LET’S JUST SAY they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I began teaching at the University of Tulsa for the fall term of 2001, planning to be in residence only until the following spring. But then Oklahoma State got in touch, and I stayed a second year. Why? Hard to answer when you consider that Oklahoma (along with Texas, Missouri, and Kansas) was, prior to the recent Supreme Court ruling, one of the four states still proud of their laws against sex with the same gender. Listening to the fundamentalist rhetoric that floods the Oklahoma airwaves, I said, “So this is how it feels to be parachuted behind enemy lines.” Tulsa is one of the gayest cities going; it’s just that its queer citizenry relies on the old dodges of the closet to get around the homophobia that televangelism seems to unleash. Yes, Tulsa has a GLBT center and a human rights organization, but most of the gay life there occurs either behind closed doors or in the half-dozen bars unobtrusively inserted in various nondescript parts of town.
When I got there, the buzz was all about a new disco designed with LA or New York ideas of glamour in mind. High-tech chic, yes, but in a few months it folded for the simple reason that the DJ was too postmodern. No one wanted to dance to his mixes, and soon the crowd went back to the old standards, a sleazy, smoke-filled disco called the Silver Star and a small bar-cum-performance space (for drag acts) called Renegades. These remain the premier gay venues of Tulsa. An older, harder-core crowd prefers C.J.’s, which is leather and western around the edges. It has a small dance floor where most of the songs you hear are country tracks that favor two-step dancing, as popular as disco in the Southwest. A purist performance requires two men dressed in boots, jeans, Western shirt and cowboy hat to spin lightly around the floor, throwing in a few turns and making a complete circuit several times before the song ends. But I saw many close and distant approximations of the classic format, and an easy spirit of tolerance reigned both for ballroom inexpertise and dress-code violations.
The first thing that strikes a visitor checking out the clientele is that homo oklahomaniensis is tall. Most are six feet or over, and six-five isn’t at all rare. They are smiling stringbeans, lean, as opposed to pumped-up, and unmean, as befits the state that gave us Will Rogers. I found the combination of length of body, Southern accent, and corn-fed geniality quite sexy—especially the preferred Southwest cussword “Dang!” The range of conversational topics is limited, sure, but then I have a cellphone and dozens of articulate friends available when a craving for verbality and international gossip overtakes me.
Meanwhile, what I suppose has to be called Tulsa’s gay elite doesn’t frequent bars, despises anything that smacks of cowboys or Indians, and confines its gay social life to intimate at-home dinners and parties. Tulsa has been a money town since the 1920’s, and Tulsans who have their share of it like to mark class distinctions. I went to a New Year’s Eve party with an older Tulsa gay man who is, to put it mildly, loaded, and who scheduled our arrival at an insolently late hour. Partly because I was the new kid (kid? well, person) on the block and partly because I was with him, all manner of youngish execs, attorneys, and boutiquiers fawned over me. English furniture, intricate hors d’œuvres, and recaps of trips to Rome or Bermuda vied for the guests’ attention. But I was bored and missed tooling down Route 66 (which splits Tulsa down the middle) with one of the farmboys who’d never been further east than Joplin or Little Rock.
There’s also a middle ground in Tulsa, represented, for example, by a six-foot-fiver I’ll call Tom, who has been out early and often in Tulsa for more than a decade, has gone on TV to denounce stillborn-again homophobes, and is currently a pillar of the gay-friendly church of St. Jerome’s, which is modeled on the Episcopal Church but outside its umbrella because of its open acceptance of gay members. Tom has a very kindhearted and intelligent partner who has a good job and a comfortable house and who devotes his free time to activism and charitable work. When the next gay lifestyle series is developed for Showtime or HBO, maybe there’ll be room for characters like these two thoroughly admirable guys.
