Out of the Closets

Archiving Houston's queer history, one T-shirt at a time

The idea, explains Judy Reeves, came from Rainbo de Klown. His real name is Rick Hurt, Judy explains, but in the GLBT community, everybody knows Rainbo. Just like everybody knows that GLBT stands for "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender," the polite, inclusive, 12-clumsy-syllables way to say queer.

Last summer, on the Houston Activist Network listserv, Rainbo noted that Montrose, the center of gender-bent Houston, was part of the Museum District. "Where's our museum?" he ranted.

A year later, it's open, and it sports a grand, excruciatingly inclusive name: The Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History. In practice, people abbreviate the daunting acronym -- GCAMGLBTH -- to the more manageable "Gee-CAM." Or just "the archive."

The secret garden: Mother Brooks's sequin dress.
Deron Neblett
The secret garden: Mother Brooks's sequin dress.
The party's over: AIDS activists develop their theorem.
Deron Neblett
The party's over: AIDS activists develop their theorem.

But even those abbreviations make the place sound grander than it looks. Right now, it occupies a warehouse just south of Dowling, in that industrial patch on the wrong side of the freeway from the downtown ballpark. The archive commands two little makeshift rooms in front of the warehouse; Judy and her housemate, Bruce Reeves, live in back. (An explanation seems due here: Judy and Bruce are married, but only in that official way that allows Bruce to insure Judy through his employer.)

Bruce is the archive's president; Judy is the secretary. When people call for an appointment, it's usually Judy who shows them around. She's 50, grew up in Houston, and remembers most of the events covered by the exhibits. "It's my history," she says, and in fact, she could pass for one of those exhibits. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut short; her T-shirt, circa 1987, salutes the NAMES Project. All she needs is a plaque: "Judy Reeves, lesbian activist."

So far, the archive contains magazines, newsletters, videotapes and drawings. But the collection's highlights are more tangible objects: drag queen gowns, glittery Krewe costumes, political buttons and, says Judy, "about a million T-shirts." At the archive, it's possible to read the story of a revolution by examining what people wore.

Sequined dress, sewn and worn by "Mother Brooks," drag entertainer from the '70s and '80s

Circa 1985

In the 1950s and '60s, the only sign of queer life in Houston was the occasional "homophile" magazine, such as the Mattachine Newsletter published by a group in San Francisco. But by the '70s, a few underground gay bars had opened, with names like The Exile, Outlaws, The Pink Elephant and Cousins. Performers like "Mother Brooks" made the circuit.

On stage, Brooks was a silver-haired, English-accented lady, more likely to sing a stately "Somewhere over the Rainbow" than to dance. She sewed this mandarin-collared, long-skirted gown herself, and painstakingly covered the fabric entirely in multicolored sequins. Elaborate sequin roses adorn the back and, curiously, the underarms. At the archive's opening, visitors kept saying fondly, "Leave it to Brooks to put roses in his armpits!" The first time, Judy thought it was simply a funny observation. The fourth time, she wondered whether it concerned something kinky. She didn't ask.

Off stage, Brooks wasn't particularly effeminate. In fact, "Brooks" may or may not have been a real name. The dress was donated to the archive by Rainbo de Klown, who used to perform a Bette Midler act on the same gay-bar circuit. "We called him Brooks," says Rainbo. "What his real name was, I don't know. We all knew each other by stage names." Rainbo got the dress from a drag-queen roommate whom he knew only as "Little Bobby"; how Little Bobby got the dress, Rainbo hasn't the faintest idea.

Once Rainbo was arrested in a police raid on a gay bar. It took his friends hours to bail him out, he says, because first they had to find out his real name.

Gray sleeveless Chicken Coop T-shirt

Circa 1979

Houston came late to the gay-liberation party. The Stonewall riot, in which drag queens threw rocks and bottles at police raiding a New York gay bar, had launched the movement in 1969. By 1977, San Francisco had elected Harvey Milk, the first "avowed homosexual" to hold public office, to the city's board of supervisors. But New York was New York, and San Francisco was "Sodom by the Sea." In Houston, gays weren't particularly visible until 1979, when things started popping.

That year, Houston held its first Pride Parade. The county opposed the Gay Liberation Convention's use of the AstroArena, then relented. The Houston Police Department even played a baseball game against a group of gay activists. (After the department received complaints, the game was never repeated.)

But until the late '70s, the love that dared not speak its name certainly didn't trumpet itself on a Houston T-shirt. For the most part, in public, gays dressed like straights (though perhaps with tighter jeans and a more scrupulously tucked-in T-shirt). You might occasionally see a gay bar's T-shirt like this one from the Chicken Coop. But the T-shirts are hardly declarations of gay pride. The bar's name was usually printed in small letters on the breast pocket, and it functioned as a kind of code: Straights who didn't know the bar didn't know what the name signaled.

Houston Pride Week T-shirt: "A Part Of, Not Apart From"

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