Honoring gay history in Texas

The Texas Historical Commission links to more than 300,000 entries on its digital Texas Historical Sites Atlas.

Yet Bob Brinkman, who oversees the Texas Historical Markers for the agency, believes that none of the official monuments honor a specific person, place or event in gay history.

Not even the Harris County Civil Courthouse, where, on June 8, 2000, the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals ruled that, in Lawrence v Texas, the statute that outlawed same-gender sex was unconstitutional. That Houston case led to the landmark Supreme Court decision of June 26, 2003, that struck down the Texas law and has informed virtually every subsequent legal contest on gay rights, including those that led to expanded marriage equality.

“Events need to be at least 30 years old,” Brinkman explains about the rules for official state markers. “And individuals need to be deceased at least 10 years to be mentioned in marker inscriptions.”

Fair enough. Now, not all historical markers are official. In fact, the market for unofficial markers seems to expand each year.

That opportunity excited recent chatter on social media about a potential campaign to publicly honor facets of gay Texas history. Some of the suggestions were frivolous; others were quite thoughtful.

More than one participant in the ongoing chat suggested marking the location of a key protest, the state’s nearest equivalent to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, which ignited the modern gay rights movement. One candidate: the Houston civic square where 10,000 or so protesters peacefully faced down riot police while marching against anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s appearance before the Texas State Bar Association in 1977.

Others nominated prominent streets in the state’s famed gay neighborhoods, especially Montrose in Houston and Oak Lawn in Dallas. Home to bars, clubs, eateries, churches and community centers, these “gayborhoods” were islands of LGBT culture in largely hostile Texas during the 1970s and ’80s, after which gay communities started to disperse gradually.

In fact, Oak Lawn already hosts the Legacy of Love Monument. The 27-foot-tall column honors Friedhelm Schnitzler, who died of AIDS. It also memorializes all those, straight or gay, from the area who have died.

Popular in the online discussion were spots where influential groups were founded.

“The parking lot behind what is now Underbelly/Hay Merchant in Houston, where the Barn used to be,” suggests Austin mixologist David Alan. “It was where they held the first meeting of what would become the Texas Gay Rodeo Association.”

Indeed, that group was among the most significant during the first years of gay openness in Texas and the rest of the West.

Bars in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio excited the memories of several contributors to the conversation. Actor David Stahl, however, suggested University Baptist Church: “The first and only Texas Baptist church to ordain an openly gay deacon — in 1994.”

As for honoring leading gay figures, Bettie Naylor was endorsed by several admirers. The City of Austin has already renamed a portion of West Fourth Street after the recently deceased activist. It might make sense to add a marker that explains not only her contributions, but also the area’s role in Austin’s history as a longtime anchor for gay businesses.

One problem, of course, is how to deal with historical figures who remained in the closet during their lifetimes. Is it safe to repeat here, for instance, that Texas Monthly once cited a state archivist who claimed that Stephen F. Austin was gay? (His leading biographer found no evidence to confirm the suggestion.)

What about allies of the gay community? Current Houston Mayor Annise Parker, for instance, is an out lesbian, but she might not have been elected if her predecessor, Kathy Whitmire, had not energized Houston’s gay community to topple the city’s conservative establishment decades previous.

If somebody were to get serious about a campaign, several resources come to mind, including the Gulf Coast Archive & Museum of LBGT History and fairly recent local gay histories published by L Style G Style magazine, the Daily Texan and the Austin Chronicle.

Nobody responded to the proposed campaign more thoroughly, however, than University of Texas doctoral student R. Scott Blackshire. First, he combed the Texas Historical Commission’s sites for any mention of gay history. He then scanned national LGBT histories, including a widely used essay by Bonnie Morris of George Washington University.

Blackshire noted historical markers in other states, such as one honoring Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room, the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the country, and, of course, Stonewall Inn in New York City. Ohio conferred the honor on openly gay author Natalie Barney in Dayton, but the marker was quickly vandalized.

He discovered that, in 2013, the Missouri History Museum acquired the collection of Steven Brawley, which closely chronicles 60 years of gay history. That should provide a solid basis for any honors in that state.

Blackshire didn’t stop there: He found out how markers across the country sometimes get the history wrong and how, in Illinois, historians are using markers to update history through “teachable moments.” He also mined LGBT studies from the American Historical Association and the contact lists of numerous Texas gay cultural, political and religious groups.

“If this campaign actually goes forward,” Blackshire says. “I want to be part of it!”

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