Kara sits in the back bar at JR.'s, sipping her Jägermeister and chasing it with Diet Coke. She's wearing a tight, long black dress, and her wavy dark hair is pulled back in a bun. An elegant silver necklace completes her ensemble. It's hard to talk to her for more than a few seconds before someone comes up and says hello -- and she's got a rapid-fire "hey, baby" for each of them.
JR.'s is one of the more laid-back bars on Pacific Street, the Montrose hub that's like a smaller, gayer Sixth Street. With its wood-paneled walls and pool table, JR.'s is much like a typical Irish pub -- except for the dudes in underwear who wander through now and then, and the Britney- and Christina-heavy playlist.
A man with a white beard approaches Kara's barstool and gets an over-the-shoulder "hey, baby"; Kara bends her head forward so he can massage her neck. Another wanders up and buys her a buttery nipple. Then a guy who looks just like Kara stops by; he's wearing a striped button-up shirt and has blond spiky hair. She shoots him a "hey, baby" and takes a sip of Jäger. "This is my twin brother," Kara says.
Houston gay life
As it turns out, he's her identical twin brother. Both are gay, and both dress in drag, although Kara's the one who will perform tonight. She pulls out a new pair of large rhinestone earrings still attached to their "Fashion Boutique" backing and shows them to her brother. They agree that the earrings are cute. It's odd to look from Kara to her twin because, where it was impossible before, now it's easy to imagine the elegant, willowy beauty without her half-inch eyelashes and boobs.
Much of Houston's gay community is well known and highly visible. Local lawyer Mitchell Katine has been in the news as the Houston counsel for the defendants in Lawrence v. Texas, the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the state's sodomy laws being struck down. Annise Parker, the first openly gay member of Houston City Council, recently became city controller. Ernie Manouse hosts the PBS interview show The Connection, and Ray Hill hosts KPFT's Prison Show. Coy Tow heads the GLBT Chamber of Commerce; Jack Valenski, the Pride Committee. Lesbian activists include Linda Morales, Janet Cohen and Pat Gandy. The list of local gay leaders goes on and on.
But less well-known to the city at large is another group of prominent folks -- prominent, that is, in an underworld kind of way. They're inhabitants of Houston's thriving gay nightlife scene. They go out, and in their circles, everybody knows them. As Kara says, "Sometimes I wish I was anonymous." It's too late for that. Maybe she hasn't gotten any laws changed, but she is, in her way, a leader. And so are the other five people featured here. Get ready for a night on the town with each of them.
Both Kara and her brother, whose drag name is Tara, grew up in Montgomery County and came out around 1994. The pair fell into drag by accident five or six years ago. "We were at Rich's, and they were like, You're twins, you should do a drag show,' " she remembers. "It was so scary. But we made so much money -- I can't even remember how much."
The twins' parents are conservative. Not long after they started performing, their father found a video of Tara on stage. He was disappointed, but both parents have come to terms with their children. And, says Kara, "I have the utmost respect for my family."
During the past few years, Kara has regularly traveled to gay bars across Texas and beyond, judging contests and doing drag shows, lip-syncing to Shania Twain, Michael Jackson, Avril Lavigne. She was 2002's Miss Houston, and she's had several regular gigs around town.
A few weeks from this night, Kara will be in a car wreck that leaves her hand cut and her lungs punctured in several places. Her friends will visit her in the hospital, and the karaoke MC at the Guava Lamp, another bar she frequents, will announce to the crowd that, contrary to rumor, her hand wasn't entirely severed. She'll drop out of the scene for a while, but she'll be back.
Tonight Kara talks about how she's a little disillusioned with the drag thing. "The quality of drag is going down," she says. "Now anybody can throw on a pair of hose and get on stage. It's no longer an art. I can still live as a guy. Putting money into my body to the point where I have to live as a woman -- putting titties on my chest -- that's not drag. It's no longer female impersonation. The reason why I do this is to be believable on stage, to put on a show."
