The Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969, are quite often placed at the center of any discussion about the history of the gay movement. Take, for example, the history textbook my class is using, which offers this brief assessment of the gay liberation movement:
In 1969, a police raid on the bar at the Stonewall Inn in New York City sparked the Gay Liberation Movement. Gay men fought back against the police raid, proclaiming "Gay Power." The riot propelled many gay men and lesbians into politics and political activism, advocating for legal equality such as marriage rights.While, for many gays and lesbians, Stonewall was the event that propelled them into political activism, that is not the case across the board. As we produce more and more scholarship on LGBT history, we are finally beginning to understand that the Stonewall-, East Coast-centric story was just one trajectory American gays and lesbians followed. For example, historian Nan Alamilla Boyd argues in her book on queer San Francisco, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, that Stonewall was not the central event in the development of San Francisco's gay community. In fact, as Boyd makes clear in the book, gays and lesbians in San Francisco had already secured by 1969 some of the basic protections demanded by the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement on the East Coast. San Francisco, of course, experienced its own "Stonewall" moments that spurred gays to action, such as the mayoral election of 1959 and the raid on the Tay-Bush Inn in 1961. The message here is not that gays and lesbians outside of the East Coast did not need moments such as Stonewall to ignite their local movements, but that Stonewall itself did not serve as the universal moment that inspired all gays and lesbians to join the movement for change.
This argument is made even clearer if we look at Houston, a city with a thriving LGBT community and history which has not yet been examined in a scholarly book. However, a 1983 Master's thesis was produced by University of Houston history student Bruce Remington (since deceased), titled "Twelve Fighting Years: Homosexuals in Houston, 1969-1981," which looks at the development and evolution of Houston's gay community. Much of this diary is based on Remington's work.
Not surprisingly, Houston's gay history does not fit into the pre-Stonewall/post-Stonewall mold we often take for granted. Over 1,600 miles from Greenwich Village, Houston was not significantly impacted by the Stonewall Riots or the ensuing mass organization of gays and lesbians. A very small gay liberation movement did form on the University of Houston campus after Stonewall, but it quickly died. The healthy LGBT community that Houston enjoys today did not fully mature until eight years after Stonewall, when the city's gays and lesbians experienced their own "Stonewall" moment: the arrival of anti-gay bigot extraordinaire Anita Bryant to sing at the Texas State Bar Association's meeting downtown. If you don't know much about Anita Bryant, do look her up, but this Wikipedia summary is what you need to know for now:
Anita Jane Bryant (born March 25, 1940) is an outspoken critic of homosexuality, American singer, and former Miss Oklahoma beauty pageant winner. She scored four Top 40 hits in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including "Paper Roses", which reached #5. She later became known for her strong views against homosexuality and for her campaigning in 1977 to repeal a local ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, an involvement that significantly damaged her popularity and career in show business.Follow me below the fold, but first, shudder to an Anita Bryant orange juice commercial:
The story of Houston's gay community can be traced back a very long time, as you may suspect, but we are going to start in the 1960s, when the gay neighborhood of Montrose really took off. Although it might be hard to believe now for those familiar with the area, Montrose used to be a really cheap place to live. The very low rent attracted many single gay men, who did not exactly have much disposable income, to the neighborhood. Soon, bars catering to gays sprung up. By 1968, there were 26 gay bars in town, and the number was growing. Montrose soon became known citywide as the gay center of the city, a reputation that persists to this day. To be sure, many--in fact, most--gays and lesbians reside outside of Montrose, but the gay political energy and social opportunities are centered in the neighborhood.
As Montrose morphed into a gay political center, the gay community began to really take shape. Much of this development revolved around the creation of gay publications. In 1970, Nuntias began its run, which lasted until 1977. Nuntias was basically a bar guide, but it also offered some news. In 1974, Contact--a gay newspaper with a national audience with a headquarters in Houston--was published for the first time and lasted until 1975, when it was absorbed by The Advocate. By 1976, Houston's gays and lesbians had their own local newspaper, the Montrose Star. This paper folded in 1979, when the Montrose Voice picked up where the Star had left off. The Pointblank Times began its run in 1975 and covered lesbian/feminist issues. The point is that, by the 1970s, gay and lesbian community depended, to a large extent, on gay and lesbian publications.
The Wilde and Stein bookshop (named for Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein) was also an important development in Houston's gay community. In an era of anti-gay repression, the bookshop offered gays and lesbians the opportunity to read literature in which queers were featured. There was also a Wilde and Stein radio show around this time that discussed gay issues on the air.
Establishing a gay community center proved a more difficult task, due to infighting and disunity. Several ventures failed. However, gays and lesbians did establish gay interest groups, such as the Montrose Players, the Montrose Art Association, and the Montrose Sports Association.
