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Stonewall's ripple through LGBTQ Austin

NYC uprising lit a fire through our small local community 50 years ago

Michael Barnes
The first Austin Gay Pride Fiesta took place at Fiesta Gardens in 1990. A sign advertises Doug Dyer's activist play "I Pass for Straight." [American-Statesman]

In the early hours of a torrid June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a scruffy LGBTQ bar in Greenwich Village.

Although such raids were routine in New York City and across the country, this time the bar’s clients and onlookers fought back. The street riots, with transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera among the vanguard, continued on and off for two nights. The uprising changed the power dynamics in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, which, despite some prominent protests in Washington, D.C., and militant actions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for the most part had been confined to quiet pushes for incremental changes.

During those two nights 50 years ago, a modern movement was born.

Many media outlets across the country did not at first report on what happened at Stonewall. Yet Austin’s relatively small LGBTQ community was quick to organize. As early as February 1970, the Austin underground newspaper the Rag called for “Pink Power!” In April 1970, the first publicly promoted meeting of gay Austinites drew 25 brave souls.

In a city accustomed to political organizing and protest rallies, a group called the Gay Liberation Front, seen by some of its founders as a constituent of the larger anti-war, pro-civil rights movements, started gathering on the University of Texas campus less than a year after Stonewall.

“Gay Liberation really started in 1969 with a group of friends in an old house at 105 Neches St.,” longtime Austinite and author Dennis Paddie told Grace McEvoy in a 2012 videotaped interview available on the Austin History Center’s YouTube page. “From that grew a sort of co-op or commune. Then in the summer of '69, Stonewall happened, and in 1970, we met at Sutton Hall at the University of Texas. Then we moved to the Union. Sometime in the fall, they kicked us off campus.”

The local scene

By Dec. 3, 1970, the American-Statesman was publishing reports about the debates between Gay Liberation organizers and UT leaders. According to one article, Ed Price, UT's assistant dean of students, said that the group’s purposes were “inimical” to educational purposes of the university, and therefore he would not register it as a campus organization.

The American Psychiatric Association did not remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses until 1973, and health experts on campus claimed that the activist group would discourage students who questioned their sexuality from seeking help.

Yet Gay Liberation leaders Joyce Smith and Neal Parker said that their group, which claimed some 200 followers, had encouraged people who needed counseling to pursue it (but not conversion therapy as it's currently understood). “Parker said the atmosphere in Gay Lib meetings is not as sexual as it is in gay bars,” reported the American-Statesman. “He said meetings offer the only way homosexuals can meet people as people for conversation or friendship without feelings of fear and repression society directs toward ‘gays.’”

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The fight dragged on for four years.

After a federal district court acknowledged its constitutional right to on-campus status in 1974, what was then called Austin Gay Liberation was recognized at UT. Previously in 1971, the group had put together a national gay rights conference, supported by local churches and political groups that included representatives from California and New York, home to a more radicalized sensibility, who were horrified by the laid-back vibe in Austin.

“The drag queens stole the show,” Paddie said. “We’d never seen anything like what rolled out of New York and San Francisco. Austin was called the ‘Palm Springs of the movement.’ They were always chiding us for not radicalizing. That was an irritant. We didn’t have to worry about it much because there was not that kind of crackdown here like there was Los Angeles and San Francisco. Austin had been a live-and-let-live part of the world.”

More Austin organizers and groups followed, sometimes fracturing efforts. By 1974, the city was also home to the Austin Lesbian Organization. A group called Gay People of Austin (made up mostly of students) staged the Gay Picnic and Cultural Celebration at Shoal Creek Park in 1974, followed by a party at the student union ballroom, which attracted an estimated 300 people.

Paddie felt that the Austin LGBTQ movement was on its way: “In the long haul, it was very successful.”

The role of bars

Why did a raid on a gay bar in a distant city foment activism in a quiet place like Austin with a reputation for relative tolerance? In part because gay bars had become crucial oases of comparative safety and community during a time when few people dared to come out and acknowledge their sexual and/or gender identities.

