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Looking Back at Some of the Hurdles Houston's Gay Community Had to Overcome (Part I)

Part one in a series for gay pride week.

With the 36th annual Pride Week Festival and Parade upon us, the largest city in a leading Tea Party state finds itself on the cutting edge of gay politics, culture, and history.

With a three-term, recently-married, openly-lesbian mayor, a brand new city equality ordinance, an influential, politically active gay community thought to be the largest in the South, and a gay pride parade that draws 350,000 participants and onlookers, Houston defies conventional perceptions about the Texas of Rick Perry, Dan Patrick, and Ted Cruz. While their state party apparatus only two weeks ago endorsed "gay conversion therapy" as part of its platform, at almost the same moment Houston City Council passed HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

Check. And checkmate.

But the current progressive climate in the Bayou City didn't come easy, and much of the history of gay life and struggle in Houston isn't that well known, even in the LGBT community. When the taboo, mainly-closeted gay scene began to move out of downtown bars like the Exile (1011 Bell) and Pink Elephant in the late Sixties and, in short order, transform Montrose from a sleepy neighborhood of empty-nesters and widows into what would become cheekily identified as the Gayborhood, gays were not always welcomed with open arms.

Old-timers recall that Art Wren's, an all-night restaurant on Westheimer, became a late-night, after-the-bars-close hang for many gays. The area already had a bohemian counterculture quality that was relative gay-friendly, rents and property values were considered cheap, and by 1970 numerous gay bars, including the now legendary Mary's, the second oldest gay bar in Texas at the time of its closing, had opened in the area.

While gays had become more political during the Sixties, the decade of the Seventies saw gays openly banding together, forming political and charitable organizations, and forcibly shouldering their way into the city's political life, where changes that eventually led to the recently passed equality ordinance were brought about via calculated political action and the ballot box. Acceptance and equality didn't come easy. It was fought for.

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Shortly after two-month-old Pacifica radio station KPFT was bombed off the air, the banner headline on the September, 1970, local gay magazine Nuntius (Latin for "messenger") screamed, "$10,400.00 Reward In Gay Club Fires," with a sub-head that asked, "Bullseye Fire -- Arson? - Accident?" The club, owned by Richard Caldwell, is described as "the first dinner club for the Gay Set and fast becoming one of the more popular dining and drinking spots." Located at 1212 Westheimer, the club was torched August 17, only one month after its opening.

This marked the third in a rapid series of gay-club arsons. The original Plantation Club on West Gray was burned out, causing owner Gene Howle, who also owned the Houston Fun Club, to relocate to the corner of Montrose and Chelsea, where he immediately became embroiled in a lawsuit that prevented him from opening.

Just prior to the Bullseye fire, the Palace Club, located on Berry Street and owned by Ron Levine, was torched. Levine took his insurance proceeds and swooped into the upscale tenth-floor club space with a spectacular view of downtown on top of the Southern States Life Insurance building at 3400 Montrose that eventually became Scott Gertner's Sky Bar. The building was only recently demolished.

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

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