(Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series examining LGBT in Little Dixie, a region in southeastern Oklahoma. Part one can be found here.)
McALESTER — Despite Fat Mary’s success as a gay-friendly drag-show venue, being gay in southeastern Oklahoma isn’t easy, especially if your name isn’t Paul Prichard, one of Fat Mary’s co-owners. And especially if your church and family are against you.
Although Prichard will tell you he has been subjected to nasty comments by those in the community unhappy with a gay bar existing in McAlester, he agrees his experience doesn’t match the ordeal that local commercial-property manager and gay-rights advocate Debbie McDaniel experienced growing up lesbian in southeastern Oklahoma under the watchful eye of the Jehovah’s Witness church.
‘Disfellowshipped’ in the wake of abuse
As a child, McDaniel was sexually abused by a Jehovah’s Witness elder in a McAlester church. Some 30 years later, when she was telling McAlester police about church and family members harassing her and her 15-year-old daughter, Marley, who announced she too was lesbian, McDaniel mentioned to police that the same church had ignored her molestation as a child.
“The detective taking notes said, ‘Molested? What? I think we’re going to have to get out some more paper,’” McDaniel said.
The police investigation led to the Pittsburg County district attorney filing felony lewd molestation charges against a 76-year-old McAlester man. Other victims had come forward. The man was also charged with molesting another then-pre-teen girl and a 5-year-old boy. But the district court judge dismissed all charges because nearly 30 years had passed.
RELATED: Part 1
Queens of Little Dixie: Fat Mary’s drag bar a ‘great’ show by Michael Duncan
McDaniel said she felt violated by the church’s failure to address the problem. In addition, the local district attorney alleged in court filings that the entire congregation of the Jehovah’s Witness church concealed its knowledge of the crime and that the elder charged had confessed in order to maintain his membership in the congregation.
When McDaniel came out as gay in 2012, she said the church “shunned” her — a spiritual banishment that the Jehovah’s Witnesses call being disfellowshipped.
McDaniel’s father is a Jehovah’s Witness “presiding overseer,” the man in charge of the elders of the church. In the 1970s, he left a high-profile engineering job with the Apollo Space Program at NASA in Houston for a life of religion in southeastern Oklahoma. He led the legal battle, backed by the church, against his own daughter to take his granddaughter away from her mother. McDaniel said her father admitted in deposition testimony in the custody lawsuit that he had known the elder had molested his daughter, Debbie, and he did not report it to police.
Today, McDaniel’s mother, father, brother and sister will not speak to McDaniel because she is a lesbian. The church issued an order to its congregation to shun her, she said. It is a church order intended to coerce McDaniel to forsake her sinful behavior and return to the pious ways of the Society — something akin to emotional waterboarding.
McDaniel wrote a book in 2015 called Out with Consequences: A Journey out of Jehovah’s Witnesses, telling her story of abuse by her church and rejection by her own parents because she is homosexual. It details McDaniel’s fight to keep custody of her daughter when her parents claimed McDaniel’s sexual preference meant she was an unfit parent. Elected Pittsburg County District Judge James Bland disagreed, finding that McDaniel’s sexual preference did not make her a harmful parent.
The rule of law applied, even in the face of a strong anti-gay religious sentiment among voters in southeastern Oklahoma.
A lesbian teen faces threats in Little Dixie
McDaniel admits those events and other anti-LGBT experiences in McAlester have made her more militant about gay rights. That militancy increased when her daughter, Marley, came out and was subjected to threats of violence by schoolmate jocks.
Marley had organized a high school chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). GSA’s are cropping up in many small schools in Oklahoma, and college chapters exist at schools in Ada and Durant.
This year, a Tulsa-based LGBT advocacy and support group arranged a high school prom just for LGBT students from schools across eastern Oklahoma, and the school GSAs got the word out. While it was no surprise attendees came from Tulsa schools (every high school in the Tulsa Public School system has a GSA), there were also prom goers from places like tiny Webbers Falls (pop. 610).
In McAlester, the club of about two dozen students was permitted to organize on the high school campus when the superintendent learned Supreme Court decisions prohibited schools from preventing them.
“Some of the kids have been supportive. But some are opposed to the Gay Straight Alliance, and they’ve been absolutely vicious about it,” said McDaniel. “They’ve bullied Marley and harassed her. Some students circulated a petition to do away with the GSA, and she has been physically threatened.”
She said one of the boys admitted “they were going to bust into a GSA meeting and bust some heads or slit a throat if they had to because ‘fags’ were not welcome in McAlester.”
“While there is a large supportive group of students that have Marley’s back, there is also a homophobic movement in McAlester like I’ve never seen. It’s a ‘you’re an abomination’ attitude,” McDaniel said.