It is important to remember that, until landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, the state prohibited even private homosexual acts by law. Therefore, police in this state could arrest anyone in a gay bar on the thin pretext that they were “consorting with known criminals.” The same prohibitions also discouraged LGBTQ people from seeking employment or other positions of responsibility because of an assumption from potential employers that they had most likely broken the law.

In 1958, more than 10 years before the Stonewall riots, Austin was home to exactly one gay bar, behind the Manhattan Deli at 905 Congress Ave.

“You walked right through the restaurant,” Randy Wicker, former student activist and later housemate to iconic transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, told the Statesman last year. “The back room was very small. It held maybe 18 people. You knew everybody there, except on (Longhorn) game days, when it would fill up and there would be some fresh faces.”

The local LGBTQ community likely first coalesced after World War II when, according to most social histories of the period, people returned from years of living in close wartime quarters and were decommissioned in ports like San Francisco and New York. Some former military personnel then took trains to known sanctuaries in the U.S. interior.

“There always was a gay scene,” Paddie said. “I knew a gentleman from Louisiana; he said that arriving in Austin was like arriving in heaven.”

By 1969, Austin was already home to at least five gay clubs — the Cabaret, Manhattan Club, Red River Lounge, Pearl Street Warehouse and the Apartment. Another refuge, the Insomnia Club, active as late as 1967, had closed by then, according to Eric Jason Ganther’s key 1990 thesis, “From Closet to Crusade: The Struggle for Lesbian-Gay Civil Rights in Austin, Texas, 1970-1982.”

Yet despite their crucial roles in the culture of the period, bars were not the only places where LGBTQ Austinites socialized, much less organized.

“We went to one another’s houses,” Paddie said. “It was considered bad form to be seen in the bars more than once a week.”

Other cultural oases were communes, such as the “Compound” on 15th Street, which Paddie remembers as a gathering place for UT theater majors. Doug Dyer, who co-founded Esther’s Follies, was an organizer and leader of the Compound.

“It was like going to a surrealist play,” Paddie said. “Everyone was constantly performing.”

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Originally from Hope, Ark., Paddie, who first came to town in 1965, does not remember any raids on Austin gay bars. Yet he was aware of the phenomenon.

In many American cities, random police raids that combined inspections, arrests, paddy wagon rides and mug shots published in the local media were unavoidable facts of life. Some police forces counted the number of "suspicious" pieces of clothing an individual wore to make cases under ordinances that forbid cross-dressing.

Writer and activist Joan Nestle told reporter Greg Morago in 1999 about the raids: “You took them for granted the way you took being hated for granted.”

The aftermath

Energy for LGBTQ causes waxed and waned after the early 1970s. Some activists contextualized gay rights as part of the women’s movement, while others preferred to link gay liberation to a wider arrange of New Left causes.

“It took another 10 years to really sort out what we were about,” Paddie said. “Yet a lot of highly charged feelings went into the creation of those first years.”

By the late 1970s, three leading groups emerged in town: Gay Community Services, Austin Lambda and Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus. The number of nightclubs had grown to six: Austin Country, the New Apartment, Hollywood, Private Cellar, Pearl Street Warehouse and Friends and Lovers, according to scholar Ganther.

As reported in an earlier American-Statesman story of LGBTQ local history, Mayor Jeff Friedman — leading what has been called the “hippie” Austin City Council — proclaimed a Gay Pride Week Celebration in June 1976. A parade was organized at Second Street and Congress Avenue.

The seriousness of LGBTQ assemblies intensified in the 1980s as the AIDS crisis made public action a matter of life or death.

Author Toby Johnson and his partner, Kip Dollar, moved to Austin from San Antonio in 1988 to take over Liberty Books, an LGBTQ bookstore and de facto community center, from its founder, Tom Doyal. Johnson had been active in the early days of the San Antonio Gay Alliance in the early '80s and before that in San Francisco during the '70s.