Drag is still a big thing in the gay community. JR.'s, O Houston, Rich's and Meteor host some of the city's most popular shows. But according to Kara, the money, while still good, isn't what it once was. "As much as I make, it's still not enough," she says, and if her dresses are anywhere near as expensive as she claims, it's easy to see why. So Kara's looking for a day job. Tonight she vents a little, thinking back to an interview she had this afternoon for an apartment management position that, it turns out, pays $7 an hour. "It's ridiculous," she says.
Someone whom Kara keeps referring to as her husband is blowing up her cell phone. She's mad at him and says more than once, "He's gotta understand that I won't take him cheating on me." She describes him as a straight guy -- apparently, those are the ones she usually goes for, and they like her. The couple has been together for several years, she says, though they're on hiatus.
Kara drains the last of her Jäger, gathers up her little entourage and moves next door to O Houston, where she's scheduled to perform. The Dallas-style O is totally different from JR.'s. The sleek bar is decorated with monochromatic red artworks. Shirtless bartenders serve drinks with care, and Euro-looking guys dance under blinding, spinning lights.
Kara has a tiny Louis Vuitton purse, a larger shoulder bag and a huge suitcase that a friend carries for her. Inside, she disappears into the back and emerges a few minutes later in a skintight zebra-print dress and a new hairdo (the trick: hairpieces). She looks, in a very-popular-in-the-gay-world word, fabulous. Most women would kill for a waist as tiny as Kara's.
There's not a big crowd out tonight, but the guys who are here give her plenty of love. On the cleared floor, dancing in the smoky darkness, she mouths a sultry song about knowing everyone's secrets, and they seem to believe her. Just about everyone in the joint holds out a bill for her, and she's got a kiss on the cheek for each of them. After a couple of songs, she seems ambivalent about whether to keep performing. A patron yells out a request for "I Will Survive," and that seals things. "Girl, I'm not doing no damn 'I Will Survive,' " she says, and, like the diva she is, Kara walks offstage.
It's Sunday night at the Guava Lamp, a laid-back, slightly more alternative gay bar in Shepherd Square. But instead of the usual party atmosphere, the mood is subdued. People sit in groups, talking in unusually low tones. The bartender explains to everyone who comes in that Kim Dobbs and her husband, Brian, were murdered over the weekend, found bludgeoned in their bed. She was a gospel singer who performed at the club on Wednesdays. Many regulars are shaken up.
Into this atmosphere strolls Todd A. Gresley, who, as it happens, knew Kim pretty well. He's the karaoke MC this evening -- a thankless job. Todd mounts the stage and takes a mike. "Come on, people," he says in a singsong voice. "Let's get up heeere." An unbelievably bad Justin Timberlake rendition follows, complete with Todd eye-rolls in the background. Then Todd sings "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King. Somehow, he manages to strike just the right note, a combination of melancholy and irreverence. "When something bad happens, that doesn't mean you can't get drunk and smoke cigarettes," he says later. After a few songs -- and a few drinks -- people pick up a little.
Catch Todd's act at Guava on a regular Wednesday or Sunday, and the word "sensitive" doesn't come to mind. The short-blond-haired, earringed, strong-jawed, muscular 30-year-old Indiana native is usually pure irreverence. "I was talking to Jesus this morning, and he said it was Patrick's birthday. And I was like, 'Oh, my God, Jesus,' and we smoked a fatty together. Happy birthday, Patrick. Stand up, bitch."
The MC can be pretty catty. As he plainly states to the crowd, "You're all drunk and I can make fun of you and you won't get mad." When a little guy stands to sing an off-key, nasal -- and quite passionate -- version of Britney Spears's "Toxic," Todd sits in the background, making wide eyes and smiling evilly at the crowd. When it's over, he says into the mike, "Sign up again, baby, sign up again. I think everybody's mentally clapping; they just have drinks in their hands." To an obviously straight guy who's wandered in with his girlfriend, he says, "Bless your fucking heart, you remind me of all the assholes I went to high school with. Those were the fucking days." To an older guy: "Oh, I saw you at the Botox party last week."
Often, toward the end of the night, Todd can be found lying on his back, microphone to his lips, talking trash. If he gets inspired, he'll stand up and dirty-dance with whoever's on stage. He also makes sure to heckle everyone coming in and out of the bar. "He's hilarious," says Soleil Manzo, who's been a regular at Guava for years, "and he's had a following forever, and this amazing ability to know everyone. And he's really good at keeping people engaged in the show."
