Out of the Closets

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

1982

Often called "the beautiful shirt," this design was so beloved that the archive had a hard time acquiring an example. Either people didn't want to part with the T-shirt or they'd worn it out.

The tree graphic was lovely, but the shirt's power was more likely rooted in its slogan. As a Pride Week shirt, it clearly labeled its wearer as an outsider, at odds with the straight world, someone who felt it necessary to declare that they were proud, by God, to be who they were. At the same time, the slogan revealed a yearning for acceptance by that other, larger world.

Button: No 21.06

Mid-'80s

The button shows the number "21.06" inside the universal "no" sign, a red circle with a slash through it. Under Texas state law, Statute 21.06 banned "deviate sexual intercourse," defined as anal or oral sex. In '82 and again in '84, courts struck down the statute as a violation of privacy. In '85, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed those decisions.

Gay and lesbian sex would remain a state crime until June 2000, when the 14th Court of Appeals ruled that the statute violates the Texas Constitution's provision for equal rights. The Harris County district attorney's office is again expected to appeal to a higher court. Judy worries that history may repeat itself.

T-shirt: "Louie, Don't Shoot"

October 1985

In January '85, Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have banned discrimination against homosexuals in city hiring. Mayor Kathy Whitmire had backed the referendum.

That fall, the issue haunted her re-election campaign. A group calling itself the Straight Slate mass-mailed literature declaring "You Don't Have to Vote Pro-Homosexual!" Like the Fifth Circuit, the group held that homosexuality was immoral. The Straight Slate's leader, Steven Hotze, equated "the gay lifestyle" with pornography and prostitution, and played on the public fear of AIDS -- still such a new concept that newspapers often referred to it as "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a fatal disease that has primarily afflicted homosexual men."

In the mayoral race, the Straight Slate endorsed challenger Louie Welch. Two weeks before the election, Welch failed to notice that he was standing next to a live television microphone. One way to control AIDS, he joked, was to "shoot the queers."

The next day, these T-shirts were all over Montrose: a black political joke, a long, dark way from "A Part Of, Not Apart From."

T-shirt: "You Missed, Louie!"

November 5, 1985

Welch lost the election.

T-shirt: "Safe Sex Is Good Sex"

1986

This, Judy remembers, was the first AIDS-related T-shirt she'd ever seen. On it, a chorus line of rainbow-colored condoms are smiling and dancing. At the time, it was the condoms that were shocking; "condom" wasn't a word you said in public. Twenty-four years later, what's shocking is the shirt's cheerful mood, the upbeat air before the full horror of AIDS set in. Condoms seem to be all you need; the sex is still good; the party doesn't have to end.

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power T-shirt: "Silence = Death"

1987

This shirt is black, the color of mourning. A pink triangle, the symbol Nazis used to mark gays, floats over the grim equation. Through such stark statements, as well as street theater and marches on Washington, ACTUP and its less radical kin would seize control of AIDS as a political issue, wresting it from the clutches of antigay groups. But the party was over.

The NAMES Project Button: "I Am Loved"

1988

People who died of AIDS were treated as gay saints, and in the NAMES Project's AIDS quilt, individual panels saluted the martyrs' deaths. The quilt's success has been widely documented, but part of its power lay simply in the recognition that AIDS sufferers had been human beings, people with more to their lives than their sexuality. Ten years before, even the most visible gays, drag queens, such as Mother Brooks, had hidden their names. But by '88, the names of the gay dead were a rallying cry.

And in a way, they were a wedge into mainstream culture. In 1988 Judy helped organize the quilt's second visit to Houston. In a jewelry store one day, she spotted a fishbowl of clip-back freebie buttons that coincidentally bore the event's slogan: "I Am Loved." The store owner and employees weren't gay, she notes. But the store donated 1,000 of the buttons to the cause.

Beaded and sequined jacket, decorated and worn by Rainbo de Klown

1988

Rainbo wore Mother Brooks's sequin dress a couple of times, but really, it wasn't for him. (When he dressed as Bette Midler, he preferred a short skirt.) Still the dress inspired Rainbo to decorate one of his own jackets. Mother Brooks explained that he didn't have to buy sequins in those tiny packets but could order them wholesale from New York. While watching daytime soap operas and listening to KPFT's late-night gay 'n' lesbian talk shows, he sewed on gold-brocaded sleeves, added puffy balloons to the jacket's back, crammed sequins and beads anywhere they'd fit. Around the sleeves' edges, he stitched a multicolored ruffle. For years he wore the jacket almost everywhere he performed: at gay and lesbian events and at children's birthday parties.

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