Out of the Closets

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

Lynn Lavner T-shirt


The archive doesn't show much, in the way of clothing, from the early '90s. In part, Judy figures, that's because Houston's queer community was exhausted by the never-ending stream of AIDS funerals. And in part, people were unnerved by the 1991 murder of Paul Broussard by a pack of gay-bashing teens. Suddenly bars hired security, and barflies were careful not to go to their cars alone. Wearing a Pride Week shirt seemed like asking for trouble.

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.

By the mid-'90s, that pall had begun to lift. Declaring queerness on a T-shirt didn't seem like a matter of life and death anymore. In fact, being queer seemed kind of fun again.

Lesbian comedians such as Kate Clinton and piano-playing Lynn Lavner worked an international circuit. Judy idolizes Lavner: "She's this five-foot-tall leather dyke!" A typical Lavner joke of that era: "The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn't mean that God doesn't love heterosexuals. It's just that they need more supervision."

At Lavner's Houston show, Judy bought this shirt, which shows two views of Lavner: one all femmed up in a feather boa, the other exuding butchness in a big-shouldered jacket. Lavner inscribed the shirt, "Judy -- In sisterhood -- Lynn." Judy looks at the shirt reverently, like a teen girl genuflecting before a Backstreet Boys poster.

Billyàs Hollywood Screen Kiss T-shirt


Lavner made a career as a lesbian comedian playing mainly to a lesbian audience, but by the late '90s, lesbians, gays and transgenders had established a beachhead in the mainstream media. In 1997, sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres kissed another woman during prime time and appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the words "Yep, I'm gay." By '98 every movie heroine seemed to come equipped with a gay male best friend. The interesting thing about Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, an indie movie about a gay actor's experiences in Hollywood, isn't that it was particularly groundbreaking.

The interesting thing is that by '98, such a movie seemed fairly routine. The headline on the Houston Chronicle's review pronounced it a "charming, bittersweet comedy" -- not "startling" or "pathbreaking" or even "a charming, bittersweet gay comedy." This T-shirt is just another movie freebie -- not startling or pathbreaking or even particularly gay.

Campaign button: "Positively Parker"


Likewise, when Annise Parker ran for re-election to her Houston City Council seat, her incumbency seemed more relevant than her sexual orientation. During Parker's first election, it had perhaps helped that she'd been preceded, in the early '90s, by more radical gay candidates such as Ray Hill and Judy's housemate, Bruce. But during Parker's second run, her lesbianism seemed as dull as the gay element of Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss. On her City Council Web page, her biography mentions her partner of eight years as matter-of-factly as straight candidates list wives or husbands.

This campaign button, like the on-line bio, doesn't concern itself with queerness; it concerns itself with name recognition, the lifeblood of city politics. The slogan underscores the candidate's name by alliterating shamelessly, augmenting "Positively Parker" with "Proven, Practical, Prepared." Once, gays like Mother Brooks hid their identities. Twenty years later, Annise Parker wants you to remember her name.

The Gulf Coast Archive and Museum is open by appointment only. For an upcoming exhibit, it seeks the uniforms of gay former Boy Scouts. Call (713)227-5973.

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