She said the difficulties can be more nuanced than that.
“Even from those who claim to be supportive, we’ve had conversations where they said, ‘I don’t judge you; I have gay friends, but it’s a sin and you’re a sinner. We all sin,'” McDaniel said. “My problem with that is you’re categorizing my relationship with my wife or my daughter’s relationship with her girlfriend as sinful, and that’s a mindset that you have to atone for something.”
She said there are some straight doctors, lawyers and local businessmen who are supportive of McAlester’s gay community, many of whom are patrons at her spouse’s salon. But, McDaniel said she believes the majority of locals are influenced by a bully pulpit of clergy who convince their flock that homosexuality is an abomination and homosexuals are bad.
When the high school GSA club marched in May’s Armed Forces Day parade, they carried a banner stating: “Equality in the Armed Forces.” It was met with little response from viewers along the parade route, McDaniel said. There were no protests, except for one man who yelled from the crowd, “No. Hell no!”
But McDaniel recently saw a man spitting on her daughter’s parked Jeep, which has an “equality” bumper sticker on it.
Prejudice comes to the front door
Last year, Debbie and her wife Crystal moved into their newly built home nestled in a south McAlester neighborhood just a stone’s throw from Puterbaugh Middle School and bounded by Methodist, Assembly of God and Baptist churches.
Vandals trashed the home’s exterior with graffiti on their first night of occupancy. Permanent marker soiled patio furniture, glass windows and concrete surfaces. The message was clear, “We’ll be watching you ….”
“Looking over our shoulder all the time is not healthy,” Crystal McDaniel said. “The people that know us would want us to go. They say, ‘You guys deserve to live better and be happy because there has been a lot of struggle in Pittsburg County.'”
Debbie said moving her family from McAlester might indeed make life easier. She and Crystal have considered going to Tulsa where she is a board member for the Oklahomans for Equality LGBT advocacy and support group. Moving entered their minds when their daughter Marley’s life was being threatened, she said, but Crystal’s thriving salon business is an anchor.
Perhaps when Marley graduates in a couple of years from McAlester High School, it may happen, she said.
Then again, Debbie graduated from MHS in 1987, and she still lives there.
‘Eliminate all the shame and guilt’
If indeed Oklahoma is the buckle of the Bible Belt, then southeastern Oklahoma may be that piece of the buckle called a prong — the part that sticks into the notched hole and makes sure it stays tight and doesn’t go anywhere forbidden.
The Jehovah’s Witness church has shunned Debbie McDaniel, and Debbie has shunned religion. She sees the main cause of her troubles and any similar experiences by the LGBT community to be men brandishing Bibles.
“I have no stomach for religion anymore,” she said.
And yet her spouse, Crystal, is a devout Christian. Unlike Debbie, Crystal has managed to reconcile her gay lifestyle with her faith, attending a local non-denominational church in the nearby town of Arpelar.
Crystal has found a way to loosen the constriction imposed by the religious right on her gay lifestyle.
“My relationship with God is good. Not the organization of religion. I have not heard the word ‘gay’ in my church one time,” Crystal said. “Finding a place of religion is based upon how bad you want to have a relationship with your God. Your creator.
“I have gravitated away from churches that are judgmental and harsh and damning of someone. Anyone red in the face behind the pulpit turns you off. I don’t feel like God is like that kind of person.”
Crystal said she does not allow a person standing at a pulpit to dictate who she is.
“If you emphasize certain scriptures in the bible, you kind of pigeon-hole people and keep them in a box. But, if you talk about goodness and grace you can eliminate all the shame and guilt.”
‘Scarier to stay than to go’
And so, Crystal is indeed contemplating leaving the salon that has, for the past 18 years, been her linchpin to McAlester. She is considering it because her love for Debbie is that great and because it may be the only way to alleviate the heartache Debbie has experienced from the family shunning. Maybe then Marley would not have to fight so much for acceptance from schoolmates.
A move would not be easy. Crystal is loyal to her customers. They have been loyal to her, she said. After she disclosed to them she was lesbian and shortly before her wedding with Debbie, The Legends salon not only kept its customers but picked up some new ones.
“I have even cut the hair of several ministers. I don’t think they would be paying me money to cut their hair if they thought I was going to turn around and use it for some debauchery,” Crystal said. “My customers come there because of me. I’m as loyal to them as they are to me. But I can’t imagine staying in this town much longer. My mom’s moving. My niece and nephew have grown up. I’m trying to figure out how to transition and make my part fit.
“The support system there in Tulsa is greater than what we have had here.”
