Gay Panic in Cowtown: Houston Pride

This city's gay community pushed back hard.

Cops used to raid Houston's gay bars all the time. They'd burst inside, kill the music and flip on the lights. People would be ordered up against the wall. Then they'd be arrested, for offenses like public intoxication.

Ray Hill didn't drink. An outspoken gay advocate since coming out in 1958 at Galena Park High, where he quarterbacked the football team to a win over rival Pasadena, he'd go to gay bars anyway just to talk politics until everyone else was too drunk to listen. So his arrests were for offenses such as interrupting a police officer and blocking the sidewalk.

The regular harassment continued even into the 1990s. But eventually, Hill and other members of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community succeeded in hammering home a message.

Countless Houston City Council members have heard from Ray Hill.
Mike Giglio
Countless Houston City Council members have heard from Ray Hill.

"We wanted them to understand that if you fuck with us, we could fuck you right back," Hill says. "It was the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance means don't screw around with gay people. It's too much trouble."

Hill co-founded a number of prominent GLBT organizations in the city. But he's most famous for taking his case to the courts. He has won four federal lawsuits against the city's police tactics. As a result, blocking the sidewalk and interrupting officers are no longer crimes, and the city is a little lighter in the pocket.

"Hill v. Houston is a cliché," says Hill, who, after making his name as an agitator, would often show up in court when raid arrests went before the judge. "My rate for going to jail for bullshit is $50 a minute. And I'll always collect my money."

The Gay Political Caucus — which has evolved, letter by letter, into the current and powerful GLBT Caucus — was founded in 1975. It made its first endorsement, of Eleanor Tinsley's underdog campaign for a city council seat (she won), in 1979 and has been a force on the local political scene ever since. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton screened for endorsements during last year's primary. Last month, a horde of local politicians — even a few Republicans — gathered before the caucus to vie for its nod in the upcoming elections, according to Tim Brookover, a board member at the GLBT Community Center who is also an aide to Council Member Sue Lovell.

Brookover says the caucus's top priority is getting GLBT candidates elected:

"Then you have people sitting at the table who are in a position to make decisions and also make their voices heard."

Lovell and Annise Parker, the city controller who is making a serious bid for the mayor's seat, are Houston's only prominent GLBT elected officials (though there are at least four openly gay candidates running for council). Parker has been fighting for GLBT causes for the extent of her long political career. She was president of the caucus for two consecutive terms in the 1980s and served as the GLBT liaison on a special panel with the police. Parker also helped to organize Houston's early pride parades, which started in 1979.

Mary's Lounge, which claims to be the city's oldest gay bar, had a date marked on its calendar during the parade's early years, Hill says. On the Thursday before the parade, the police would raid the bar. Now, Mayor Bill White and his wife walk at the front of the procession. And after what Hill says was the last time the cops raided a gay bar, the cops got raided right back.

It was a Saturday night in the summer of 1994 at a since-shuttered bar called Fuzzy's. Hill and about a dozen other gay men and women "invaded the cop hang-out," according to a Houston Press account of the affair.

"[They] did little to draw attention to themselves, aside from occasionally kissing," the article continues. "Mostly what they did was considerably increase the business the bar did on an otherwise slow Saturday night."

Kris Banks, the caucus's current president, says that other than "rogue cop-type incidents" here and there, a full-scale raid like the one in Fort Worth is unthinkable today.

"When things like that happen, the police take it very seriously," he says, noting that the caucus considers public safety chair Melissa Noriega an ally.

"There are people in our communities that everyone on the council knows, and that a lot of people on the council like, and they're going to be very vocal every time something happens. Even something relatively small."

It's the more subtle, systemic discrimination that takes place without much of a stir. Houston is the only big city in Texas without an antidiscrimination ordinance, Banks says, which means that people can be fired or refused jobs and housing based on their sexual orientation. There have been two ballot initiatives to change this, one in the 1980s that lost in a landslide and another more recent vote that was narrowly defeated. The city does have a mayor's executive order for nondiscrimination on the books, but this applies only to municipal jobs and services.

A full-scale ordinance could also be passed by the city council, but that would open it to a ballot appeal. The measure is not a priority this election season, Banks says, with the caucus focusing its efforts on getting Parker and others elected. Parker, whose campaign Web site makes almost no mention of her accomplishments as a GLBT advocate, declined to comment for this article.

Hill has also been addressing of late what he refers to as a glass ceiling in local law enforcement. Sally Huffer of the Montrose Counseling Center, which works closely with HPD and the sheriff's department on GLBT sexual assault and domestic violence, says police are extremely responsive to her clients' needs. There are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender officers in Houston. But, according to Hill, they are not appointed to special investigations divisions such as narcotics and homicide, and being out of the closet seems to freeze their rank.

"If you came out of the closet as a lieutenant, you're still a lieutenant," he says. "Leave the academy as a patrolman, and there you shall stay."

Hill rehearsed a version of this in the hallway outside last week's city council meeting. He still makes three or four appearances a year.

"I'm reluctant to bring these issues up during an election year," he said, "because this is the special time of the year when the folks won't do anything about them."

Hill also planned to address the matter of a certain police officer who had been "bird-dogging" a local drag bar, waiting near the parking lot to pull patrons over and check their IDs. This can be an especially unpleasant prospect for a man in a wig and dress.

"Showtime," Hill said as he walked inside.

At the podium, Hill breezed through his glass ceiling argument and the story about the drag bar and suggested it was time for Houston to grow up. Then he reminded the council that he'd been fighting problems like these since 1958. Councilmember Noriega seemed amused.

"I need to remind you," she said, as Hill's allotted three minutes ran out, "that I've been listening to your stuff since I was at U of H in the 1970s."

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