s gay and lesbian community.

If a gay and lesbian “community” existed in OKC prior to the 1980s, it is difficult to find evidence of its existence.

Certainly, people engaged in same-sex behavior in OKC since the beginning of statehood, as evidenced by local arrest records for sodomy in the 1920s and 1930s. For the most part, however, all things homosexual were driven far underground, forcing gay men to engage in mostly anonymous sex in downtown hotels, bathrooms and local parks.

Most importantly, gay bars — a key socialization center in cities nationwide — didn’t begin to flourish in OKC until the 1960s, after the statewide repeal of Prohibition in 1959. By that time, Oklahoma County District Attorney Curtis Harris, a devout Baptist, had begun a moral crusade against vice and crime.

Since sodomy was considered illegal in every state but Illinois until the 1970s, Harris used existing laws to prosecute those arrested during raids on local gay bars, and The Daily Oklahoman would publish the names and addresses of those arrested, listing them under such headings as “morals complaints.”

Writing on gay and lesbian history in the U.S., journalist June Thomas noted the importance of gay bars’ role in the development of gay and lesbian communities.

“Historically, gay bars were a haven from the strictures of the closet, a safe place where patrons could take off the masks they wore while passing for straight,” wrote Thomas in late June. “They were a place to meet, to socialize, to find friends and potential partners. In a way, they were our church, with sermons delivered by disco divas.”

Fighting back
With persistent police raids throughout the 1960s, local gay bars existed under constant threat, pushing OKC’s gays and lesbians deeper into the closet for fear of police brutality and public humiliation.

In 1969, however, one gay OKC resident did the unthinkable after police arrested him in a local bar: He fought back.

The night Paul Thompson walked into The Cleaners, a popular OKC beer bar friendly to gay patrons, an undercover police officer was sitting at the bar, watching him playfully say “hello” to his friends and kiss them each on the neck.

right, Paul Thompson, at his home in 2008. He died last year after a brief and unexpected illness.

Thompson left the bar with his three friends, only to be greeted in the parking lot by patrol cars and flashing lights.

“I was arrested for ‘lewd and lascivious public behavior,’” recalled Thompson in a 2007 audio interview. “At the time … gay people would get arrested, they would go down and pay a fine and technically plead guilty — if you pay a fine, it’s a guilty plea and it would go on your record.”

Furious, he spent the night in jail. “I did what any self-respecting human being would do, but most gay people never did do,” recalled Thompson, who died in 2010. He and his friends, although terrified, hired a lawyer and went to court.

The judge found the interpretation of “lewd” and “lascivious” too subjective and thus, unconstitutional, and dismissed the charges. Thompson and his friends emerged victorious.

“It was the first time that it had ever happened for a gay person in OKC,” Thompson said. “No one had ever fought it before; they just thought we were lower than pond scum and deserved all the abuse we could get.”

Cultivating community
On June 28, 1969, the same year as Thompson’s court victory, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City, erupted into violent street protests lasting several days after bar patrons and drag queens fought back against months of police harassment.

The Stonewall riots acted as a watershed moment, redefining the modern gay and lesbian movement worldwide, giving way to an increased visibility in the 1970s for people finally willing to come out of the closet and carve a public space where previously none existed.

Having successfully fought against police harassment in OKC, Thompson’s victory emboldened him. He and local human rights activist Mary Tyson attended the country’s first National Gay Leadership Conference, held in Dallas.

There, the two learned that cities with a sense of “community” among the gay and lesbian population had two things in common: a newspaper and a community center.

Since OKC had neither, the pair set out to establish both.

As a member of the newly created Oklahomans for Human Rights, a gay activist group that initially formed to take on state legislator Mary Helm and her 1978 attempt to fire teachers who engaged in homosexual conduct, Thompson helped create Our Time, a newsletter to inform gay and lesbian readers about political and community activity.

In October 1983, the newsletter morphed into a full-fledged community newspaper, The Gayly Oklahoman. Roughly a year later, writer Keith Smith made his impassioned plea for readers to help combat AIDS and provide health resources for those afflicted with the disease.

“Meet #9,” Smith wrote. “I know you will be shocked by the insensitivity of referring to a human being as number, but let’s be consistent, we treated him with insensitivity when he was still alive so why fall all over ourselves now?

“The only thing is (to) make sure it never happens again.”

Two years earlier, the first AIDS case appeared in OKC. In a Patrick J. Buchanan editorial published in The Daily Oklahoman titled “Awful AIDS Is Nature’s Retribution,” the paper stated, “The sexual revolution has begun to devour its children.”

‘Angel in disguise’
In the mid-1980s, Averil “Cookie” Arbuckle, a local social worker, met Kenny Lackey at a local hospital, where he had been left in the hallway and ignored by physicians. He had no employment when he begged Cookie for help, and she immediately set about assisting him with Social Security and disability.

“He was kind of her angel in disguise,” said daughter Mary Arbuckle.

“This is when she started getting more involved.”

Mary Arbuckle (pictured, right) said her mother, who was forced into early retirement, met with the leaders of the city’s new Oasis Community Center to focus on one of its highest priorities: the creation of the AIDS Support Program to help patients with the costs of medication and treatment. In 1987, ASP opened the Winds House, the first home for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Around the same time, Cookie Arbuckle worked with Lackey to put together the “Aid for HIV/AIDS Handbook,” which continues to educate people nationwide on the disease.

In 1989, Cookie Arbuckle started Other Options Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves the various needs of HIV/AIDS clients (including a food pantry), and continued her efforts until her death in 2010. The organization sustains its mission under the direction of Mary Arbuckle.

Through the years, OKC’s gay bars would raise thousands of dollars annually on behalf of organizations like ASP and the Winds House, turning to their patrons to help those in need.

Johnny Norris, the charity fundraising organizer for the HiLo Club, recalled returning to OKC in 1991 after a decade in Colorado.

“In 10 years, 14 of my friends died,” he said.

Sitting in the HiLo on a Wednesday afternoon with one of the bar’s co-owners, Norris looked around the establishment and pointed to the community of gay and straight patrons before him.

He looked proud and seemed lost in thought.

“This bar has done what the gay community in Oklahoma City has been fighting for the last 35 years,” he said. “And that is acceptance.”

Photos by Mark Hancock

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5


11.02.2011 at 10:37 Reply

Thank you for publishing this two part historical article. Where has the time gone? I was so young dumb in the 80s.