Not Over the Hill
Standing under multicolored streamers just steps away from a white sheet cake that reads "Ray Hill -- Still Sexy at 60" in bright blue frosting, the birthday boy himself greets well-wishers to his Saturday-night party with typical Ray Hill charm.
"Oh, here's my dildo!" he says, reaching out to embrace friend Dennis Cook, who handed him a brightly wrapped present.
"Does this require batteries?" Hill asks almost hopefully, as he begins to tear at the paper.
"No," Cook answers, "it's just something to make you irresistible."
The present, a bottle of YMLA cologne, might make Hill smell sweet. But as the guests who pack his 60th birthday party at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center can testify, the irresistible nature of Ray Hill is not something that can be packaged and sold. And besides, Ray Hill has led too much of a life to be put into any box. From his days as part of a gay burglary ring in the 1960s to his nights as host of the 20-year-old KPFT Prison Show, Hill has created his own legend and solidified himself as a prominent gay rights activist, lover of civil liberties and consummate storyteller.
"Every time I've heard him tell stories that involve me, I never recognize them, because his versions are always so much more interesting than the ones that I remember," says longtime friend Karl Reinhardt, who met Hill in a Houston gay bar, "back when there were two."
Friend Diana Weeks has helped package Hill's stories -- coming out of the closet in Houston in 1958, taking a free speech case all the way to the Supreme Court, protesting Texas's archaic obscenity laws -- into three successful one-man shows. She is now working with Hill's friends Terry and Margie Beegle to market Hill as a storyteller to community and school groups. Plans are also being made to sell the script to Hill's play The Prison Years in book form.
"We have breakfast with him once a week at the Avalon Diner," says Margie Beegle. "They've got sassy waitresses who he loves, and he just gives them hell. He remembers everything that's ever happened in this city."
As the birthday party grows, the storyteller has the tables turned on him when longtime friend and Rice University professor Bill Martin takes the microphone.
"Thirty-three years ago I had Ray Hill come speak to my class," he says. "The head of the department asked me if I'd had a homosexual come to my lecture, and I said yes. Then he asked me how I made out, and I said, "We didn't, he just spoke.' "
Jay Thomas recalls working with Hill on KPFT's Wilde n' Stein show, a mid-'70s gay-themed program.
"I was an engineer, and I controlled the volume," says Thomas. "I was often told, "You can turn Ray Hill off? Wow!' " Thomas also remembers the homophobic callers who would phone the station and threaten to shoot Hill and the other employees.
"Ray would just tell 'em, "Sure, come on down; we're at 419 Lovett,' " recalls Thomas. "Then he would give them these explicit directions on how to get there. None of them ever showed."
Hill's determination to stay open and proud about his lifestyle inspired many.
"I met Ray in 1967, when I was 18 years old," says Jimmy Carper. "What fascinated me was he was the only person I knew who was out of the closet. He was even out to his parents at a time when being out to your parents meant you got kicked out of the house."
Terence O'Neill, community liaison to City Councilmember Annise Parker, presents Hill with a proclamation declaring October 21 as Ray Hill Day. Hill's impromptu acceptance speech almost covers the same number of topics as the number of paths he has followed in life.
On Texas's obscenity laws: "I have a whole bag of dildos in my house, and I'm not afraid to rattle them in someone's face!" On his one-man shows: "I've been welcomed as someone who wandered onto the scene -- one of the few times in my life I've been welcomed without having to put up a fight." On his landmark free speech case: "One of the most important things I ever did in my life was call two cops "motherfuckers,' because it made it all the way to the Supreme Court." On having to ask friends for help with rent and utilities: "I'm not going to be embarrassed about being poor anymore, because being poor is what got me into prison."
Finally Hill turns serious -- or as serious as Ray Hill can get.
"I have led one of the most fascinating lives of anyone I know, and it wasn't planned, because I'm not that smart."
An organizer of the event, Jack Valinski, says donations to the party go directly to Hill, whose diabetes will require him to have part of his left leg amputated in November -- something Hill is attacking with his typical wit. "I'm going to get a peg leg," he says. "Then look for a parrot and an eye patch."
As the night goes on, admirers continue to surround him, kiss him and make jokes at his expense. Ray Hill laughs and gabs and tells story after story as friends eat cake and the stereo plays on. In the evening's final hour, it comes alive with Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence."
For Hill, it is a most inappropriate anthem.
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