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(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on the climate surrounding LGBT communities in southeastern Oklahoma. Part two was published Wednesday, June 8.)

McALESTER, Okla. — Kris Kohl clutched the microphone and pointed to the two women and two men who sat at a front row table near the tinsel-decorated stage illuminated by disco ball reflections and studio lights.

“Where are YOU from?” Kohl asked, in a voice that had a flirtatious twang to it. Kohl stood tall on stiletto heels, dressed in her black tights and a plunging blouse that splashed an image of a bright rose across her bosom.

“Hartshorne,” came the reply from a smiling 20-something woman.

“Hardcore?” Kohl said, her voice with a lilt of anticipation. “Oh my, I want to come over there where you are, dear.”

As laughter filled the bar, Kohl sashayed her hefty frame over to the table.

“No, I said Harts-horne,” the woman said.

“Oh, Hartshorne. I thought you were putting it out there, girl,” Kohl said with a smile. Another chorus of laughter erupted from the 40 people gathered at Fat Mary’s bar on a Saturday night in McAlester, Okla.

I had come to Fat Mary’s to watch a drag queen show in the most improbable of locales, a small town in southeastern Oklahoma. That’s right. The most conservative part of conservative Oklahoma.

Little Dixie: cowboys, Italians and drag queens

“Little Dixie” is the name given this neck of the Oklahoma woods by political scientists and historians. The small cities and towns here trace their roots to post-Civil War immigration from the southern states. And, although once dominated by FDR Democrats, this region turned Republican about the time a black man moved into the White House. That may not have been a coincidence.

This was not my grandpa’s Little Dixie. My family has lived around the San Bois hills and along southeastern Oklahoma’s Fourche Maline bottom lands since 1892. I had expected to see an alien spaceship land at Robbers Cave State Park long before I would see a gay bar in the area.

The fields of the Little Dixie landscape are planted with evangelical churches and, on occasion, Confederate flags. To say that the area politically and socially leans to the right doesn’t give it full due. Yes, Oklahoma is a red-state, but its southeastern quarter has an even more strikingly blood-red hue.

The de facto capital and largest city of the region is McAlester (pop. 18,301). The city’s Chamber of Commerce billboard once read, “Home of Cowboys and Italians.” The immigration of Italian coal miners here in the early 20th century gave the town a rich ethnic history, which is marked today by Italian restaurants in the nearby village of Krebs.

But for the past couple of years, McAlester has also been home to what the establishment’s owners say is the only gay bar in Oklahoma existing outside metropolitan Oklahoma City or Tulsa.

Time to change the sign to: “McAlester — home of cowboys, Italians and drag queens.”

Drag queen performer "Amber" greets a patron at Fat Mary's in McAlester. (Michael Duncan)
Drag queen performer “Amber” greets a patron at Fat Mary’s in McAlester. (Michael Duncan)

The scene at Fat Mary’s

Fat Mary’s sits in a tin building across a country lane from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary graveyard on the outskirts of town. From its front door, you can gaze across the cemetery and the pasture and see the prison walls. The night of my visit, the distant amber spotlights from the prison glistened off razor-wire fencing in sharp contrast to the Christmas lights that decorated Fat Mary’s building.

Inside the front door and perched on his stool sat Steven Parish, clad in an orange polo shirt and khaki shorts, flashing a sleepy smile. He was collecting the modest $2 cover charge for that evening’s show. He was also checking IDs: You have to be 21 years or older to enter, not because there is anything so risque that might offend tender young souls, but because the state of Oklahoma thinks the proximity of liquor to youths will cause them irreparable harm.

Parish arrived shortly after his shift ended as host of Roseanna’s Italian restaurant in Krebs. It’s about a 10 minute drive to Fat Mary’s from Krebs, down Electric Avenue and Stonewall Street. Past the McAlester North Town Church of Christ. Then onto Brewer Road, where Fat Mary’s sits just outside the city limits.

I asked Parish, a Choctaw who teaches his tribe’s language at nearby Native American community centers, how a gay bar with drag shows can exist in McAlester without throngs of homophobic villagers gathering outside with torches and pitchforks.

“There have been no issues,” Parish said. “And I don’t know if everyone knows it by name, but most people around here know there is a gay bar in McAlester.”

He said the LGBT community in Pittsburg County is sizable. Indeed, a recent study by a UCLA demographer found more than 100 same-sex couples here on the 2010 U.S. Census rolls — and that was before same-sex marriages became legal. The community formed an organization called “McPride” that became involved in civic activities, held picnic gatherings and let the heterosexual majority of the local population know some of their friends and neighbors are homosexual or transgender.