The history of gay political activism in Houston is also important to consider. Houston did not have a gay civil rights organization until 1968, when present-day gay leader and icon Ray Hill formed the Promethean Society with David Patterson and Rita Wanstrom. However, it was a short-lived organization, and it died in 1970 due to internal conflict and lack of support. Shortly after the organization's demise, Ray Hill was arrested for burglary and sentenced to twenty eight-year sentences in prison. However, he was released early and continued his gay activism in the 1970s.
As I mentioned above, the gay liberation movement did have some ripple effects in Houston. A chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was established on the University of Houston campus in 1970, where it pursued a radical, idealistic agenda. Take, for example, the organization's mission statement:
We, the brothers and sisters of the Houston Gay Liberation Front declare ourselves a political group. We are liberating ourselves from oppression and suppression, both of which comes from oppressive social forces. We are gay, getting our heads together, loving one another. We will be free.Among the group's goals were the establishment of people's courts and the abolition of the nuclear family, which, the organization maintained, perpetuated discrimination. Needless to say, such militant gay organizing on a state university's campus did not sit well with certain legislators. Republican State Representative A.S. Bowers of Houston conducted an investigation into the Student Association's funding of the GLF (and other groups perceived to be radical) and attempted to get the funding pulled. The Houston chapter of the GLF folded in 1973, due, in part, to its radicalism. Their agenda only attracted a very small sliver of the available gay community. Their place on campus was filled in 1975 by the more reform-oriented Gay Activists Alliance.
The same year the GLF was founded in Houston, another group, Integrity, sprung up. Integrity was formed by a collection of people who met at the Holy Rosary Church. The group was much less militant and radical than the GLF in that it aimed to reform society, not to restructure it. Unlike the GLF, Integrity enjoyed quite a long run in Houston.
In 1973, members of the Montrose Gaze, a gay community center, formed the Gay Political Coalition. Like Integrity, this group was focused on political reform, and it appeared more than once before the City Council to argue for an end to job discrimination and police harassment. It also advocated for the creation of a citizens' liaison panel with the Houston Police Department (HPD), the recognition of gays and lesbians by the Human Relations Council, and a proclamation declaring a Gay Pride Week. Republican Mayor Louie Welch--who, in 1985, would state on the evening news that his AIDS plan was to "shoot the queers"--ignored these demands, of course. The group also faced opposition from some members of the City Council. City Council Member Frank Mann told the Gay Political Coalition: "You’re abnormal. You need to see a psychiatrist instead of City Council."
Gay and lesbian political activists also faced enormous opposition on the state level. Houston activists tried their hand at organizing for change on the state level by putting their weight in 1975 behind Senate Bill 127, which would have repealed Article 21.06, the statute making gay sex a misdemeanor punishable by a $200 fine. The bill was widely ridiculed and lambasted in the legislature, supported only by a few allies. It was, of course, roundly defeated.
The treatment of their cause by Texas legislators spurred Ray Hill, along with Pokey Anderson (representing lesbians), Jerry Miller (representing Integrity), and Rev. Robert Falls (representing the gay Metropolitan Community Church), to hold a press conference that year announcing the formation of the Gay Political Caucus (GPC). The GPC, like the preceding Gay Political Coalition, focused on political issues such as the repeal of 21.06, job discrimination, and the ability of gays and lesbians to file joint income tax returns. The organization also mailed questionnaires to candidates in city elections to gauge their stances on gay issues. The gay community in Houston, it appeared, was growing by leaps and bounds. Ray Hill put it this way:
Up until now, I was the only faggot with a face and name in this town.Jerry Miller put it a tad more delicately:
In the sixties, if you were gay, you were a political radical. The community is more broad based now.But the community still had a great deal of growing to do before it could exercise political clout in the city.
A couple of events would help enhance the gay community's ability and political muscle.
First, Harris County Comptroller of the Treasury Gary van Ooteghem happened. I'll explain: At the time of the press conference announcing the formation of the GPC, van Ooteghem was in Washington, D.C., meeting with an Air Force sergeant who had admitted his homosexuality and been dismissed. The sergeant fought his dismissal, an act that inspired van Ooteghem, who saw the sergeant as a role model. Van Ooteghem returned to Houston and immediately informed his boss, Harris County Treasurer Harsell Gray, that he planned to attend a Harris County Commissioners' Court and make the case for gay and lesbian civil rights. He was informed that political activity was not allowed, but he attended the meeting anyway, proposing a resolution affirming gay and lesbian civil rights and also admitting that he himself was gay. He was immediately dismissed from his position, an act that he fought as unfair.
The van Ooteghem affair attracted a great deal of publicity. In the process, it attracted the attention of the recently-formed GPC, whose leaders approached van Ooteghem about getting involved in gay politics. A month after his appearance before the Harris County Commissioners' Court, van Ooteghem became the GPC's first official president.
