From closet to community

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., Slate.com 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

James Cooper

This material falls under the archives category because it was imported from our previous website. It will eventually be filtered into the proper category as time allows.

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