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From closet to community: part two

How taking a stand carved out OKC’s gay district.

James Cooper November 9th, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series highlighting events in Oklahoma City around which a gay community rallied and coalesced. 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 recent interviews.

The night that Oklahoma City police officers raided a gay club on the corner of N.W. 39th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, local businessman Robert Tim Gravel sat inside the popular establishment.

Within seconds of entering Angles, the police arrested Gravel for his alleged public intoxication, removed him from the club, and took him away in a police cruiser. 

Gravel soon found himself in a dark street where the officers physically and verbally abused him. According a report in The Daily Oklahoman, officer Larry Van Schuyver allegedly hit a handcuffed Gravel across the face, stomped on his foot and began to choke the man nearly to the point of unconsciousness. 

After a call from one of the club managers, owners Scott Wilson and Don Hill soon arrived at Angles to watch the police tear down the venue’s front door.

Barely four months earlier, on Sept. 15, 1982, Angles opened its doors, operating under the corporate name Cotton-Eyed Joes Inc.

The discrepancy was not accidental. To ease the permitting process, the name suggested the owners were opening a country-and-western club, a familiar fixture in the OKC landscape.

right, The sun sets on “the strip” during the September equinox.

Wilson and Hill shocked the city when they opened a high-energy gay dance club. The pair had commissioned architect Bart Shedeck to design the hot spot.

Built from the ground up, Shedeck designed the building to accommodate the most advanced technologies, featuring a new prototype sound system initially designed for megaclubs in New York and Europe.

Moveable trusses allowed for a state-of-theart lighting system, and Shedeck designed the club using the most advanced concepts of traffic flow to accommodate large crowds and anticipated sound, lighting and video expansion.

A new venue
Angles opened to packed crowds and, seemingly overnight, Oklahoma City’s gay and lesbian community went from barely having a handful of gay bars to having a world-class dance venue.

The most modern club in Oklahoma City, Angles soon saw performances by the disco era’s most successful entertainers as acts like the Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men”) and Dead or Alive (“You Spin Me Round [Like a Record]”) took to the stage at the height of their popularity.

Boy George and Sylvester and Divine, the disco divas, entertained packed audiences, as well, and with other gay bars already located on the same city block, Angles forever changed the fundamental character of N.W. 39th Street.

This excitement didn’t go unnoticed by the city’s police department.

“The police were there that first night,” the owners told reporters at The Gayly Oklahoman at the time. “People would be playing a Pac-Man game, the police would make them get up so they could literally turn the game over, to make sure it was legally permitted.

“They cited us numerous times because all four burners on the stove were not functioning. There is no ordinance requiring a working four-burning stove in Oklahoma City’s codes. They cited us one time because people’s signatures were not legible on the sign-in book.”

The police cited the club for “disturbing the peace” on numerous occasions, leading Wilson and Hill to hire sound engineers from Dallas and Oklahoma City to randomly and secretly test the exterior noise levels. Each test result showed that the club was operating within its legal limits.

“In the course of the next four months, we were cited about 50 or 60 times for various and sundry things,” the owners told the Gayly. “We fought and won every single one of them.”

However, for Angles’ owners and patrons, the citations paled in comparison to the campaign of physical violence.

“When the police academy had their latest batch of graduates, three of the more experienced patrolmen brought in 12 rookies on a Saturday night and showed them how to mistreat the gays,” the owners told the Gayly in 1983. “They were basically telling them, with us standing right there, ‘Now this is how you handle these people.’ It was sick. It was really sick.”

Victor Gorin, who used to write for the Gayly and still lives in OKC, recalled an encounter with law enforcement at Angles.

Just moments after leaving the club late one night with a friend, Gorin (pictured) soon realized he was alone and his friend was no longer at his side.

“All of a sudden, I realized I was talking to myself,” he said. “(The police) had grabbed him and taken him off in the patrol car, and then I thought, ‘Victor, go home.’” Then, on Jan. 6, 1983, the tension between the police and the community reached a tipping point as the front door of Angles came crashing down.

