Tonkawa, OK.

After leaving Norman, OK, we began our trek towards Kansas. But waitaminnut…only one town and one night in Oklahoma just didn’t seem fair. So as we neared the Oklahoma-Kansas border, we searched for a town — any town — to visit before we bid Oklahoma farewell. Tonkawa, the “Wheatheart of Oklahoma,” was the lucky winner.

As we rolled into town, it was pretty much what I expected based on the size (tiny) on the google map. One main street, several blocks with cute houses, some older buildings and scattered with some Mom and Pop shops. Very Americana and beautiful. Oh, and a monstrous grain elevator.

Marquise and I went inside a little museum shop hoping they’d have a postcard. They didn’t. An elderly woman inside was very courteous and talked a bit about a museum that was near completion. What I assume was her husband — both of them were probably in their 70s, maybe 80s — was friendly as well.

After telling them we’re on our way to Kansas, the man looked at Marquise.

You better be careful in Kansas. They’ll lock you up and make you pay to get out.”

It was pretty clear the “You” was emphasized because Marquise is black. How do you even respond to that? Marquise and I simultaneously let out awkward chuckles.

“Ha, okay…” “Heh, we’ll be careful?”

I don’t think he was being racist, he was just making conversation. But it did make me pause a little bit… When I started the Tour I told myself that whenever I had the opportunity, I would tell people why we’re visiting all 50 states. In other words, I’m outing myself to complete strangers in small-town America. This fact came speeding to the forefront of my mind as we changed the conversation from being locked up in Kansas to the fact that we’re visiting all 50 states.

“50 states? Wow!”, the woman exclaimed.

“She and I did a trip once, to visit every County Courthouse in Oklahoma.” the husband finished.

This was my chance to bring up the purpose of visiting all 50 states. This was my chance to tell a couple from a different generation that I’m gay, and Marquise is gay, and we’re going on a big gay Tour across America.

“That sure must have taken a while,” I began, “There are a lot of counties in Oklahoma. …can you tell me about that heart-shaped park out there?”

I choked! Instead of informing them that LGBT people are everywhere, possibly even in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, I leapt right back into that little closet whence I came all those years ago. I didn’t lie, but intentionally diverting the conversation to safer topics is still shameful, especially when it’s the whole purpose of the Tour. Epic fail. After thanking them for their time, I walked outside toward the heart-shaped labyrinth that I now knew a bit more about, and I promised myself that wouldn’t happen again. For real this time. I didn’t know I would be tested so soon after.

Continuing my search for a postcard, I walked inside a store called “Frames and Things.” I found the name amusing because I like to think the owner thought it rhymed, which it only does with a southern accent. “Frames and Thangs.”

“Haddy. Looking for something?” the owner asked through a gray beard.

“Yeah, just a postcard. Do y’all have any that are Oklahoma-themed?”

The conversation that followed was familiar. We’re just passing through, on our way to Kansas and we’re visiting 50 states. This time, as promised, the details and purpose of the trip flowed from my mouth confidently and without hesitation.

“I’m not gay,” he responded with a smile, “but I’m a photographer and I know many gay folks in the art community.”

His name was Ken Crowder; our conversation picked up and we had a meaningful chat about artists in the community, a new mural in town, and get this, his partner Audrey Schmitz actually designed the “Heart in the Park” I had just visited. He donated three postcards that had his and Audrey’s photography on them and gave me $20 for gas to help us on our way. How about that?

Lesson learned. Thanks, Tonkawa. You can check out Ken’s photography here.

  • John

    Weird. I teared up at the end of this story. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it’s because of people like Ken that your tour is so important. Those of us who live in the vast heartland between the coasts and outside the major metro areas are not just a bunch of closet cases living in a sea of Bible-bangers. We are people like Ken and Audrey and their gay artist friends. Thanks, Nate, for telling our story.

  • TroyChatterton

    Well John, you are not alone, I too teared up. Why? Cause Nathan owned up to what we’ve all done – choked (just when we think we are so past giving in to fear), we succumb. And then, like life often does – gives us a chance to try again. But this time – Nathan is bold – and is rewarded with kindness, with the added surprise that the very place he made the promise to himself (the heart), well, Ken’s wife created it. And oh yeah – here’s some gas money! People never fail to surprise me.

  • Marjilea

    I wasn’t in the museum when you visited Tonkawa, so I could be wrong, but I would be inclined to think that the comment about being locked up in Kansas was meant as a joke that would have been made to any non-Kansans passing through. Perhaps not in the best of taste. Your response was correct.

  • Sharon C.

    You had the pleasure to meet one of Tonkawa’s best kept secrets in Ken, he is a world class photographer and a kinder man you will never meet. I have to say however that the couple you met in the museum, and I believe I know the ones you met, the gentleman was most likely not making a racial remark but a sexist one as he is just an old flirt. I pray the rest of your journey be safe.

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