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How come Oklahoma has so many lesbian bars?

Frankie's Co-Owners - Tracey (l) and Ann Harris
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
Frankie's Co-Owners - Tracey (l) and Ann Harris

It was KGOU’s own Hannah France – a reporter and producer at the station - who posed the question which led to this episode of How Curious. Here’s what she asked: “My friends and I were wondering about how it is that there is so few remaining lesbian bars in the country but there seems to be an unusually high concentration of them in Oklahoma. There’s three of them, which is more than I certainly would have expected. When one thinks about where there might be a higher concentration of lesbian bars, one thinks of New York, one thinks of Portland, one thinks of San Francisco. Probably not Oklahoma."

Three lesbian bars bar in the whole of Oklahoma might not seem like very many but it actually is comparatively. While there used to be several hundred lesbian bars across the country just a few decades back, only 24 remain. So many states have none at all, but the two which tie for top place with three apiece are New York and Oklahoma.

“How’d that come to be?” Hannah asked. “I couldn’t think of two places that seem more different than New York and Oklahoma."

I decided to look into the matter. Before I looked at Oklahoma specifically, I first wanted to find out more about why the steep reduction in lesbian bars overall. For this I turned to the filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose. They are co-founders of The Lesbian Bar Project and creators of its accompanying docu-series which is presented by Lia DeLaria (Orange is the New Black) on the Roku channel. They’ve found that multiple issues have led to the decline, including the way in which the shift to online culture has affected the use of brick and mortar spaces.

Sociologist Japonica Brown-Saracino has also researched this topic: “Dyke and lesbian bars have said forever that it’s very hard to sustain the bars economically and they have typically always had short lives. For as long as they’ve existed, they’ve struggled to exist. What’s different in the landscape now is when they close, it’s much more frequent that a city doesn’t have another bar open in its place. That was the pattern that existed for a long time: one would close, another would open, and I think we see that happening less."

Frankie’s is one of Oklahoma’s three lesbian bars. It’s located in Oklahoma City’s Venice neighborhood. When I visited there one Thursday evening - that's their regular darts’ night - the place was packed. Fortunately, Frankie’s co-owners Tracey and Ann Harris knew of a quiet spot where we could sit down and chat. Tracey explained that the bar we were in had only existed since May 2022, although they’d started with an earlier iteration of Frankie’s at nearby location. The ease with which Frankie’s has found local acceptance differs from Tracey’s early experience of OKC’s queer venues during the 1980s:

“It was still very anxiety-producing to go to any kind of queer space. There was still a lot of hate. We couldn’t park our cars on the street. Every bar had a parking lot behind the building. You never went anywhere alone. We had to sign in at every bar because they were tracking gay people and gay clubs. It was a much scarier but yet thrilling time, because we finally found each other as a crowd. And, of course, at 20 you’re invincible so you worried about those things but that didn’t keep you from going anywhere."

At the bar inside Frankie's
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
At the bar inside Frankie's

I asked them to describe Frankie’s for somebody who’d never been there. Ann responded: “I always say that Frankie’s is a place to feel safe, to be who you are. We’re not solely a lesbian bar. Everyone’s welcome here." Tracey added, “During the week, we’re basically your neighborhood bar where people can come for happy hour and play darts and hang out. And then it transforms on the weekends to more of a show bar. And our slogan is that ‘Everybody has a home at Frankie’s.' That’s actually the entire vision we had to start with."

Frankie’s Facebook page offers video clips many of the shows they’ve hosted. A lot of them have doubled as fund-raising events for local charities or for members of Frankie’s clientele who are in need. One customer told me that in just the few years that Frankie’s has been open, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their entertainment line-up includes music gigs, drag queens or drag kings singing and/or dancing, along with some rather risqué comedy skits.

Monica and Abby met at Frankie’s. I asked how they’d describe the vibe of the bar. Monica said: “Family. Absolutely one hundred per cent family. I know that if I had any kind of issues with anything or if I just needed somebody to pick me up off the floor, I could call anybody in that bar." Abby added, “It’s like the Cheers of the lesbian community. You walk in and everybody knows who you are. And even though it’s a mainly lesbian bar, we have straight people coming in, we have gay men coming in, so it’s a mix of everybody."

