Social media went haywire last week when Pride Houston announced that next year's Houston LGBT Pride Celebration will take place downtown, leaving its Montrose home of more than three decades.
Many were shocked because they weren't told this was happening ahead of time. And while there have been grumblings for years that Pride might have outgrown the Montrose, very few people appear to have known that this would be the year Pride Houston finally pulls the trigger and relocates.
On Facebook, people posted photos of old "PomPom" shirts ("People Opposed to Moving Pride out of Montrose"). JD Doyle, a grand marshal in last year's parade, wrote: "As the Pride Committee did not solicit community input regarding the decision, it is extremely difficult for us to make a reason judgment on it. Knowing how controversial this would be, they took that from us."
And the Pride Committee folks didn't exactly smooth things over during a heated meeting called last weekend at the Montrose Center. As one-by-one people stood up to complain, saying the LGBT community wasn't consulted or even told this change was going to happen, Pride Committee members brushed it off: you should have been more involved, then. The crowd erupted with sighs and eye-rolling every time Pride Houston president and CEO Frankie Quijano responded to criticism with lines like, "Why haven't I seen you at any of the committee meetings? You know, we're really looking for volunteers."
Even Mayor Annise Parker, who says holding Pride downtown is the right decision, told About Magazine she still has "mixed emotions about the move."
To understand the outpouring of concern and frustration over a seemingly benign move across town, you have to understand Montrose history and why many feel the neighborhood has a deep, unbreakable connection to all things Pride.
The first grumblings of a Houston gay pride movement coincide with Montrose taking off as a gay neighborhood in the 1960s, with a proliferation of gay bars and, eventually, a boom in gay publications by the 1970s (Nunitas, Contact, This Week in Texas, The Advocate, and Montrose Star, to name a few; this essay in the Daily Kos covers much of that history in great detail).
Judy Reeves, who currently chairs and curates the Gulf Coast Archive & Museum of GLBT History, says, "An entire population of activists with a single focus came from those neighborhood bars."
Mary's...Naturally is one of those bars that reached legendary status within the local gay and lesbian community. Now, the Blacksmith coffee shop sits in its place, but back in 1983, Out in Texas called Mary's "the mother house of all the gay bars in Houston."
The bar had its own history of struggle. The week before Pride celebrations in 1978 through 1980, Houston police raided the bar, arresting dozens of patrons for public intoxication and "interference with a police officer." A June 20, 1980 Advocate article says that year's raid netted 61 arrests, infuriating the community. It was like Fort Worth's infamous Rainbow Lounge raid, just three decades earlier -- and it happened for years.
"We all felt outraged over those raids," recalls Jim Densmore, a longtime Montrose resident. "We were scared, we felt like the police were trying to shut us down. ... But we stuck it out. We fought to stay and build a community here in Montrose." Densmore joined a handful of others on the corner of Monstrose and Westheimer last week to protest Pride's move downtown.
Says Reeves, "I can't speak to other bars, but I know a lot of organizations were literally born in quiet, frantic meetings at Mary's."
Reeves and many others who showed up at the Pride Committee meeting last weekend insist that moving Pride downtown separates it from the community, struggles, and heartache that formed the local gay rights movement in the first place. It was in Montrose where an off-duty cop shot local gay rights leader Fred Paez in 1980. Over a decade later, in 1991, Jon Buice stabbed Paul Broussard to death outside a Montrose bar while Buice's friends beat the 27-year-old gay man with a board and kicked him with steel-toed boots.
"BEST reason to keep the parade/celebration/pride in the 'hood?" wrote Reeves in an email. "For me at least, the death of Paul Broussard on our streets. I do not want his or others' blood, which is soaked into the concrete and grass around us, to be forgotten."
To be sure, many people still say Pride's move downtown makes plenty of sense. Attendance has skyrocketed over the years - Pride says more than 425,000 people from around the world showed up last year. For many, Pride has outgrown, and overwhelmed, Montrose.
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Writing in the Chron last week, Andrew Edmonson, who has in the past served as chair for the Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, pointed out that three decades ago, social conservatives traded homophobic slurs to bait the base (like former Mayor Louis Welch's infamous "shoot all the queers" joke). But Houston's moved on. Today, Mayor Parker's in office, City Hall lights up with rainbow lights during Pride month, and Council recently passed a nondiscrimination ordinance.
"If gay New Yorkers can exuberantly strut their stuff down the vast canyons of Fifth Avenue, then why can't Houston's GLBT community march boldly down Smith Street?" Edmonson wrote.
And Houston's own Stonewall moment culminated in a march downtown on June 16, 1977, when thousands gay rights activists, donning black arm bands with pink triangles, protested anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, who was scheduled to sing for the Texas State Bar Association at the Hyatt Regency.
Seeing how many people they could turn out for a protest, the community celebrated the following year with a parade in Montrose.