“We didn’t know anybody, though everybody knew us through the store,” Johnson said about their introduction to social life here. “I certainly experienced Austin as gayer than San Antonio. What I most recall is that there was significant gay activism in Austin, but it was at the statewide level. There wasn’t that same kind of organization at the local level. That is still sort of true.”

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In fact, local activists had declined to stage an annual gay pride parade in June to commemorate Stonewall in part because of statewide mobilizations through a “March on the Capitol” that drew 25,000 protesters every two years.

“I knew Austin to be a town with a gay culture,” Johnson said. “Through the bookstore, we knew Doug Dyer as a founder of Esther’s Follies and producer of ‘I Pass for Straight,’ the gay activist musical revue. And I knew of Dennis Paddie as a gay playwright, and onetime ‘high priest of the hippies.’ The late '80s and early '90s were a fertile period. Paul Clover started (LGBTQ-focused mental health center) Waterloo Counseling, and AIDS Services of Austin spun out of that. Barbara Davis started Project Transitions,” a housing and hospice service for those living with HIV and AIDS.

In 1989, the Capital City Men’s Chorus was founded, but it was not until this year that, during its groundbreaking performance of Andrew Lippa’s “Unbreakable,” an oratorio/musical about gay history, that the choir announced that it was changing in its name to the more forthright Austin Gay Men’s Chorus.

In 1990, Austin held its first Gay and Lesbian Pride Fiesta at Fiesta Gardens, which attracted some 1,500 people.

In 2001, the Statesman published an award-winning study — authored by this reporter and social scientist Sean Massey — about the city’s gay community. The conclusion: “An overwhelming majority of lesbians and gay men feel safe, comfortable and satisfied with the quality of life in Central Texas. Yet they miss certain aspects of traditional gay culture and community, such as social spaces, businesses and other resources dedicated to gay men and, especially, lesbians.”

In 2002, the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce launched a Pride Parade to go along with the festival. Taking various routes around downtown from year to year, it attracted tens of thousands of spectators by 2008. By 2014, one of the country’s leading corporations, Apple, assembled more than 3,000 supporters — twice the total number of participants in the first Pride Fiesta in 1990 — to march in that year's parade, which attracted more than 125,000 spectators to downtown Austin. The parade is now run by the Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation.

These days, as some American cities have lost their gay bars to online dating, Austin is still home to several LGBTQ clubs — including Cheer Up Charlies, Highland Lounge, the Iron Bear, Oilcan Harry's, Rain on Fourth, Sellers Underground and BT2 — along with many gay-friendly establishments. Community organizations and political groups are also hubs for socializing: AGLIFF, Allgo, Out Youth, QueerBomb, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Texas, Hill Country Ride for AIDS and, in a sign of the times, Austin LGBT Coalition on Aging, among others.

In February 2015, Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant became the first legally married same-sex couple in Texas, following a state judge's order. Months later, following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country, LGBTQ activists and allies celebrated in the streets of downtown Austin.

The local transgender community was front and center in the successful, organized 2017 campaign to block an anti-transgender "bathroom bill" in the Texas Legislature.

Yet some Texas authorities were still raiding gay bars with excessive force at least as late as June 28, 2009, when the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission swooped down on Fort Worth’s Rainbow Lounge, leaving one customer with serious brain injuries — precisely on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. This time, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission fired two agents and an officer for their part in the incident. The commission also suspended the Fort Worth district supervisor for three days without pay and reprimanded its regional captain.

Earlier this month where it all started, New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill made amends on behalf of his department for the raid Stonewall Inn 50 years ago.

"I think it would be irresponsible of me as we go through World Pride Month not to speak of the events at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969," O'Neill said. "I'm certainly not going to be an expert of what happened at Stonewall. I do know what happened should not have happened."

He added: "The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple.”


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“Pride: Fifty Years of Parades and Protests” from the Photo Archives of The New York Times

"Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America" by Martin Duberman

“The Stonewall Reader” edited by the New York Public Library

"The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out on the Streets" by Gayle E. Pitman

"The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History" by Marc Stein

“We Are Everywhere” by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown