As the home of both conservative social values and borderland cultural diversity, Texas has been both a battleground for civil liberties and an incubator for social change. The history of the state’s LGBT community is similarly dual in nature – exhausting, even disheartening, but unexpectedly uplifting as movements or individual activists emerge victorious in fight after fight.
It’s a story fraught with wins and losses, recurrent waves of violence, and legal battles that dragged on for years. Today, Texas is home to the fourth-largest LGBT Pride Parade in the United States; read on to find out who made it happen, and how.
City Ordinance no. 28-42.4
Houston’s record for legal discrimination against the LGBT community is evidenced with criminalization and arrests for cross-dressing as early as 1904. Although the gay community was much underground well into the 50’s, a few short-lived drag bars and nightclubs popped up over the decades. Then, in the 60’s and early 70’s, things began to change.
The first major challenge to Houston’s cross-dressing law was brought by Richard Anthony Mayes, later known as Ann or Rachell Mayes, in 1974 after she was arrested several times for cross-dressing while preparing for gender reassignment surgery. Mayes successfully changed her name and gender, but ultimately lost the lawsuit.
A newspaper at the time reported the State of Texas upheld the law to “protect the survival of the human race by banning homosexual guises.” Engineer-turned-law student Phyllis Frye was herself beginning the transition process, and took on the fight from the inside.
Working tirelessly both behind the scenes at City Hall and with other advocates in the community, Frye finally got the ordinance before council members in August of 1980 and it was overturned.
Frye was awarded a certificate of appreciation from Mayor Kathryn Whitmire for her “meritorious service” to the community and later appointed the nation’s first-ever openly transgender judge by Houston’s first openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker.
Montrose – Houston’s Bohemia
Against the backdrop of arrests, police raids, and bar closures across town, a once-burgeoning suburb called Montrose was in moderate decline, but still boasted an all-night diner or two. Its origins as a planned streetcar neighborhood for Houston’s elite in the 1920’s had been taken over by exiles of every kind – hippies, artists, and anti-war protestors, to name a few.
Houston’s gay community, having been chased out of mid- and downtown Houston, began gathering at a restaurant in Montrose called Art Wren. New gay bars began opening in the neighborhood, and with this growing cultural center came a sense of unity that soon translated into political action.
By 1976, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Houstonians had helped organize Texas’s first Gay Pride Parade in Dallas (1972); petitioned City Council to recognize Gay Pride Week (1973); and begun holding state-wide conferences (1974) to address issues like sexism, joint taxes, child custody, inclusive sex education, employment discrimination, and emergency services.
Sadly, the abduction, beating, and murder of gay and trans men and women was common, and all the more often fatal because police and ambulance response times to calls from the Montrose area were delayed – not by distance or traffic, but by fear, most notably at the height of the AIDS crisis.
During Pride Week 1975 – as yet to be recognized officially by the city of Houston – activist Ray Hill said it would be the “last quiet Pride” the city would see.
Pride and the GLPC
Ray Hill was among the first members of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, which was founded in 1975 by activists Pokey Anderson, Keith McGee, Bill Buie and Hugh Crell. The Caucus organized Houston’s first several parades, until the year-round nonprofit Houston Pride Committee was formed in 1991.
That first parade saw only a few hundred attendees, and the one following was canceled due to a lack of funds, but the fire had been laid and only needed a small spark.
That spark came in the form of Anita Bryant, an anti-gay former Miss America whose scheduled appearance the week of the canceled 1977 parade brought thousands of formerly-closeted LGBT Houstonians out of the closet and into the streets to protest. A gay pride rally was held in Cherryhurst Park just weeks later; both parade and rally have been staples of Houston Pride ever since.
1979 was the first Pride Week, Parade, and Rally officially recognized by the city of Houston and boasted a crowd of 16,000 along with high-profile speakers from DC and San Francisco, but still only one local elected official showed up – city comptroller Kathy Whitmire.
The Fight for Equality
One reason for the low official representation was that city employees could still be fired for being gay – after all, a girl wearing fly-front jeans or consensual sex between two adult men were both still illegal. With vocal support from the gay community, Ms. Whitmire was elected Mayor of Houston in 1984 and promptly introduced an ordinance prohibiting job discrimination of city employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
Just as promptly, a “straight slate” of conservative male lawmakers called for a referendum on the law; it was overturned by an 82% vote. The repeal would be appealed, struck down, and appealed again only to be upheld by injunction before finally the ordinance was able to pass in 2001.
That tug-of-war pattern is evident in nearly every legal challenge brought by or against the LGBT community in Texas, some of them making it all the way to the US Supreme Court. One such case, Lawrence v. Texas, changed the lives of gay, bi, and trans men across the country.
In 1998, John Lawrence challenged the Texas penal code’s 21.06 law against sodomy after he and his partner were arrested for having sex; police had responded to a false report of armed intrusion. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws violated citizens’ constitutional right to privacy; at that year’s Houston Pride, attendees wore shirts declaring they were “legally gay.”
Over the next decade, Pride outgrew its roots at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, moving instead to downtown Houston in 2015 – the same year another Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, affirmed the right to marry for same-sex couples and ended Texas’s ban on gay marriage. Houston Pride is now the largest Pride Parade in the American Southwest with attendance over 700,000.
Texas has a stringent hate crime law (the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act) protecting gays and lesbians among other minority groups. However, one’s gender identity, the issue at the heart of the state’s most hard-fought milestones, is still not protected under the Act.