Commentary: The early days of the Houston Pride Parade did not see the large throngs of people lining the streets that are seen today. Held along lower Westheimer Road in the gay section on the Bayou City, the first parade in 1979 attracted a few hundred LGBTQs, very different from the 700,000 or more that attended last year’s parade in downtown.
The parade, like most others across the nation and the world, takes place in June to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their allies. This event commemorates the 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and is generally considered to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
At the first parade, standing under the marque of the Tower Theater, now El Real Restaurant, on a hot June Sunday afternoon, I was surrounded by — no one. There was not a soul within 15 feet of where I stood. Not only was the idea of a parade to express pride in being gay a new idea, demonstrating so in public could have negative consequences.
Many queers of the era stayed home, afraid that if TV news crews showed up and captured their image and their bosses saw it on Eyewitness News later that evening, they’d be fired on Monday. Being out in 1979 was risky.
So I stood there sweating, watching marchers carrying banners promoting their organizations, and seeing drag queens with make-up running down their faces passing by, all sweltering in the Houston summer heat and humidity. There were no large corporate sponsors and no straight owned businesses, just gays and gay-owned businesses representing our community. Those large companies were threatened with boycotts if they supported or backed Pride parades. I felt so euphoric the first time a gigantic Budweiser truck glided down Westheimer and remember thinking, “We’ve made it.”
In the early morning hours of July 4, 1991, a group of three gay men leaving Heaven, a Montrose gay bar, were attacked by a pack of 10 young men from The Woodlands area. Several hours later Paul Broussard, 27, died from his wounds as a result of both internal injuries as well as what an expert medical examiner termed “a delay in treatment.” In the early days of the AIDS crisis, police and medical personnel were slow to respond to calls from the Montrose area for fear of AIDS contamination.
A few months later, Phillip W. Smith, a 24-year-old gay man, was gunned down, also after leaving Heaven. Smith’s murderer was charged with aggravated robbery, not murder.
Those homicides on the streets of Montrose led to the founding of Q Patrol later that year. The volunteer organization did exactly what its name implies — patrolled the streets of Montrose in an effort to reduce the incidents of gay bashing that had become all too familiar.
In 2010, Aaron Sheerhorn was stabbed to death in front of Blur in the 700 block of Pacific Street. In an apparent robbery attempt, Sheerhorn was chased by an assailant to the front steps of the club and, in front of numerous patrons, stabbed him numerous times.
Just last year, Christopher Bradford was brutally assaulted in what he believed was a hate crime. He said the attack occurred near Taft and Westheimer, the site of Houston’s Pride crosswalks, while he was walking home from Barcode, a gay club on Fairview.
There are other hundreds of other gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and drag queens, some famous and some not-so-famous who were attacked, harassed, mugged, had things thrown at them from moving vehicles, spit at, and threatened just for being who they are. Houston’s LGBTQ community endured these acts of violence and even thrived. The Pride Parade grew larger and larger and eventually moved from Sunday afternoons to Saturday nights, where it became a happening. Corporations that once shunned the event for fear of losing business to boycotts from conservative Christians found deep pockets to buy sponsorships. It became a good business model to sponsor the event.
Then on October 1, 2014, the Pride Houston Board of Directors announced that the Pride Parade and Festival would move to a new location in downtown Houston for June 27, 2015. Houston’s Pride Parade left Montrose, the quaint neighborhood where gays fought and died for acceptance, where blood was literally shed on its streets by LGBTQ individuals in search of a place to be true to one’s self.
San Francisco celebrates pride in Castro, its gay district. The Boystown neighborhood hosts Chicago’s Pride Parade on the last full weekend of June every year, and New York’s parade ends in Greenwich Village, home of the Stonewall Inn, where it all began.
With the move to downtown, Pride lost its sense of community. Though Houston’s LGBTQ community is much more scattered than it was in 1979, Montrose is still home to a large number of gay businesses and bars. It’s time for Houston to bring Pride back home. Back to Montrose where it started. Back to the quaint neighborhood where the first parades were held, when it took courage just to attend.
Houston’s LGBTQ community figured out how to combat fears of being outed on television, gay bashings, and even the heat and humidity. Let’s figure out how to pay homage to those who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears and bring Pride back home to its roots, Montrose.