Take me to church
Finding salvation in a gay bar
Sister Holly performs at The ReVue’s Gospel Brunch on Oct. 23
You’ll pass plenty of churches on your way to The ReVue. One is even called, plainly, Real Church. But the service we’ll be attending this morning is decidedly not held at a real church, though many of the standard symbols will be on display: crosses and holy water, the preacher’s wife, and a church activities coordinator. And singing. Lots of singing. This is a Gospel Brunch, after all, but the church elders leading this service are foul-mouthed drag queens—and nothing is sacred.
The ReVue was born in August 2018, filling a gaping hole in Tulsa’s gay bar scene. Over the years, gay bars have steadily dropped off as the LGBTQ+ community has found increasing acceptance among the general public. First, TNT’s—a long-standing lesbian bar—closed. Next, the two-stepping staple Maverick’s shuttered its doors. Most recently, Renegades, the dive bar loved by people across the gay-straight spectrum for its killer karaoke and lively drag shows, closed suddenly. Bamboo followed suit shortly thereafter, leaving Tulsa with just three gay bars and limited venues for drag performance. Displaced staff and bereft drag kings and queens looked to Deb and Lynn Starnes, a prominent couple in the gay community and promoters for the drag pageant systems, to help them find a home.
“Because of our history with drag and with the community, we didn’t want to see that die,” Deb Starnes said. “It’s an important part of the history, and there just wasn’t anything left.”
Lynn Starnes, a 2004 National Drag King winner, believes drag performers hold the keys to LGBTQ+ history. Drag has been a part of the gay community ever since men put on dresses in Ancient Greece, and has been at the forefront of major historical events like the Stonewall riots of 1969. For queens, drag has long been seen as theatric performance, while women historically employed drag as a survival mechanism and to gain access to spaces (such as bars) historically held for men. Though the art of drag has evolved over the years, its significance has not diminished.
Lynn emphasizes the importance of maintaining spaces for drag entertainers to perform, and to carry the art forward by bringing up new kings and queens. Though the judgmental outsider may view drag performers as salacious sinners, Lynn sees them differently.
“They are role models and icons in our community,” she said.
And they needed a stage.
The ReVue found a fitting home in the very same building that housed Maverick’s for so many years. If you ever scooted your boots across Maverick’s floor, the bar will feel familiar—but the redesign puts drag performance front and center. Portraits of drag queens line the walls. Bistro tables and cushioned dinner theater-style seats are arranged neatly around an elevated stage.
Seating for Gospel Brunch begins at noon. Guests are invited to pick from a spread provided by TW’s AFAB Catering and enjoy a breakfast cocktail while jotting down prayer requests. At 1 p.m. the show begins with three energetic performances (the opening song when I attended was “You Can’t Pray the Gay Away” by Laura Bell Bundy) after which the ladies settle down at a table onstage to shoot the breeze and read from the church bulletin. Their banter is quick-witted, the innuendos are strong, and the audience is eager to engage with the performers. As they read prayer requests, Sister Holy waves an arm and repeats the requests in a whisper before sniffing the subjects out of the audience and laying her hands upon them.
This is all very different from the yawn-inducing church services of my youth. I find myself wondering about that Real Church I passed on the way to the bar. What does a congregation look for in a church? A direct line to God, or a sense of community? Though Gospel Brunch pokes fun at all that is holy and the direct line to God might have some static, it does offer a safe space for fellowship, love, and acceptance.
When I ask Deb and Lynn if they’ve been able to attract to the bar the younger generation, a population that hasn’t experienced the same closeted culture we did, they point out that not everyone has benefited from the level of acceptance seen in bigger cities. Many of their patrons travel over a hundred miles to find a safe haven in a gay bar.
And when it comes to kids these days, Deb says, “I also think in many ways they are seeking community.”
As the show unfolds, a sharply-dressed young man heckles the performers and pretends to toss his hair with every biting exchange. When he stands to offer a tip to one of the drag queens, I notice he’s donning a sassy-yet-sensible heel. It is not an exotic stiletto. It’s taupe in color with a rounded toe. It is the type of heel one might wear to church. Nothing else about his outfit is especially feminine, just the heels. I could be wrong, but I imagine that this dark bar full of fellow gays might be one of the only places he feels relaxed enough to slip into a pair of heels and have a ball.
Maybe it’s not a Real Church, but you can certainly find salvation in a gay bar.