Tulsa’s a bigger place. Less drama. Less to deal with.
But what to tell those they would leave behind?
“If that day comes, we will say ‘uncle’,” Crystal said. “We would say, ‘We give up.’ For a long time, I’ve been kind of selfish. This is my salon. I built it. I worked at it. However, I have taken more into consideration recently. My wife is struggling because of the shunning. She runs into her parents at a local restaurant that feeds 20 people. That kind of thing. It’s getting scarier to stay than to go.
“That constant turmoil is enough to drive anybody crazy.”
Help line receives more than 100 calls daily
When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a federal appeals court ruling that Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional in 2014, county court clerks in all 77 counties began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples — even in Little Dixie. Eight of the first 60 marriage licenses issued in McAlester after the court decision were to same-sex couples who had been waiting.
A receptive court clerk in another southeastern Oklahoma county even knocked on clergymen’s doors to find those who would perform the marriages, said Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahomans for Equality.
Oklahomans for Equality fields more than 120 telephone calls for help every day from individuals or families struggling with the challenges presented to gay, lesbian and transgender people. Jenkins said at least a dozen of those calls come daily from places like Hugo, Durant and Idabel, communities that urbanites might never imagine having LGBT residents.
Oklahomans for Equality
LGBT help line:
Jenkins said his organization has developed a network of counselors and clergymen across the state to respond to calls for help.
“People are always surprised that I can find you a clergy person who will support you and let you know that God loves you and will advocate for you,” Jenkins said. “That’s what we try to do. I can usually get them a resource within 30 miles from wherever they live.”
He said calls to the help line can turn into face-to-face meetings with young people in crisis, some contemplating suicide.
“Sometimes we meet them at the Wal-Mart. Or sit on a park bench and talk about it” in places like Durant and Idabel, he said.
Other calls come from school counselors, coaches and family members wanting to know what resources are available to help young LGBT members being bullied or who are otherwise struggling with conflicts posed by their circumstance.
The existence of the LGBT community in Little Dixie has been used as a political football for more than a decade.
On Aug. 31, 2004, Congressman and then-U.S. Senate candidate Tom Coburn told a town-hall meeting in Hugo that he was alarmed by lesbianism being so out of control in southeastern Oklahoma that schools were imposing strict restroom policies.
Coburn said he was told this by Josh Brecheen who was his congressional field representative in Coalgate.
“He was telling me lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that’s happened to us?” Coburn said in a speech that was recorded by a person attending the meeting and released to media.
Local school officials said publicly there was no “lesbian crisis.”
“He knows something I don’t know … We have not had to deal with any issues on that subject — ever,” Coalgate school Supt. Joe McCulley told reporters.
Brecheen would later be elected state senator for the Coalgate and Durant areas. His campaign was boosted by personal appearances from David Barton, an evangelical Christian political activist and leader of the conservative group Wallbuilders that speaks out against the alleged “gay agenda.”
Brecheen has authored several pieces of anti-LGBT legislation, most recently the transgender bathroom bill considered this session. Last year, Brecheen advocated for local officials to defy the court rulings that allowed same-sex marriage. He sought to make Oklahoma a “sanctuary” to protect marriage between heterosexuals only.
Jenkins said the Coburn campaign in 2004 stirred up images of violent lesbians running through the Kiamichi Mountains and striking fear in the hearts of local folk. Since then, Oklahoma has considered more anti-gay legislation than any other state, he said.
“I remember the phrase they were using was there were ‘bands of lesbians.’ I wasn’t sure if they meant musical bands or groups. But, the funny thing is, there are a lot of LGBT people all over the state,” Jenkins said. “Many of those you identify with in the LGBT community in Oklahoma City and Tulsa came from small towns and rural parts of Oklahoma. Any suggestion they are not across the state is ridiculous.
“But I don’t think Coburn’s suggestion they were running through the halls of schools trying to seduce other young women was true at all. That was also ridiculous.”
Rural churches as hotbeds of LGBT prejudice
Jenkins agrees that prejudice against the LGBT community originates in Oklahoma churches.
“By and large the strongest push back and voice of oppression and discrimination we have found has been from religious leaders, which to me is almost unforgivable,” he said. “Rarely do I have a young person or adult who we get to know from rural Oklahoma who does not have a story of how they found their faith and sexuality in crisis — they weren’t compatible and had great friction or shame or pain. It is pretty much universal.”
But Jenkins has seen a shift in the last four to five years from clergy in rural Oklahoma.
“We are finding now that some clergy are bucking the system,” he said. “They are not sticking to the party line. Ironically, some of our greatest advocates are clergy persons. Especially in the smaller towns. The flip side to that is that some of the strong voices of oppression are still people in the pulpit.”