Meanwhile, the old bohemia that’s been priced out of the market in New York (even on the gentrified Lower East Side) continues in Tulsa. In various sectors of the city that gave us Joe Brainard and Larry Clark, a Kerouac-and-Neal-Cassady-flavored subculture continues, with various subterraneans injecting controlled substances into their veins. But I’d advise visitors to give it a wide berth, since arrests are common and Oklahoma law unforgiving. To be cool, it’s enough to visit Greenwood, the African-American neighborhood burned down in 1922 by white supremacists, now rebuilt and the location of the Jazz Hall of Fame. Jazz concerts are held in its auditorium, and there’s also an annual outdoor Jazz Festival scheduled every August. The festival has an appealing kicked-out, carny flavor, accentuated by the street food on sale—chili, chicken wings, corn dogs, cream doughnuts, that kind of thing. It’s all cool except the weather, which is blistering; so bring your palmetto fan if you attend.
Some Oklahomans prefer Oklahoma City because it’s less pretentious than Tulsa. It has one of those gayplexes that includes a motel (the Habana), two on-site bars (one South-Beach-influenced disco and one Western dance bar), plus four or five alternative bars only a block over. The motel uses the Amsterdam approach for impromptu connections: guests sit in rooms with curtains opened and wait until the right person knocks. Through connecting halls, up and down stairs, the staring hopefuls cruise. Doors open; curtains close; bliss or its equivalent is mutually worked out, no fuss, no bother. This goes on all night and into the morning. If you plan to sleep, bring a noise machine or run the air conditioning, which you’ll have to do anyway from May through October. The gayplex seems to be the result of a policy of containment. Oklahoma City will allow the boys to play in this one enclave, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on elsewhere. Ghetto population density seems to produce a certain raunchiness. This is gay life either at its most honest or at its sleaziest, depending on how you see it.
Because of straight, flat roads and 75-mph speed limits (usually ignored), Southwesterners drive long distances without making a fuss. During my Oklahoma stint, I followed suit and drove hundreds of miles to points of interest within striking distance—to Dallas, for example, which has a nice gay strip along Cedar Springs Road, and Houston, Texas’s own LA, complete with traffic nightmares. But my most absorbing trip was to Santa Fe, a mere 800 miles from Tulsa. My first visit to Santa Fe was back in 1969 when it was still a charming, sleepy little town, not yet the tourist magnet and point of reference for Reagan-era design that it would become. Over the decades I’ve responded to Santa Fe’s ascendancy in the annals of international chic with the standard dismay of the artist-intellectual preservationist. Of course there are those who would say that the glory days were over by the end of World War II. Santa Fe has been a gay outpost since the 1920’s, its bohemian-artist colony counting, among others, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda and D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Witter Bynner. Bynner was a minor poet who, in his day, was regarded as important enough to receive visits from Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost and to become friends with the Lawrences. He had his own money and never worked at any task apart from his own verse and translations of classic Chinese poetry. A prize is still offered in his name by the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, typically awarded to poets whose work is a tad on the precious side.
As it happens, Bynner’s house is now a B&B known as the Inn of the Turquoise Bear, unfortunately too expensive for artist-intellectuals who don’t have their own money. But I did go by to have a look at it and met its proprietor, Ralph Bolton, formerly a professor of gay studies, well within the parameters of what constitutes a gay “bear,” who now lives there with his partner Robert Frost. (The latter, by the way, doesn’t much care for poetry, not Bynner’s or even his great namesake’s.) The adobe house is an interlocking assembly of rooms in a relatively quiet part of town. Ralph Bolton sat with me in what used to be the library, now the social room where guests gather every evening from six to seven for wine and cheese. There are comfortable chairs, objets de Southwest, and an adobe fireplace in the corner, painted chocolate brown. Ralph explained that Santa Fe has no gay bars as such; queeritude is so accepted there that every bar is gay and none is exclusively so. I suppose this means that the straight clientele has learned to Just Say No without flare-ups of hysteria or temper—and no doubt an occasional yes from someone who, after watching that week’s episode of Oz, realizes that masculinity comes in many formats.