The weird thing about Todd, though, is that for all his talk about fatties and drunkenness, he's kind of a goodie-goodie. "People see me on stage jumping around," he says, "and they don't know that my favorite thing is sleeping in my hammock in the backyard." Todd parties some, but he seems more excited about juicing beets and apples and growing things in his garden. Unlike his stage persona, Todd abhors drugs. And he says he's never had a one-night stand. At the moment, he's single: "I just got horribly dumped. He was one of the most kick-ass guys I've ever met. It was only a month, but it still stings. I miss him."
Yep, Todd's one trash-talker who's not afraid to be mushy. In fact, he's published a book of poems, Indiana the Island, about growing up gay, among other things, and he has his own poetry Web site, www.toddicus.com. He's been reading his stuff at Helios (formerly the Mausoleum) poetry nights for years.
When he walks into Helios one Wednesday in the early evening, he says hi to most of the people in the room. There's an earnest, intellectual feeling in the smoky air; the crowd consists of a man in an African getup, a cross-dresser, several middle-aged poets and a hot-tempered guy named François who stalks off in the middle of his set, vowing never to return ("François always says that," Todd explains). Todd orders a coffee and takes the stage to read "On the Thinking of Trees." "When my lover disappeared," he says into the mike, "Like winter leaves / I wished he were a smart birch. / Through the sleet and snow / And teeth-filled wind / He keeps his leaves." Karma-wise, Todd may deserve an eye-roll or two. But everybody claps.
Daddy Bob Houghton and Kim Zigler
It's Saturday night, and there's a pretty good crowd at the old-school gay bar the Ripcord. Among them are a man dressed as a sailor, several cowboys, a guy in military fatigues and, of course, the requisite motorcycle dudes. The bar's walls are decorated with silhouette paintings of a man bending over; somehow, a tough vibe commingles with one of outright friendliness. Guys, many of them somewhat older, circulate around the bar, checking each other out, giving hugs, comparing tattoos. By last call, just about everyone will have stopped by Black Hawk Leather, the one-room sex shop that opens up to the bar, to chat. Some will browse the "for-novelty-use only" dildos, butt plugs, nipple clamps, leather masks and more mundane sex enhancers like lube or "herbal Viagra." And just about everyone will have a word or two for Daddy Bob and Kim, who've been selling wares there for five years.
The more pugnacious of the two, Kim seems to particularly relish discussing the merchandise. "Oh, that's a ball weight," he happily tells a visitor. "You unscrew it here, pull it through and attach it around balls like this. It makes them feel bigger." He's a shortish man in a black hat, leather vest and glasses. Later, two drunk guys, obviously in a silly mood, wander in, pluck a whip off a display and start spanking each other. Kim, who was in the Coast Guard and has an ex-wife and two grown sons, snaps to attention. "Excuse me," he says, reaching for the goods. "But you're not using that properly. You could do serious damage to his penis, his balls or both." The whipper, looking a little sheepish, hands over the offending item and scoots on. You get the feeling that Kim's not to be messed with.
But he hasn't always been that way. He's just wrapped up ten years of service as "boy" to Daddy Bob. Kim figured out he was gay when he was 40 years old. An important moment along the way happened in 1990, when he saw a Houston Press cover story at a smoothie shop about the leather crowd. He returned alone, picked up the article and read it in secret. Kim was amazed to learn that there were other people in the world who were like him. Within two years, he was divorced. "When I came out, I needed somebody that could be a mentor to me," he says. Enter Bob. They started out as plain old lovers, but pretty soon they got involved in the dominant-submissive scene.
For years Kim answered to Daddy Bob, but eventually he realized he was meant to be a dom. "After a while," Bob recalls, "he said, 'Well, I think I might take off the collar,' and I said, 'Yeah, you probably should.' And after another while he said, 'Well, I think I might move to the other room,' and I said, 'Yeah, I guess so.' "
Kim recently graduated from being a boy to being a master. And, after a long interview process, he's acquired his own "slave" (which is slightly different -- in rhetoric and toys -- from a "boy"). The twentysomething slave lives with Kim and Bob, business partners and former lovers, under the same roof in a three-bedroom home in north Houston. "The thing about it," says Bob, "is I benefit. He cooks us meals, mows the lawn, keeps our cars clean." But the slave answers to Kim, not Bob. Bob, with his kindly blue eyes and grin, admits to feeling a little left out.
