There I was pouring dollar drafts while watching drag queens strut their stuff.
They’re all here.
Anita Mann. Gloria Hole. Juan Nightstand and SoFonda Peters
Let me start at the beginning: I wound up at Sterling’s due to the urging of my roommate/best friend/frat brother, Chris. We had made our way 1500 miles east, him for a job, me for a fresh start to a place called Tulsa. I’d heard of the town, and listened to his pleas regarding a move eastward. My Mom had died, and it seemed like as good a place as any to reevaluate my life. We loaded memories, mine like devastation, into a U-Haul and counted ourselves lucky.
The first night at Sterling’s was just a swing-by. Chris would soon be producing a singer who was scheduled to perform at the club, so he wanted to check the place out. A long L-shaped bar anchored the far end, with the DJ booth on the right and a dance floor in the middle of it all. House music blared over the speakers as we made our way inside.
On Halloween, we were invited to a party at the club. If you’ve never been to a Halloween party at a gay club, put it on the bucket list. The rumor that I wore a kilt is true. That’s also when we met the owner.
His name was Jeff Lunsford. A big bear of a man with a loud voice to match, Jeff held court over a ragtag group of bartenders and servers by sheer force of will. As we talked, Jeff found out that I had done some bartending in my past and wanted to know if I would come aboard.
“Wednesdays and Sundays to start…you’ll pour drafts for drag nights”, he demanded more than requested.
“Jeff, just so you know I’m straight. Everyone gonna be ok with that?”
“Hell yes!” he roared. “They’re gonna love it!”
So began my stint as the new bartender at Sterling’s nightclub.
Drag nights were a cacophony of sight and sound. Situated at my vantage point behind the bar, I saw it all go down. After forking over $5 for a special glass upon entry, attendees would get beer refills for $1.00 all night. They weren’t there, however, to drink cheap beer and try to score with the new, wide-eyed bartender.
Around 10pm, the music would pause and announcements regarding the upcoming show would begin. Soon, a figure in a flowing dress would make their way to the dance floor to lip-sync to Whitney Houston or Donna Summer, Madonna or Liza.
Having been raised by very tolerant parents, who chose to bring up their two sons in a love-and-let-love atmosphere, I embraced the relationships I saw at Sterling’s that were as vital and important as any I’d been in or seen. I watched as men kissed men, women kissed women and didn’t think anything negative of what I witnessed.
Eventually Sterling’s closed. Done in by the forces of socio/political intolerance and the vagaries of running an independent business, Jeff decided to throw in the towel. I was sad that it happened, as it was not only a lucrative gig but a bunch of fun as well. I miss Jeff, and the bartenders Roland and Steve. I miss the drag performers and their unapologetic exuberance.
In the conservative, Bible-Belt, bedroom community of Tulsa, Sterling’s stood out as a shiny place…somewhere where we had you and you and you beat every Wednesday and Sunday night.