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.
Parker's campaign button: No sexual politics.
Deron Neblett
Parker's campaign button: No sexual politics.

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"

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.

Lynn Lavner T-shirt

1995

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.

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

1998

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"

1999

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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