Victims’ vindication
“That was the last straw,” the owners told the Gayly. “That was the night that they took several people out and put them up against the patrol cars like they do when they frisk them, and took their night sticks between their legs and just beat the hell out of them, beat them on the back and everything else.”

Another Angles patron, Robert Bigger, allegedly encountered Van Schuyver after he left. Bigger claimed he was forced from his car before having his face smashed into the vehicle, according to The Daily Oklahoman.

Bigger eventually filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma City and Van Schuyver. According to The Daily Oklahoman, Van Schuyver suggested that the chief of police at the time “specifically advised” him to treat the gay community on N.W. 39th Street with such force.

Meanwhile, in February of that year, Cotton-Eyed Joes Inc. filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma City.

The next month, Gravel reportedly hired former Oklahoma City Councilman Eric Groves, the same lawyer representing Angles, and blamed the mayor and the OKC police chief for their inability to stop police violence and harassment on N.W. 39th Street.

Later that year, rather than face a prolonged, expensive legal battle, the original Angles owners offered to settle out of court and drop the lawsuit, but only if Oklahoma City made significant changes.

The city obliged. On Sept. 13, 1983, the city reportedly settled the lawsuit for $1 in damages and agreed to pay approximately $28,000 in legal fees to the Angles owners.

“The City Council did the right thing,” Groves told The Daily Oklahoman. “This was a good solution to a tough problem.”

Moreover, the city agreed to provide gay-awareness training for its officers henceforth and obey a permanent injunction against the Oklahoma City police that prevented them from coming onto N.W. 39th Street and harassing the gay community. The City Council settled with Gravel, as well, and agreed to pay him $25,000.

Van Schuyver reportedly resigned before a police disciplinary review board had a chance to make its recom- mendation. The city agreed to pay Bigger $15,000 to drop his suit.

Van Schuyver, a Purple Heart recipient who later served 32 years in the Navy including two tours in Iraq, apologized for not remembering many details.

“Different time, different world,” Van Schuyver told Oklahoma Gazette. “A lot of times, if suits are settled for a low amount, there’s not a lot of merit in it. Sometimes when you’re sued, you go through a lot of drama and you don’t get to say your side. So there was some frustration when you can’t defend yourself. But for me, I can only say I wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone. You just sometimes get into a situation where you do, I guess, I don’t know.”

Van Schuyver said education and acceptance are good.

“I don’t have any ill will against anyone,” he said. “I think we all — during our period of life — go through different stages. When you learn and grow, you get better.”

‘The strip’
Over the next year, the changes on N.W. 39th Street, or “the strip” as it is known today, became noticeable as the police presence diminished.

Gorin describes the Angles victory as a pivotal moment for Oklahoma City’s gay and lesbian community. “We owe a lot to (Wilson),” he said. “It was very historic and, for years later, they owe their nice lives on the strip to what he did. It turned the city around.”

As the country just celebrated the 17th LGBT history month, several gay bars call the strip home, including a gay country-and-western bar, an after-hours dance club for the under-21 crowd and a recently opened bar, The Boom, that features dinner theater and Sunday brunch.

Downtown, the Oklahoma City Police Department boasts one of the most respected officer-training programs in the country and, this year, tens of thousands gathered on the strip to celebrate the city’s 24th annual gay pride parade.

Sitting in The Boom on a recent Saturday morning, owner and OKC Pride Board Member John Gibbons recalled dancing at Angles nearly three decades ago and watching the police harass people on the dance floor.

“Scott Wilson standing up and suing the city and fighting for the community — talk about a man who has left a legacy, you know? I mean, he truly has,” he said. “I can’t say that that sort of stuff doesn’t happen anymore, but I think it’s totally a new day and age.

“But it’s been a long road.”

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