Jenkins said the need for support of LGBT teenagers in rural Oklahoma is especially important.
“If we can network and create their own support system in their school district, you would be shocked how many other people in that little town come to help,” he said. “It might be the Presbyterian, or Lutheran or Methodist pastor. We can find at least one clergy person who believes that God really does love everybody and that LGBT youth should not be made to feel there is anything wrong with them.”
The Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the United Methodist Church’s Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and member of the Choctaw tribe, said there are same-sex couples with children who seem to fit in well in the local churches, including in the Choctaw Nation of southeastern Oklahoma.
“The role of a pastor is to help bring clarity to people regarding what we believe it says and how persons can discern for themselves,” Wilson said. “This is sometimes different because so many pastors have varying interpretations of the Bible and beliefs about what the Bible says, including persons struggling with their sexuality. It also varies according to denominations that are more open than others, and churches in rural areas tend to be much more conservative.”
Wilson said that although southeastern Oklahoma’s small-town, conservative nature would suggest otherwise, the existence of a large Native population works to make some churches more inclusive of LGBT members, not less.
“Community and relationships are very important to Native communities, and we are very interrelated — either by blood or ‘adopted’ in the Indian way by families and tribes. That causes churches to include and accept everyone. And although folks might know, they don’t always talk about it,” Wilson said.
Whether it be at a Native American church or a non-Native church, helping homosexual parishioners struggling with the religion’s teachings on sexuality is part of the minister’s job, Wilson said.
“It is important for pastors to have the ability to truly listen to people who are struggling with being gay. There are already so many stressors in the lives of young persons that they are dealing with, especially in the day of social media. It has to be overwhelming,” he said. “People believe the church is a safe place to be heard and to wrestle with questions and life. Pastors need to provide that safe place, regardless of how we believe on issues. Persons of all ages need to know of God’s love and grace that is available to all.”
Wilson was the only minister contacted who agreed to comment for these stories, though another replied and said he did not know enough about the LGBT community to feel comfortable.
Still, Wilson’s church organization prohibits its ministers from being “self-avowed” homosexuals. Methodist ministers cannot perform same-sex marriages. Although gay-community leaders see some Methodist ministers as more supportive than other clergy, legislation proposed in April at the UMC’s General Conference annual meeting to remove these restrictions never made it out of a committee.
Meanwhile, a repeal of a Methodist church prohibition on gay ministers only lost by a 34-30 committee vote.
Little Dixie’s transgender legal battle
While transgender bathroom bills became hot topic at the state Capitol this legislative session, a lawsuit filed last year by the U.S. Justice Department against a state college in southeastern Oklahoma had already put the transgender issue on a public stage.
Federal lawyers filed suit against Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant on behalf of a transgender professor who claimed she was fired in 2011 because her lifestyle offended the religious beliefs of a high-ranking school official.
The lawsuit alleges the college violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it terminated English professor Rachel Tudor. Tudor began teaching there in 2004 as a male assistant professor of English. She began to present herself as a woman in 2007, wearing women’s clothing, styling her hair accordingly and adopting the name Rachel.
Tudor claims the school administration turned against her after she advised them she was transitioning to becoming a woman. The lawsuit contends Tudor was the first transgender professor ever at Southeastern. It also alleges that a personnel office manager warned Tudor that Southeastern’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Douglas McMillan, had asked “whether Tudor could be fired because her ‘transgender lifestyle’ offended his religious beliefs.”
Tudor wasn’t fired then. First, she said, she was denied tenure, even though other non-transgender professors were counseled by college administrators on how they could enhance their resumes and obtain tenure. Tudor also claims the school ordered her to use a specific single-stall, all-gender restroom for persons with disabilities — a problem because there was only one near her office, but not near some of her classes.
“Having to routinely apologize to persons with physical disabilities who were inconvenienced by Dr. Tudor’s use of the restroom for persons with disabilities made her feel profound guilt and humiliation,” Tudor’s lawyers wrote in their complaint, filed intervening in the DOJ’s lawsuit.
Tudor’s lawyers did not want to comment about the pending lawsuit, which is headed for a late-2016 jury trial in Oklahoma City federal court. University officials have also previously refused to comment about the specific lawsuit, but at the time the suit was filed in 2015, current university President Sean Burrage — a former state senator who took the helm at Southeastern after the Tudor episode — issued a written statement that said the college was committed to diversity and equal-employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, issues involving transgender youth have also arisen in at least one southeastern Oklahoma rural public school.