Returning to the past, Ralph told anecdotes about the deceased owner of his inn, a most bizarre story involving D. H. Lawrence’s ashes. It seems that after the novelist’s death, Frieda Lawrence, still living outside Taos at Kiowa Ranch, decided to have her husband exhumed from his grave in England and cremated so that the ashes could be shipped to New Mexico for burial and enshrinement. She asked Bynner to come with her to the Santa Fe rail station to pick them up and they decided to make a celebration of the event, bringing a few bottles of wine along, which they drank on the platform as the car carrying the ashes of the author of Women in Love and Mornings in Mexico rolled to a stop. Tipsiness covers a multitude of sins—anyway it explains why Frieda, on returning to Taos, forgot to take the remains with her. Next day she telephoned Bynner and asked if he would send them on to the Kiowa Ranch. He said he would. What he did instead was empty the ashes into another container and fill DHL’s urn with substitutes from that brown fireplace.
“Oh, so he’s actually buried here, then?”
“No, not exactly. Witter Bynner ate the ashes.”
“He consumed the remains, spoonful by spoonful, over the next months. In his tea or something. He and Lawrence had a kind of love-hate relationship. It was his way of evening things out.”
I absorbed the impact and thought, Or it was a shamanistic attempt to shoplift Lawrence’s literary gifts. But did he put on Lawrence’s knowledge with his power when he ingested those handfuls of calcium and carbon? Obviously not. (If he’d had the remains of, say, Amy Lowell or James Branch Cabell for dinner, it would have worked, but not Lawrence.) Ralph told me that Frieda went forward with her plans to build a shrine for the ashes, in defiance of Mabel Luhan’s insistence that they should simply be scattered among the pines and underbrush of the ranch. Frieda was so afraid that Mabel might at some point commandeer the ashes and carry out this plan that she filled a wheelbarrow with cement, added what she thought was Lawrence, and stirred vigorously. The resulting batter was poured into a cubical mold and allowed to harden into a block inscribed with his name, the key component of the shrine.
Ralph’s story firmed up my intention to go up to the Kiowa Ranch and have a look—as I did that very afternoon. There’s no price of admission except for the drive to Taos, a mixture of the sublime and the tacky, as you pass either malls and Indian gambling casinos or stretches of uninhabited semi-desert dotted with piñon shrubs, jagged violet-blue sierras in the background. There’s also the matter of a drive along miles of unpaved road once you get to the ranch; and I recommend strong shock absorbers for that leg of the trip.
At the end of the track a sign points uphill to the grave. Outside its door is a block of marble with Frieda’s name on it and her family crest; inside, yellow walls and a blue ceiling. Behind a wooden rail with gates, backed against the rear wall is a block of concrete with the initials DHL surmounted by a schematized sculpture of a phoenix, the novelist’s totemic emblem. Under the gable in the front is a porthole window made, I think, from a hubcap. In the rear, also high up, is another round window with spokes in it; almost certainly the frame had come from a car wheel. The impression of bricolage is strong. Nothing at all grand or marmoreal, except for Frieda’s stone, her German lineage finally making itself felt. Outside again, I turned back and noticed that the peak of the shrine supported another, more carefully sculpted phoenix—this one with an unmistakable, generous bosom.
Are the ashes in the shrine Lawrence’s or not? Bolton says that the story was told to him by Paul Horgan, the executor of Bynner’s estate and, by reputation, reliable. Just possibly a fragment of the hallowed block could be chemically analyzed and an answer provided. If the contents are just wood ashes, then the shrine is all Frieda’s; and maybe she deserves it. But then you can’t help feeling bad for DHL, the coal-miner’s son, the innovative fictionist, filtered through the kidneys of a rich dilettante. But isn’t that nearly always the way of it? Golden showers: the myth began with Danaë—the beautiful mortal, locked in a tower by her father, desired by Zeus, who gains access by turning himself into a shower of gold coins and pouring himself in through the window—but certainly didn’t end with her. The Southwest as the site of the mythical kingdom of El Dorado (after the Amazon failed): and sure enough, “there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” and black gold underneath it. I keep expecting some new Puccini to update La Fanciulla to The Boy of the Golden West. And when it opens at the Santa Fe opera house, one last time, I’ll go back.
Alfred Corn’s most recent book of poetry is Contradictions (Copper Canyon Press).