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'The Homosexual Playground of the South' (Part 3)

Houston was an established gay "playground" in the 1950s and 1960s.
Houston was an established gay "playground" in the 1950s and 1960s.

Part three in a series for Houston Pride Week.

The trials, tribulations, and awakenings during the war against fascism led to a spate of coming-out items in the immediate postwar years. In 1944, poet Robert Duncan published The Homosexual in Society, the earliest attempt to formulate a gay rights agenda. In Houston, the legendary gay bar Pink Elephant opened at the corner of Fannin and Bell in 1945 just as World War II was ending. According to Van Allen's report, the Pink Elephant opening marks a tidal shift for gays, since it drew the scene out of the traditional gay areas downtown. The bar later moved to 1218 Leland. Described in one publication as "primarily serving older gay men," it was an anchoring fixture of the local scene for almost half a century.

While most gays were still forced to lead the closeted life, the end of the war brought landmark national events that were the first cracks in the wall of intolerance, inequality, and injustice. In Atlanta, Rev. George Augustine Hyde founded the first church to openly accept gays in 1946, while in 1947 the first national lesbian periodical, Vice Versa, began publication. Considered shocking and controversial, Dr. Alfred Kinsey's study, Sexual Behavior In the Human Male, recognized homosexuality as an aspect of human sexuality in 1948.

See also: Houston's Earliest Gay Scenes (Part 2)

Several landmark events in Houston's LGBT history happened in the Fifties. The Dianas, a cocktail party presented as a fake Academy Awards show for a clique of closeted gay professionals, held their first event in 1954 in the Louisiana Street home of florist David Moncrief. An evening of ribald hilarity that featured hosts Tom Adams and Charles Hebert doing send-ups of Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and giving out cheeky and often titillating local awards (the first Diana award was a dildo presented to Virginia "Hub" Lankford for "an amorous adventure"), the annual event became one of the hottest gala tickets in town.

With annual appearances by satirical characters like "Pricene Waterhouse" and others who spoofed Houston's straight community, by 1976 the event had grown to such proportions that the Diana Foundation was formed as a 503-C charity. The Dianas are the oldest continually active gay organization in the country.

Consisting of 150-200 somewhat socially prominent, cosmopolitan, professional gays by the end of the Fifties, the Dianas became referred to as "The A List," although host Jack Bresnahan retorted that the group was only "the A List to people who thought they were on some B list."

In his 120-page history of the foundation, historian Brandon Wolf noted that, because of their prominence and their jobs, most gays of this social stratus did not frequent bars for fear of being outed or running afoul of the vice squad, which would almost certainly mean the loss of employment and public humiliation. So most gay social events took place in private homes until the annual Diana event became such a hot ticket that it was moved into clubs or hotel ballrooms.

In fact, it was held at the Palace Club in 1971 and 1972. Imagine that.

By the 1960s, Houston was "the homosexual playground of the South," according to author James T. Sears in his book Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South. By the time the turbulent decade ended, Montrose had become the center of gay life in the city, but that hardly meant an end to harassment or inequality.

 

Texas had strict sodomy laws and a complicated, archaic cross-dressing law used as police justification to raid lesbian bars and drag shows. And drag came to Houston in a big way in the Sixties, but seems to have drawn less heat than lesbian bars. In fact, by the Seventies, many members of straight society were regular attendees at drag shows at Montrose establishments like the Farmhouse, located at 2700 Albany. One commenter on the Houston Architecture website even noted that legendary Houston gossip columnist Maxine Messenger often attended the Sunday matinees. There is also mention of the daughter of "a high-level police officer" arriving furtively in a limo with a bodyguard. Those "in the know" knew.

While Houston has had a number of important court cases that figured in the road to the recently-passed equality ordinance and to the current status of the LGBT community, one late Sixties item in particular is legendary.

Rita Wanstrom was a big woman of Scandinavian descent who operated a lesbian bar on Sheperd called The Roaring Sixties. According to the documentary The Trouble With Ray, about local LGBT political activist Ray Hill, Wanstrom, who was affectionately known as "Papa Bear," grew tired of police raids on her establishment where women went to dance.

City ordinance Number 28.42-4 prohibited cross-dressing, and HPD and the local courts interpreted that to mean that women in jeans with a fly on the front were dressing like men. Wanstrom's club was raided by HPD in 1967 and a dozen women were arrested. But Wanstrom had had enough bullying and harassment. She bonded the women out and they all entered "not guilty" pleas. Through a series of fundraisers, the women were able to retain mad-dog litigator Percy Foreman, who told the press he hoped the trial "happens during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo."

 

While the women appeared at the courthouse on the trial date, none of the vice officers involved showed up and the case was dismissed. Predating the Stonewll riots in New York City, this marked one of the first displays of organized gay militancy in the city. The ordinance wasn't repealed until 1980, but Wanstrom's protest put her and Ray Hill in the same orb, and both would be driving factors as Houston's LGBT community began to officially organize. In 1968, Wanstrom, David Patterson, and Hill formed the Promethean Society, the first Houston gay and lesbian political action organization.

Shortly after Wanstrom's rare victory and the formation of the Prometheans, the Stonewall riots, a landmark event in LGBT history in the United States, shocked gay communities and ushered in a decade of militant political activity that began paving the way towards the current milieu.

After Stonewall, gays were done with being quiet and going along.

Pokey Anderson is another woman who'd had enough discrimination and was ready to fight. At 22, Anderson arrived in town just in time to attend the first national women's conference in 101 years, and while at the conference she says she "discovered I was not the only lesbian in town." She also found Wanstrom's dance club as she gravitated towards other politicos who were ready for action.

 

Immediately subsequent to the Stonewall riots, Houston spawned a number of gay activist groups other than the short-lived Prometheans. A Gay Liberation Front was formed at University of Houston. The same year, Integrity, an organization that began meeting at Holy Rosary Church, formed. Keeping radicalism and militancy to a minimum, Integrity sought to "reform society not restructure it," Integrity had a long history of quietly working for reform. Montrose Gaze, a gay community center organized in the early Seventies, spawned the Gay Political Coalition in 1973.

Maybe the most important event in Houston's LGBT history occurred in 1975 when Anderson, along with Bill Buie, Keith McGee, and Hugh Crell, formed the Houston LGBT Political Caucus, one of the oldest gay political organizations in the country and the most muscular of the Houston gay community's political organizations. Its first president was another legendary gay Houstonian, Gary Van Ooteghem, who became a cause celebre when he was terminated from his job as assistant county treasurer after seeking his boss's permission to speak out as a private citizen for gay rights at a commissioner's meeting.

After a decade of litigation with Harris County, Van Ooteghem was awarded a substantial back pay settlement for wrongful termination and violations of his First Amendment right to free speech in 1984. Always a class act, he donated the money to charity and said all he really wanted was his job back, which he did not get. Van Ooteghem was an early grand marshal of the Pride Parade.

This is the third part in a series of posts marking Houston Pride Week.


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