Alyssa Bryant, a lawyer representing LGBT clients, was asked by the school for guidance on accommodating a transgender student. It involved meeting with the parents and school leaders to develop a transition plan dealing with everything from using the correct pronouns (he or she) to privacy issues.
Bryant said the reception given by school officials was a pleasant surprise.
“The school is small. The town is quite small. But their approach to this little transgender girl has been very affirming,” Bryant said, adding that school officials and persons in the small community may in fact be more accepting of transgender youths because they know the child and family personally.
Bryant said the best advice to schools wondering about the bathroom controversy is to make a non-gender single-stall bathroom available for anyone regardless of whether they are transgender, gay, straight or merely sensitive to their own privacy.
The entertainment factor
Towering on a hill overlooking the divided four-lane Carl Albert Parkway in downtown McAlester stands The Grand Event Center, its ornate three-story structure marked by six Corinthian columns at the top of a 32-step entrance — something one would expect in the ruins of the Roman forum rather than small-town Oklahoma.
It was once Grand Avenue Methodist Church. Now, it is a public events forum, where locals have seen comedy acts, illusionists and murder-mystery dinners. And wedding receptions.
Debbie and Crystal McDaniel were married out of state before the law changed to allow same-sex marriage in Oklahoma, but they held a robust wedding reception for a packed house at The Grand when they returned.
Just in case, a police car stood watch outside. There were no incidents, and Debbie McDaniel said she was surprised how many people attended.
McDaniel believes some of those attending showed up to see the “spectacle” of a married lesbian couple. Same-sex marriage is not a comedy act or a magic show, but, she said, it attracts a certain novelty interest from others. She calls it the “entertainment factor” — being homosexual in a heterosexual world, especially in the Little Dixie corner of the world, where outwardly open sexual diversity is in slim quantity.
“I feel that sometimes the gay community is the entertainment for straight people, maybe because of the flamboyancy (of drag shows),” she said.
And so McDaniel, whose family has been threatened and whose house has been vandalized, worries that after the entertainment value of a place like Fat Mary’s wears thin, the ugly head of homophobic prejudice will rear its head on Brewer Road.
Perhaps she wouldn’t feel that way if her family had not shunned her. After all, on the other side of that coin is Prichard, the Fat Mary’s co-owner.
“I’ve said to my friends that I feel guilty sometimes,” Prichard said. “I’ve seen my share of adversity, but my family has been unbelievably amazing. I don’t feel I could be much luckier.”
Prichard has 11 siblings. That is not uncommon to find in the Catholic Italian families of Pittsburg County and surrounding places. He has had some difficult conversations with his siblings, but he said he knows they love and support him. Just like his mom, Rose Ann, did. Unconditional love.
“When my mother found out, she didn’t turn her back on me or turn her back on her faith,” Prichard recalled. “She would do things like write letters to the church begging them to change their stance on homosexuality and things like that. She never wavered in her faith, but she never stopped loving me.”
One may get the idea that Prichard is a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy. He told me he tries not to make a big deal about signs of prejudice against his sexuality — or murmurs in the community about sinful displays of crossdressing on the edge of town at Fat Mary’s — but his friends say not to let that fool you. Paul Prichard will stand up and defend the LGBT community here, like the time he recently walked into a local lawyer’s office to confront the person spreading hate speech against him at a local business.
“She said I had a club with men dressing as women performing in it and that was teaching our children that it was OK to put on dresses,” Prichard said. “She thought we needed to be run out of town. When you do get that prejudice and you hear about it, it’s like a knife to the heart.
“So, I went straight to her office. Once you confront people with the things they say, even when you know it’s true that they said it, they’ll back down and act like they never said it. I’ve never had one single person respond by admitting it to me.
“Most bigots are cowards.”
And, Prichard said, he is not worried about anyone making trouble at the bar. He knows incidents can happen anywhere, but the atmosphere at Fat Mary’s is not one of hyped-up machismo that can lead to altercations.
“There is not what I call ‘pee-talking’ allowed there,” he said.
As a result, Prichard won’t be leaving McAlester, and he said not to expect Fat Mary’s to go anywhere either.
He and co-owner Matthew Heath-Fitzgerald are not keen on comparing their place to others in the big city or anywhere else. It’s not an Angles or The Boom, they said, referring to two of Oklahoma City’s gay bars.
They are doing just what works in Little Dixie.
“What we’re trying to do is have something here for this community and let people know there are some people and a place here that will accept them,” Prichard said.
Heath-Fitzgerald also expressed humility.
“We just want to be a bar out by the prison cemetery,” he said.
RELATED: Part 1
Queens of Little Dixie: Fat Mary’s drag bar a ‘great’ show by Michael Duncan