By Forest Riggs
I am not exactly sure where to start with this column, or how to progress. The subject is something that is near and dear to my heart, as it should be for all. Due to recent events in my own life and as a result of a great deal of discussions and angst within Galveston Island’s LGBTQ community, it is a tad difficult to approach this column with complete objectivity and non-personal bias.
As we move through June, LGBTQ communities around the world once again celebrate Pride, or what was originally known as “Gay Pride.” The term “Pride” has come to be an all- inclusive word representing the celebration of a myriad of lifestyles — primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer, hence LGBTQ.
The incomparable Judy Garland died on June 27, 1969 and since then has been forever linked to “gay rights” and the Stonewall Inn riots that occurred on the following day, June 28, 1969.
Garland, with her tragic life and struggles, had already become something of a gay icon, as gay men and women readily identified with the tormented star.
The Stonewall Inn was a popular pub in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was known as a “gay bar.” Though it did not have a liquor license, it was a popular drinking (bootleg) spot for the non-conformists (gays) that lived in the city’s Village area. The Inn had been the target of raids, police harassment, and physical abuse of the patrons. It is fair to say that the Inn was definitely on the radar of the New York Police Department and right-wing politicians. The night after Garland’s death, all hell broke loose at the Stonewall Inn.
As the entertainer RuPaul stated, “Those present used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back against authorities who were attacking them.”
The police raid turned violent when bar patrons and gathered activists engaged the police force and stood their ground. Those gathered, many grieving the loss of Judy and angered over how they had been treated, fought back and resisted the police.
The same scene was playing out all over America in any town that had a bar or favorite gathering spot for gay men and women. In those days, “gay” had replaced the derogatory word “queer” and included all that chose to love the same sex. To say that someone was gay was an easy category in which to place all, rather than single out individual tastes, preferences and identities.
Even into the late 1970s and early ’80s, Texas and Houston were no exceptions. Homosexuality was in the Penal Code and against the law! Bars were raided, private homes were raided, as were parks and anyplace where two people of the same sex gathered. It was a horrible time to be gay.
In Houston’s Montrose area, bars that were known to be frequented by “queers and the like” were targeted. Bar patrons were dragged outside, often physically abused and charged with a plethora of ridiculous charges including loitering, inappropriate attire, vagrancy and even “occupying a dive.”
Island resident, Matt Hannon, recalls those early days in Atlanta.
“It was horrible,” Hannon said. “They came in like storm-troopers, smashing all the liquor bottles, and drug us out, verbally and physically assaulting us and eventually charging us with ‘occupying a dive!’”
There was no recourse. You certainly didn’t want your name everywhere and lose your job or standing in the community, or be outed. After all, to be “gay” or homosexual was illegal.
The crazy Christians and right-wing hacks were at it, even then. With former beauty queen and songstress Anita Bryant as their “face for the anti-gay movement,” the hate, violence and vitriol that were spewed at and toward gay men and women spread like wildfire. It was easy to hate when people were told the queers were evil and going to take over.
Along the way, different states slowly repealed old “homo laws” and things eased up a bit, but there were still beatings, jail time, stings and other forms of harassment. A gay person, whether male or female, lived in constant fear of exposure, shame, and arrest.
The “gay movement” pressed on and over time gained ground. Homosexuality, which then included lesbians, and to some degree, bisexuals, was becoming more and more accepted and mainstream.
Looking for an image to represent the now-growing and stronger population of gay activists, the Freedom or Rainbow flag was introduced. The brightly colored flag was quickly accepted as the official emblem or icon for the world of gays. As much of the police harassment somewhat abated, especially in larger metropolitan areas, the flag began to be displayed in places that were deemed “safe” and offered acceptance, security, and gathering of like-minded individuals. To this day, the flag remains a hard-earned emblem of the battles that early gays fought to love whom they chose and freely express it.
Today, and not just in Galveston, however, the “issue” has reared its divisive head lately, there is much debate as to display the Rainbow Flag or not. To some, what was once a beacon to gays and gay-friendly people, indicating a welcome and safe environment, has now been pushed aside and opted out as something that might be more negative than positive in terms of attracting patrons. This is a new era. In the old days, people, especially when visiting a new town, looked for those multi-colored flags and when found, knew it would be an “OK” place to visit.
Today, we have become a world full of gay bars that are straight-friendly and straight bars that are gay-friendly that are mostly staffed by gay, straight, bisexual and trans men and women. It is good that all feel welcome and blend. Patrons go to bars for entertainment and visit with friends, to chill, and to have a good time. But it has become as if to use the word “gay” is a bad thing.
Personally, I want everyone to feel welcomed and to welcome all they encounter; however, not all the barriers are down. I have witnessed a bar filled with many straight couples who get upset when two persons of the same sex start kissing or touching. On the other side of the coin, I have seen gay couples stroll into a bar that is a “straight” club and take heat for demonstrating their love for another. I happen to like the term “gay bar”. I am a gay man and to me, “gay” now includes all LGBTQ folks.
When friends call from afar and ask if we have gay bars on the Island, I chuckle, stop, and try to explain, “We have bars. Some are gay, some are stray and some are not sure what they are, but all welcome members of the LGBTQ community which is strong on Galveston Island.”
I tell them there are three bars where you will feel comfortable, Robert’s Lafitte (still using the no-longer politically correct term GAY bar), Rumors Beach Bar, and 23rdStreet Station Piano Bar. Though flags are not flying at all of the three, it is critical to remember that all are welcome.
From the early days of gay bars evolved the freedom and openness that exists today in most all the bars on the Island, whether gay, straight, or stray. The bars and clubs in Galveston have always been welcoming to all and remain so today.
The Gay flag, though no longer displayed in all the “gay bars” or “neighborhood bars” that enjoy a huge gay clientele are nevertheless still bars where gay men and women, trans men and women, and bisexual men and women can gather and have a good time. LGBTQ has replaced gay and is, perhaps, a bit more palatable to the masses. After all, it is more inclusive when the word gay no longer represents several different types of individuals on the spectrum.
The bottom line is, love one another, be happy, share your happiness, support your local bars and clubs and, most of all, get along! Happy Gay Pride!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the MONTROSE STAR.