Houston 101: Hidden Gay Spots Of Houston

We're not sure why Houston 101 seems to be on a gay jag; maybe it's because a staunch defender of the Houston Texans opened our eyes to the fact we're secretly into that kind of stuff.

At any rate, in the glorious pre-AIDS days when closeted men could find dark corners to embrace their inner alternative lifestyle, where did they go?

Houston has plenty of places where the urge to merge was taken care of anonymously and in semi-private.

1. The Ripcord Bar Chutes. Behind the bar at Chutes the Ripcord was a seemingly incongruous wooden ladder. If you had to ask what it was for, you were in the wrong place. Upstairs was a pitch-black crawlspace where naked men did what comes naturally.

Why they had to go upstairs is not very clear to us, because we've always heard Chutes the Ripcord was a pretty out-there leather bar anyway. Longtime gay activist Ray Hill, our guide for this tour, tells Hair Balls that he still recalls going there to report on a police raid, and after the cops left he found a dozen or so frightened guys hiding upstairs, wearing any clothes they had grabbed in the dark.

Today, it's the site of the Empire Cafe.

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2. The French Quarter Theater. A very dark theater, it was, showing adult films in an atmosphere of, ummm, collegiality. Intense collegiality.

Raids were frequent, Hill said, until the owners and police worked out a deal -- the name of the theater was taken down, the entrance was moved to a non-conspicuous place, and its existence was advertised only in gay newspapers, out of the sight of those who would rather not know of such things. Patrons also had to join a "private club" to gain admission; the club might well have been called The John Smith Association.

Now the site is a 24-Hour Fitness club. Hmmm: A fitness club, opened all hours, equipped with saunas and steam baths? La plus ca change......

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3. The basement of the Milby Hotel. It had all the necessary ingredients: a tucked-away bathroom that offered some warning if an interruption was imminent; a host of horny traveling salesmen away from the wife and kids in Odessa who might be looking for an anonymous encounter; and a convenient location in downtown.

Hill insists that well-known Houstonians such as police chief Herman Short and Glenn McCarthy (Of Shamrock Hotel fame) were regulars, and who are we to doubt him? (We have no idea if it's true, for what it's worth.)

Now the den of iniquity is a parking garage for the Chase Tower and an office building.

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4. The basement of the Auditorium Hotel. Same thing as the Milby. Maybe aficianados knew the subtle differences in potential hook-ups at each locale.

To hear Hill tell it, Short -- a married man with children -- hooked up with a dentist who practiced in Beaumont and Orange at the Auditorium. When he became chief in 1964, the dentist told Hill about their fling; when there was a subsequent gay-bar raid by HPD, Hill says he had a meeting with Short "and told him I had a friend who was a dentist in Beaumont and Orange who couldn't believe such a thing was happening in Houston." Subsequently, Hill claims, he could always get a private audience with Short and work out some compromises on gay-police relations.

"I never had to be more specific about it," he says. (Short died in 1989.)

The Auditorium is still a hotel, but instead of a steamy place of sexual intrigue it's the extremely classy Lancaster, which -- come to think of it -- is still the home of plenty of sexual intrigue, although now it's limited to the actual hotel rooms. (As far as we know.)

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