Sharon Hurst is in the crossfire of a culture war.
The Bartlesville restaurant owner has been harassed by an anti-gay, conservative pastor.
Then, last week, a one-minute video of a drag queen performance inside her Bartlesville restaurant was posted by Libs of TikTok on Twitter – where it’s been viewed more than 1.2 million times. The tweet describes the drag queen’s dancing, says the show was in front of children and billed as family-friendly.
Libs of TikTok, which has 1.8 million followers, posts videos to fight a culture war by exposing so-called leftists. Its founder remained anonymous until exposed by The Washington Post last year. The posts feed right-wing media, influence politicians and shape anti-LGBTQ public policy.
Hurst says the post mischaracterized the performance; it was an event for adults in the back of the restaurant, Crossing 2nd in Bartlesville.
“What they’re trying to do is link us to children,” she said.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hurst described herself as conservative. She voted for Ryan Walters for state superintendent of schools — who retweeted the post on Jan. 22 from his campaign account and wrote, “these are not Oklahoma values.”
Before opening Crossing 2nd, she worked for two decades in the oil and gas industry as a petroleum engineer. She’s also a veteran who served seven years in the Air Force.
She’s Jewish, her husband is Christian and they respect each other’s differences, she said.
“I opened this place so it could be an inclusive place,” she said. “We don’t care who you are, as long as you don’t hurt others.”
She opened Crossing 2nd in February 2020, two weeks before restaurants and bars shuttered at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They hosted their first drag show later that year and it brought in more than 100 customers, so they started hosting the shows twice a month.
“They’re not weird,” Hurst said of her customers. “They’re normal people. It’s entertainment.”
The drag shows made Crossing 2nd the target of the leader of a Tennessee-based ministry called Warriors for Christ. Members of the group travel the country to protest drag queen story time and pride events.
Warriors for Christ was labeled one of Tenessee’s anti-LGBTQ hate groups in 2021 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based not-for-profit whose work includes tracking and exposing hate groups and extremists in the U.S.
Hurst said Warriors for Christ’s Rich Penkoski has been harassing her and her customers on social media. In a November YouTube post that includes the same video footage as the one on Libs of TikTok, he calls her a liar and writes “do NOT give them your business until they publicly repent for this abomination.”
Leaders of Oklahomans for Equality Bartlesville also say Penkoski harassed them. A Washington County judge granted a temporary protective order against Penkoski for protesting the Bartlesville Pride event, which Oklahomans for Equality Bartlesville hosted, shouting “vulgar and obscene things” while holding a sign that read “Got AIDS Yet” as well as making a threatening Facebook post that he has since deleted, according to court records.
Penkoski spoke during a public meeting of the Bartlesville City Council in support of an ordinance banning “adult entertainment” in public parks, even though he doesn’t appear to live in Bartlesville. The city council on Jan. 3 moved forward with the ordinance, despite warnings from city staff that there could be legal and unforeseen consequences of restricting performances in public parks, according to a story in the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.
Hurst, the owner of Crossing 2nd, said though she’s been targeted, too, she sees a difference between the pride event and the drag shows at her restaurant: pride was held in a public space but Crossing 2nd is a private business.
Crossing 2nd held its last drag show in December, and Hurst said she won’t be having anymore because of the hate and divisiveness and the potential for violence — a doughnut shop in Tulsa has been vandalized twice after hosting an art event featuring drag queens. The second time, the assailant damaged the shop with a molotov cocktail and left behind an envelope with anti-LGBTQ messages and scripture according to a Washington Post story.
“It’s gotten so out of hand,” Hurst said.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.