A place to belong
Queer spaces, queer history
Tulsans march in one of the first official Pride parades from the early 2000s. The first city-official Pride parade was June 12, 1999.
Courtesy Dennis Neill
On June 8, days before the third anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where a gunman killed 49 people, a staffer at Tulsa’s Club Majestic received a message threatening violence at the club.
“They said they were going to kill a lot of people like Pulse in Tulsa,” Majestic manager Chris Shoaf said. “Last year we felt the need to start having armed security outside. We already had armed security in place that night … we also had TPD [outside].”
Threats of violence toward LGBTQ+ people are nothing new. For years, queer people have kept their heads bowed, quietly meeting in discreet locations to avoid confrontation with people ranging from hecklers to murderers. It’s hard to distinguish who’s who because they all sound the same, so some folks felt it best to just hang out at home. Aside from violence, there was, and still is, the impending threat of being fired simply for being gay.
“I actually started meeting people and coming out when I started hanging out in Tulsa when I was living in Muskogee, and so there was some anonymity,” said Janet Gearin, a retired nurse. “And when I moved here in ‘78 we would go to parties that people would throw, and my God, they would be huge parties, 50, 60, 100 people … A lot of us partied that way. We didn’t necessarily go to the bars but we would have parties in our homes.”
What follows is an incomplete history of how Tulsa’s LGBTQ+ community shaped our city, carving out spaces and staking claim to a sense of place, one of the most basic desires humans have. The voices that follow are just a handful of the LGBTQ+ people and allies that got us where we are today. With each person interviewed in this story, 10 or more relevant names came up, creating a vast web of connections and narratives that couldn’t possibly be contained in two pages.
The same apprehension that drove people to meet in private is what drove others to bars and clubs catering to an LGBTQ+ crowd, which peppered Tulsa’s nightlife scene throughout the 20th century. Harry Cramton, a Tulsa hairdresser who moved here in 1952, remembers the first time he set foot in a gay bar.
“It was called Pete and Bob’s, and most people have never heard of it. It was a real speakeasy … liquor, dancing, gay life. It was unbelievable,” Cramton said. “You went and knocked on the door and the thing slid across and they’d make sure you were of age and you weren’t the police. They would let you in. It was a huge empty room. You’d go through the room, knock on another door, it slid open, and there was a band and tons of people in there dancing and drinking.”
Pete and Bob’s was located downtown near 1st Street and Boston Avenue, a common area for nightlife throughout the mid-century.
A scrapbook at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center contains clippings of old advertisements for LGBTQ+ friendly bars and clubs, compiled by Bill Francisco. The book is filled with dozens of bygone businesses; flipping through the robust collection of businesses starkly contrasts with the handful of queer-centric bars that exists today. Lynn Starnes, co-owner of The ReVue, said there were 13 LGBTQ+ bars when she arrived in Tulsa in 2000.
“Literally the first week I was in town there was a yellow page listing … when you called it, it was a recording that listed all the bars in town. We came from Wyoming, which was desolate. It was 120 miles to get to a bar.”
Starnes and her wife Deb met at a bar—Heads or Tails. “Our generation, that’s where you met people,” Lynn said.
“You had Tim’s Playroom which was primarily male, but my softball coach was good friends with [Tim], so on Sundays after we’d have practice we’d go in there and hang out and that was kind of a trip because people weren’t really accustomed to having women in there,” Deb said. “And they would tease us about their drinks being men’s drinks and being stronger, so it was great.”
Cramton recalls how people would hop back and forth between Tim’s Playroom at 11th Street and Lewis Avenue and another nearby bar. “Right next door was a girl’s bar, a lesbian bar. You would stay at Tim’s until about 11:30 and then you would go over there and dance because you could dance there. It was locked … it was safer. But it would still get raided.”
Tim Turner, the owner of Tim’s Playroom, among other endeavors, wrote a piece on the Tim’s Playroom website that’s still online today describing the history of gay bars and clubs. He details how the Playroom would handle frequent police raids:
Doubling in size in just a few years, The Playroom would offer a diverse crowd a variety of entertainment and events. From a Cruise Bar at noon to a wild, thumping Dance bar at night Tulsa got its first feel of Cerwin Vega Earthquake speakers in a bar that pounded away at the fifty year old brick walls causing them to crumble. It also got a close up look at dozens of Tulsa’s Police Officers who constantly toured with flashlights in their hands and disgust and smirks on their faces. It was an ongoing battle. We had it set up so that whichever of the staff went to jail for whatever trivial or trumped up reason, Team B would contact the attorney to bail out Team A and reopen immediately. During the seven years of operation there were more than fifty arrests of myself or staff members and resulted in NO CONVICTIONS. Imagine that.