Earlier this year, a local Gay Straight Alliance student group even marched down Carl Albert Parkway in the U.S. Armed Forces Day Parade (a mainstay annual event ever since the United States established a military ammunition depot here shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor).

Fat Mary's co-owner and Cowboy Crooner Matthew Heath-Fitzgerald singing on stage. (Michael Duncan)
Fat Mary’s co-owner Matthew Heath-Fitzgerald — the Cowboy Crooner — sings on stage. (Michael Duncan)

‘Everyone likes a show’

The bar was busy when I arrived, but one of Fat Mary’s two owners, Matthew Heath-Fitzgerald, said business was actually slow because of a large camping and cookout event the gay community was having at a nearby park. He said about 70 percent of their clientele are straight, however, so the bar wasn’t missing a beat.

“Without [straight folks], we probably wouldn’t stay in business,” he said.

Before arriving, I had read on social media and the website (Fat Mary’s does not advertise in local newspapers or on radio) that the bar is, “The place where everyone’s Mary!”

But the crowd I saw was a mix of young male-female couples, a group of loud women apparently out for ladies night, and some young men dressed in cowboy boots and Wranglers that my stereotypical hetero instincts told me might be gay. Something about the neatly trimmed facial hair.

And there, bellied up to the bar, were two regulars looking like Norm and Cliff from Cheers. One recommended the adult root beer beverage.

“There is not a lot of entertainment in McAlester,” Heath-Fitzgerald said. “Maybe people have seen drag queens on TV or in the movies. But, here, they can come see them in person. It’s a show. And everyone likes a show.”

Heath-Fitzgerald serves as the bar’s DJ. He has a polished professional radio voice, one which he displayed later in the night belting out country-and-western ballads. He is also known as the Cowboy Crooner and has performed around the state. For most of my night at Fat Mary’s, Heath-Fitzgerald played straight man to Kohl’s standup comedy and played dance tunes from his DJ booth.

Confession here: I’d never seen a live drag queen show in person. Sure I knew who RuPaul was. And Dame Edna. I have cable, after all. But I wasn’t really sure what to expect in person. I’d never actually been in what one would call a gay bar (my Norman hangouts don’t count, despite the number of gay patrons there). And in this crowd, where everyone seemed to be regulars, I was the odd new guy sitting in the corner at the bar just watching everyone.

I wanted to yell out, “Hey, I have gay friends, too” or “Sally Kern is awful!” to pin a badge of tolerance on my sleeve so no one there would think poorly of me.

Then speakers hanging on the wall (next to the Marilyn Monroe poster) started blaring out Alicia Bridges’ I Love the Nightlife.

Oh, I love the night life. I got to boogie on the disco ’round, oh yeah.

Hey, that’s 1978, I thought. That’s my era. Disco.

‘It’s all about fun’

It was 10:30 p.m., and the show was starting.

From behind a curtain came Kohl, a Tulsa drag queen performer who frequently gigs in McAlester. She travels a circuit. Denison, Texas. Fort Smith, Ark. Joplin, Mo. Tulsa. But Kohl favors McAlester because of its friendly crowds.

“It’s all about fun, and I get to dress up and be someone else for a night,” she told me after the show.

Performers named Amber, Tiffany and Juwanna Cuminside danced in various styles of colorful dresses, crowns and jewelry, and they lip-synced to the sounds that filled the bar. I didn’t know whether these were drag queens (men dressed in women’s clothing) or faux queens (a female who adopts the style typical of male drag queens). Frankly, after the first performance or two, it didn’t matter. It was a show with lots of music and flash and bling. Between sets, some of the audience took to the stage to dance to the DJ’s selections. People were having fun.

It turned out that I was not the only newbie in the room. Brandon Gerard, a Wilburton grocery store stocker, sat at a corner table with his girlfriend, Starr Cobb, who brought him to Fat Mary’s to celebrate his 21st birthday. His girlfriend had been coming to Fat Mary’s for more than a year. She glanced at Gerard to see his reaction as each drag queen took the stage. Starr said she counted on her beau liking what he saw because it was different from any other entertainment available nearby. After watching the show and laughing at Kohl’s jokes, Gerard gave it a thumbs up.

“I love the energy here,” Gerard said. “They do a great show.”

He said it was worth the 30 minute drive from Wilburton, a small college town farther deep in the Little Dixie woods. There are no drag shows there. Wilburton does have 14 churches in town to serve a population of 2,843. One of them is a Jehovah’s Witness church, a denomination noted for its particular animosity toward the LGBT community.