The second event that spurred more gays and lesbians to activism was less one event and more a pattern of police harassment by the HPD against the gay community. In 1976, after a very brief honeymoon between gays and the HPD, police raided Exile Bar, a gay establishment, and arrested 36 people. The same year, police shot and killed Inside/Outside bartender Gary Wayne Stock, who police claimed ran a red light and sped off. He was allegedly shot in "self-defense." The gay community, however, was not buying it.
In the meantime, in 1977, Ray Hill (who held no formal position in the GPC) and the GPC leadership clashed over Hill's outspoken activism, often in front of the City Council itself. The GPC seemed to address Hill directly when it put forth this message:
Our approach is that we are reasonable people making legitimate complaints. We dress and speak like the people whose help we are seeking. Confrontation is avoided.Hill formed his own group that year, the Houston Human Rights League, which was soon overshadowed by events later in the year.
All of this led up to June 16, 1977, when--I would argue--Houston's "Stonewall" moment occurred. And now, we return to the subject of Anita Bryant.
In 1977, the Texas State Bar Association was planning to hold its meeting at the Hyatt in downtown Houston on June 16. The association sent out 28,500 pamphlets to its members with Anita Bryant's face on them, advertising her scheduled appearance at the meeting to sing country and patriotic songs.
When Houston's gays and lesbians caught wind of the plan, they very quickly mobilized to stop the event from happening. It says something about how far the community had come that the association very quickly rescinded the invitation. But a few days later, claiming a "mistake" was made, the association sent a second invitation to Bryant--this time, only to sing.
Gays and lesbians, once again, sprung into action. They were unable to stop Bryant from appearing at the meeting, but on the night of June 16, approximately 3,000 gays and lesbians assembled in the parking lot of the Depository Bar, a massive crowd by any standard. The crowd marched past the Hyatt to the Houston Public Library, where they were addressed by David Goodstein (publisher of The Advocate), Rev. Troy Perry (founder of the Metropolitan Community Church), and actress Liz Torres. Demonstrators wore black armbands with pink triangles on them, intentionally invoking the memory of the Holocaust. The crowd ended up swelling to between 8,000 and 10,000 people, many of whom assumed the personal risk of publicly joining a gay demonstration.
Meanwhile, at the Hyatt, Bryant received a standing ovation, and only ten attorneys wearing black armbands walked out of the meeting.
But, whether she realized it or not, Bryant benefited Houston's gay community greatly by coming to town. Larry Bagneris, a future GPC president, called the gay demonstration "the first major political act that we, as gay people, took on in Houston." Similarly, Ray Hill remembers:
She really did us a favor by coming out against us. After Anita spoke here, things started coming together like they never had before.Indeed, gays and lesbians joined political organizations and became active in the fight for equality in record numbers after Bryant's visit. Very soon, the gay community was taken quite seriously in city politics. Politicians started actually seeking a GPC endorsement. Even the conservative mayoral candidate Jim McConn recognized the power of the gay community in post-Bryant Houston:
I don’t intend to address the gay community, but I will say that no one in a McConn administration would last if they went and harassed the gay community.Kathy Whitmire, future mayor and staunch gay ally, made history when she won the City Controller race with a GPC endorsement. Whitmire's election proved that a GPC endorsement was not the kiss of death many politicians in the past had perceived it to be. In fact, as politicians in Houston would come to realize, the gay bloc could help elect somebody to office.
A year later, in 1978, the GPC signed onto a Ray Hill idea: Town Meeting I. Town Meeting I was a novel idea aimed at increasing gay and lesbian activism at the grassroots level. Held in Astroarena, it was a very large public meeting of any gay men and lesbians who wanted to attend. The meeting tackled a variety of issues, including disabled gays and lesbians, inclusion of women in gay organizations, job and medical discrimination, discrimination within the gay community, and legal reform. Although initially a success, there was no Town Meeting II because of a controversy arising from Hill's decision to allow cameras in the meeting (which, many argued, violated participants' privacy). What Town Meeting I showed, though, was the maturation of the gay community and the expansion of the gay grassroots. The same day that Town Meeting I opened, the Houston Post ran an article about the increasing political clout of the gay community in city politics.
Indeed, by 1980--due, in large part, to the organizing inspired by Anita Bryant's visit--Houston's gay community achieved a level of organization and political clout that was unprecedented in the city's history. It would continue to play an enormous role in city politics until the mid-1980s, when the AIDS crisis and the anti-gay backlash provoked by Mayor Kathy Whitmire's push for a gay-inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance (which I discussed here) stripped the community of much of its power. However, the Houston LGBT community would weather the storm of the 1980s. Today, the LGBT community continues to play a large role in Houston politics. And, of course, we have this lady in the mayor's office:
So thank you, Anita Bryant. Your hate only inspired a broad-based movement for equality in Houston.