In addition to being a communal place where LGBTQ+ people could meet each other, bars also served as HIV testing sites. When the deadly disease hit Tulsa in the 1980s, fear paralyzed some people, but it mobilized others.
Janet Gearin, a retired nurse who worked with the Veterans Administration, was at the forefront of HIV/AIDS care in the ‘80s. “We didn’t know diddly squat—we meaning the nursing staff, the doctors, nobody,” she said. “We were floundering back then. It was a horrible, horrible time … the healthiest dead and dying were taking care of the worst dead and dying. That was really what we started to find, and we honestly wanted to provide support for those services.”
In the beginning, there were just a few groups dedicated to providing services to HIV/AIDS patients. One of the biggest obstacles groups faced was lack of funds—so they diligently worked to raise the money they needed to support people suffering from the disease.
Harry Cramton remembers the story his friend Carolyn Messler told about getting involved with Catholic Charities. “During that time she was a very strong Catholic,” he said. “She went to Medjugorje because there was a sighting of the Virgin Mary, on a hill, on a mountain. So she flew there, and walking up a hill, there was a priest from Tulsa named Gary Sherman from Catholic Charities.”
Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is 5,548 miles from Tulsa—yet Sherman and Messler met here, both ready and willing to fight HIV in their city. Whether serendipitous or spiritually driven, the end result was the two teaming up to combat this terrifying disease at a time when much was unknown. At first, the sheer terror and the stigma that followed the disease discouraged people to seek out help.
“We couldn’t get anybody to move in, but all of a sudden someone moved in and then it was full. So we opened another one,” Cramton said. “Then we had to open one for girls that had children. They had been thrown out of their family, they had AIDS, and they had children. Can you imagine?”
One of those homes was St. Joseph’s residence, which opened in 1987 with support from Catholic Charities. Located in Brady Heights neighborhood on Denver Avenue, the facility closed and has since been remodeled into a family home.
Gearin said education was key in combating the HIV/AIDS crisis. Many healthcare providers were afraid to treat people with HIV or AIDS. “I started doing a lot of teaching and working with health groups—I worked with dental hygienists, I worked with dentists … care clinics teaching them how to be afraid, not make it worse for the families as well, just educating,” she said.
“You had to diminish the fear, because the first thing that happened was that people were terrified,” Gearin said. “They were hiding because they didn’t know what to do. Even in the hospital, I would go into the hospital rooms, and at this time we knew it was not that easy to get, and a nurse would come in and she would have a gown and gloves and a mask and footwear—I mean, she’s covered from head to toe.”
In addition to her work nationally with the VA, Gearin focused efforts locally, fundraising with Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights. “Follies [a fundraising group] was actually for many years a part of TOHR,” she said. “It was their fundraising event of the year … We worked with TOHR for a couple of years and then separated out on our own, and we did that for 10 years. Over 10 years I think we got close to about half a million dollars.”
Mainstream culture has written and unwritten rules on what is considered acceptable and what is considered deviant. Those labels can drastically shape the way individuals see themselves. When the world isn’t made for you, there often isn’t a place for you. Those of us who don’t fit neatly into boxes—boxes we never asked for in the first place—have to make our own way. Our own space. Our own sense of place.
As the fight for equal rights trudges forward making small victories over time, some might see LGBTQ+ specific places as obsolete. But as the long history of Tulsa’s queer spaces demonstrates, these sites are necessary not only for the community’s sense of belonging—but for the health and safety of its members.
“If we don’t have those spaces then the possibility that other spaces that are just generally heterosexual spaces or ‘typical spaces’ may not be able to cater to [the needs of LGBTQ+ community],” Chris Shoaf explained. “They may not understand the culture. If society takes a hard right, all of a sudden people are not welcome in those spaces.”
This incomplete account of those spaces in our community is for the countless people unnamed in history. For the man whose mother hung up the phone as soon as she heard his voice. The kid whose parents kicked them out of the house because they refused to use a dead name. The one not yet out to them self or to others. The girls that “walk like boys.” This is for you. You belong in Tulsa.