“No, we don’t have any clubs like that here,” Wilburton Mayor Stephen Brinlee told me a few days after my Fat Mary’s visit. “Sometimes it takes a bit longer for such things to evolve. I don’t see a business like it making much of a profit here. But, hey, equality is a big thing for me.

“Allowing folks to live freely in the freest country in the world is important.”

Fat Mary's co-owner Paul Prichard
Fat Mary’s co-owner Paul Prichard is well known in McAlester. (Michael Duncan)

Spaghetti and meatballs

Fat Mary’s other owner, Paul Prichard, spied the crowd from behind the bar, making sure drinks were full. Prichard’s James Harden-esque black beard is interrupted only by a huge smile and kind eyes. He welcomed me like so many Italian families I had grown up with in the area welcomed guests to Sunday dinner.

“Are you having a good time? What can I get ya?” Prichard asked. I was good, thanks. Satisfied with my answer, Prichard hurried off to wipe tables and check on patrons. He does not stand in one place long. He has been waiting tables at his family’s restaurant since he was 14.

If that Prichard family name sounds familiar, it’s because it has the same level of historical cache in southeastern Oklahoma as the names Stipe, Nigh and Albert. In fact, the prominence of the Prichard name pre-existed and will likely surpass all those politicians’ careers and lifetimes.

Paul’s grandfather was Peitro Piegari, an Italian immigrant who came with his family to Krebs, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, in 1903. Here, the Piegaris Americanized their name, like many immigrants did to avoid persecution. Peitro became Pete Prichard. As a boy, he worked in the coal mines but was injured. He began selling “Choc” beer and various cheeses and sausages to the miners. By 1925, he converted part of his house to a restaurant called Pete’s Place — a dining hall that would become the most famous Italian family eatery in the south central U.S.

Paul’s mother was the late Rose Ann Prichard, the founder (with husband Frank Prichard) of Roseanna’s Italian restaurant in Krebs. When she died in 2008, the ownership of Roseanna’s passed to Paul Prichard, who now manages the restaurant.

Roseanna’s closes up each night by 9 p.m. That gives Prichard time to get Fat Mary’s up and going late on weekend nights. Some of the bar’s patrons have dinner at Roseanna’s before catching the show. All the drag queen performers feast on Roseanna’s signature spaghetti, gnocchi and cheesecake while in town.

And maybe that’s the key. Can “spaghetti and meatballs” be the answer to the question of just how a gay bar with drag shows can survive in Little Dixie? Is it a unique fact that, in McAlester, food is more important than some people’s adherence to prejudices, i.e. queer fear? Or even, maybe, religious doctrine?

A combination of things

Prichard is reluctant to acknowledge his family name has anything to do with it.

“I’ve never thought about it really. I think maybe it is a combination of things,” he said, noting that his business partner, Heath-Fitzgerald, has a lot of recognition in the entertainment world.

Prichard admits his own his personal skills are good, and both owners know how to run a business. But my suggestion that his long-respected family reputation for putting Italian food on the Oklahoma map might have something to do with it is met with a shrug.

“Maybe,” he said.

To the locals, Roseanna’s and Pete’s Place are like shrines. Few folks here are going to mess with anything involving a Prichard. It would be like Italians disparaging one of the Pope’s cardinals. It doesn’t matter that Prichard makes no secret he is homosexual. Never mind. He is the guy who serves lamb fries to dozens of oilfield workers, cattle ranchers and prison guards at lunch every day.

But also, no one here disputes the fact that Fat Mary’s also exists peaceably on Brewer Road because of Prichard himself. He isn’t going to back down when faced with gay-bashing in McAlester. He is well respected in the business community. Both he and Heath-Fitzgerald are nice guys. The atmosphere of their bar shouts, “Come on in.”

“The guys that own Fat Mary’s have established themselves as the kind of guys you just love and embrace and support,” said Debbie McDaniel, a McAlester commercial property manager and gay-rights advocate.

McDaniel’s wife, Crystal, operates Legends & Co., a hair salon that has been a fixture in McAlester for 18 years.

“In spite of their sexuality they are liked by people they know in town. They have long-established relationships with people here,” McDaniel said.

Prichard said any local prejudice against gays has not hurt his business — either Fat Mary’s or Roseanna’s.

“I wouldn’t say we run into a whole lot of prejudice. But when we do, we don’t really make a big deal about it. Or, at least, we try not to.”

RELATED: Part 2

Fat Mary's

LGBT in Little Dixie part two: ‘Most bigots are cowards’ by Michael Duncan