From closet to community: part two

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.”

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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