Garrett and his husband sometimes perform as drag queens at Frankie’s. Garrett, who is from Oklahoma, came out in his early 20s and was taken to see his first drag show by some friends. “It was definitely a culture shock – I grew up very religious – but pretty soon after that, I had my chosen family. That’s why gay bars are so important. Because this is where we find our chosen family."

Scott is another member of the Frankie’s family. “I’m just a straight guy. I’m just a customer here. Love the community. Love the people. Love supporting them." In fact, he said, he actually preferred hanging out in lesbian bars: “I know where I stand. There’s no confusion whatsoever. Yes, I’m friends with a lot of the girls here. Some of them do this thing we me that I like to call 'they play straight.' They flirt with me, hug on me, and joke around. But at the end of the night, I know that they are 100% not interested in me. There’s none of that tension there. It’s actually kind of nice."

At Frankie's, Thursday night is Darts Night
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
At Frankie's, Thursday night is Darts Night

Coming back to Hannah’s question of why New York and Oklahoma are in a tie for being the states with the most lesbian bars. This is something that the Lesbian Bar Project’s Erica Rose and Elina Street both have ideas about. Elina pointed out that, “Assimilation in New York is definitely more present and we’re very lucky and we do have more of an abundance now of queer parties. So I think there’s just more freedom and acceptance." Since Elina had not visited Oklahoma, she deferred to Erica when talking of it. Before sharing her thoughts, Erica wanted to clarify that she did not have “a strong institutional knowledge of Oklahoma. I’ve been there once and I actually have a couple of friends and my ex is from Oklahoma. But from my experience of talking to people there, it actually really makes sense. When we talk about our bars and this project, we always frame them within their geographic location. So in a place like Oklahoma, what I was struck by is that I would drive down a street and I would see an LBGTQ-affirming church with a big rainbow flag, and then right next to it - the family I was working with, they would say ‘Okay. Well, conversion therapy happens right across the street.' When you’re dealing with an environment that isn’t solely antagonistic but isn’t necessarily that accepting, the stakes are so much higher."

Japonica Brown-Saracino has also reflected on this matter: “There are different reasons why places might have a lot or not a lot of bars. New York is a giant place with a really vibrant tourist industry, and that probably allows New York to still have three bars. But Oklahoma might have bars for a different reason. What I found in my research was that it was the places where people felt less secure and accepted, that they sought out those kinds of institutions. I actually remember an informant in San Luis Obispo saying that she was incredibly disappointed by the absence of lesbian bars in San Luis Obispo. She’d lived in Oklahoma for a long time and Oklahoma had spoiled her because now she expected everywhere to have this vibrant lesbian bar scene."

Frankie’s regulars also have opinions regarding this issue, including Garrett: “I think it is hilarious that one of the reddest states in the country has three lesbian-owned bars here. I think it also is a true testament to the community that we have here and how strong we are. And how we will persevere no matter what is thrown at us."

Monica and Abby pointed out that Oklahoma is in the Bible Belt. Monica: “Even though we have one of the closest, the tightest core group of gay people that you could find in America, we’re surrounded by people who don’t believe that being gay or being queer is a thing."

Frankie’s co-owner Ann Harris agreed: “I think the reason is a need. The reason there are the number of gay bars as a whole, not just lesbian bars, in Oklahoma and Oklahoma City is because we are a red state. And although we, as a gay couple, can go out to dinner somewhere and be accepted by the workers that work there or the owners that own the establishment, there may be other people that are dining there who don’t necessarily accept us in the same way."

As for the vision for Frankie’s going forward, here’s what Tracey Harris had to say: “We’re going to stay the course. We’re going to continue to welcome all kinds of people – as along as they’re nice – and we’re going to continue to get that word out."

How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It’s produced by Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden and David Graey composed the theme music. 

Please don’t forget, if you have an Oklahoma-related question, do email me at curious@kgou.org.  

Rachel is a British-born and U.S.-based radio producer and folklorist with a passion for sound and storytelling. At KGOU, she is host and producer of the How Curious podcast and various special projects.
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