Of the two, Bob seems to be the favorite at the Ripcord. He's the one who everyone -- beefy black guy with Mohawk, shirtless skinny kid in backwards baseball hat, cowboy fresh from two-stepping at the Brazos River Bottom -- has got to hug. He's usually busy asking customers if they need any help, or, in the case of one overweight buyer of a cock ring, if he'd "like to wear that out of here." Wink. Of course, Daddy Bob's got another side: "Some of the other masters -- I don't do this -- will refuse to shake a slave's hand. But if that happens to me, I'll shake his hand and then say, 'In the future, please don't shake my hand. If I do it first, okay, but otherwise, don't do that.' "
It's hard to connect this kind of statement with what other people say about Bob and Kim. Joe Gunter, who's been working for them for three years and sewing for 30, can often be found hanging out in the back of the larger Black Hawk Leather next door to the Ripcord, listening to classical music and cutting leather. "This is one of the few places I've worked," he says, "where I haven't had a problem with the boss."
It's Thursday evening, Open Mike Night at Chances, a lesbian bar on Westheimer. Chris O'Toole sits at the bar nursing a Bud Light, chatting above the music. A woman on stage is belting out mostly girl-rock covers. Ladies wander up and drop bills in a tip jar that reads, "Feed the Kitty." Between songs, the singer calls to Chris, asking when she's going to play. "She's always got something tasty," she tells the crowd.
Chris waves her off, asking for another 15 minutes. She's talking about when she came out, during her junior year of high school in Texas City. "I was pushed into a corner, suffering from depression," she remembers. "My psychiatrist told me, 'You have to tell your mother.' But she knew I was gay all along." She says of her family, "They didn't judge me." Perhaps because the 27-year-old has been out for a decade, she plays down her sexuality. "If I don't make my sexuality a big issue," Chris says, "other people shouldn't either."
She sits next to a pretty woman she's dating who wants nothing to do with this story. On the bar in front of them is a stack of CDs. It's before ten, and the place isn't full yet. Chances is like a megaclub, and it gets seriously packed. It's really three bars in one -- Chances for live music and DJs, the New Barn for country dancing, and the G-Spot ("Don't ask," says Chris) for hip-hop. There aren't many lesbian bars in town, and this one dominates.
Chris started composing music when she was 12, and she first mounted the stage at Chances in 1999 to play what she describes as her "folk-rock-acoustic-blues" music. Nancy Ford, another popular musician and a comedienne, remembers that night. "That was back when I was hosting the Dyke Show, an open-mike every Thursday at Chances," she says. "Chris came up, and she was this cute little girl with her guitar, very reticent, very shy. She wanted to know if she could play something. My policy was always, if you haven't heard people, approach it gingerly, because you don't want someone clearing out the bar. Well, she got up there and did two, maybe three original songs, and she just wowed the crowd. The girls just went wild for her stuff She definitely got to be a favorite there."
Chris, who works at a guitar shop and at an art supply store, has twin passions: music and visual art. She's self-taught in both fields. Her artwork ranges from colorful, eyeball-heavy abstract works to graffiti-style compositions -- buried under one is a painting of an ex-girlfriend -- and intriguing portraits of her friends. Right now she's working on classical guitar compositions to accompany her paintings.
After several more calls to sing, Chris walks up with her guitar. She doesn't chatter a lot on stage, except for the occasional self-deprecating remark ("My bass player tuned my guitar," she says, "so if he's on crack, it's not my fault"). But her big voice speaks for itself. People compare her to Melissa Etheridge and Tracy Chapman. "I write about what I feel," Chris says of her songs, "like love, or the loss of somebody. Many of my songs are about losing someone that you love." That's not surprising, considering Chris was raised mostly by her grandmother and met her biological father only recently.
One of Chris's songs, "Ink and Paper," is about an ex-girlfriend she wronged in some way she doesn't want to talk about. Today she plays it, looking down as she sings, "ink and paper, letters sent, couldn't describe the pain I'm in." The lyrics are simple, but Chris's voice makes them sound profound. There are calls of "You rock, mama!" Chris plays several other songs, and when she steps offstage, several women approach to thank her. "You're making me blush," the freckled redhead tells them. Then she packs up her guitar and her girl and heads out the door.
Thursday night at Meteor. Charles Soloman sits by the door, holding court and sipping a melting frozen cosmopolitan. Screens flash images of pop stars at the self-proclaimed "urban video bar," and the music's loud. For a rainy evening, the crowd's not bad; patrons relax on the couches scattered throughout the sleek, airy space. A coed group is dancing in the middle of the room -- like many a gay bar in town, Meteor attracts its share of straight people.
Charles is surrounded by a group of guys. Most of them are his intensely loyal "Spoiled Boyz." They help promote his monthly after-hours parties of the same name, as well as his monthly DJ events. A few years ago, Charles left his finance job at ExxonMobil to start the party vehicle M2M Entertainment. He makes less money now, but he enjoys what he does -- going out at least four nights a week is part of his job.
And he's as likely to be found at the Social, the Belvedere, Boaka Bar or Opus as at Meteor or Rich's. "Charles makes it a point to reach out to straight people," says friend Chris Williamson. "He can walk into straight venues and everybody knows him. And God bless Charles, they know he's a flaming queen."
The Spoiled Boyz soirees are held at different clubs, usually downtown, every month. They start at 3:30 a.m. and last until many a family is driving to church. Hundreds of people from around the city, gay and straight, converge to dance all night long. Charles, who has an MBA from the University of Oklahoma, has honed in on a formula that works: never the same venue, never the same DJ, never the same theme.
One Spoiled Boyz party held at Play (now the Vault) was "all about teenage hang-ups," he says. Its flyer looked like the cover of Seventeen magazine, with Britney Spears in Spoiled Boyz T-shirt. Guests got to play with makeup kits, mirrors, fingernail polish, bubbles. Another, "Back to Spoiled," was held at Europa. There was a principal, a nun, pens and paper. After the party, he found short stories and art he says he "could frame" lying around the club. For the first time, M2M also will be producing and promoting this year's Pride parties.
Charles holds a monthly Spoiled Boyz meeting, where 15 gay and 15 straight volunteers get together and brainstorm. He finds them at the parties themselves. "I always work my own door for the first couple hours of the party," he says. "And at your own party you have to sit with people you don't know You're able to see who these people are and who wants to be more involved."
Charles is held up as a kind of social expert by his friends. "I remember Charles teaching me how to make an entrance into a room, so that when I walked in people would know I was there," says Chris. It's true that the man is hard to ignore. There's something imposing in his large, muscular frame, tasteful clothes and flashy rings. The main reason he gets attention, though, is because he's extroverted. "When we go out," says old friend Trevan Ross, "I know I'm gonna meet someone. Charles is not afraid to say hello. He tends to pull people towards him."
But while he may always have been open socially, Charles hasn't always been the belle of the ball. "For most of my life," he says, "I was overweight. At age 30, I weighed 300 pounds and I'd only come out as being gay three years before that." He disappeared from the nightlife scene and immersed himself in aerobics, getting down to a low of 181 pounds and eventually having surgery to tighten his skin. In the mid-'90s, he won a couple of national aerobics awards. "When you're very overweight," he says, "you don't get attention other than 'He's fat.' It makes it harder to establish relationships that could turn into love." That may be the reason Charles hasn't had a boyfriend for several years -- he still hasn't forgotten being dismissed. "I'm the same person," he says. "The package is all that's changed."
Well, maybe not all that's changed. After all, Charles has gone from professional financial manager to professional partyer. Tonight at Meteor, he keeps slipping away, wandering to the other side of the bar to chat with some DJs he knows or to tease the bartender, who's wearing an Afro wig. After a while, his circle breaks up. Several Spoiled Boyz are headed over to JR.'s, and Charles plans to meet up with them. Maybe when he gets there, he'll run into Kara having her Jäger. The two know each other, of course.