Follow my 15-day road trip exploring the Queer South at BuzzFeed.com/QueerSouth.
A friend emailed me the day I flew from San Francisco to Houston, cheering me on for boldly "going into the belly of the beast." I'd been getting similar remarks — "You're so brave!" "Be careful!" — since I announced my plans to do a 15-day road trip across the South. I've been in Houston, with photographer Scott Baty, for a few days now, and the only beast I've encountered is the combination of 95-degree heat and 100% humidity. Here's a diary, of sorts, of my first 24 hours in H-Town.
Sunday, June 16, 2:00 a.m.
By the time I figure out how to turn on the headlights and adjust my seat in the rental car, most of Houston is already asleep. It's a 45-minute drive from the airport to our hotel and, as we turn on the radio, we flip from one country station to another, hoping to find hip-hop or pop music upbeat enough to keep us awake. I hear a radio voice say something about "remembering Stonewall" just before Scott flips to another station.
"Wait! Go back."
It's a program on 90.1 MHZ reflecting on the impact the Stonewall riots had not just on the country, but on people's everyday lives. A gay veteran talks about being stationed in Saigon in 1969. While eating lunch in his base's mess hall, he was reading the U.S. military bulletin and came across a single paragraph on the riots. Though he couldn't talk about this news with anyone, he decided that, if he made it back to the States, he'd come out.
As we listen to the radio program, we drive past a huge church with Grecian-style white columns. It has a banner across the columns that has to be 40 or 50 feet tall. There's a man on it — a preacher, I assume. I'm afraid to take my eyes off the road. (I rarely drive when I'm back in San Francisco. Actually, I never drive in San Francisco.)
"Can you see who's on the banner?" I ask Scott.
Without another word, Scott turns the volume up. A woman is talking about how she was still in the closet and living as a convent nun when the Stonewall riots happened. She left the convent and came out a few weeks later.
The program concludes and is followed by a woman with a booming voice talking about "the warriors of Christ arising...." I turn off the radio and think about how on June 16, 1977, almost 9,000 LGBT people and straight allies marched through Houston to protest an appearance by the notoriously anti-gay Anita Bryant. She came to Houston to shame the city's LGBT community and instead sparked a Southern Stonewall of sorts.
Several decades later, the city of Houston has twice elected Anisse Parker, an out lesbian, as its current mayor. Houston also has a flourishing LGBT community that defies many of the assumptions people make about Texas. We've come to find the community that ferocity built.
Sunday, June 16, 12:00 p.m.
Houston is not "the belly of the beast." It is, however, the fourth-largest and most ethnically diverse city in the country (out-ranking both New York City and Los Angeles). Several hours into my first day in town, these statistics translate into two undeniable facts: One, you have to drive everywhere in this city. And two, when you arrive at your destination, it will almost surely defy expectations.
Our first stop of the day is "Drag Me… to Brunch" at Bayou City Bar and Grill, a dive bar in the Montrose area (just west of downtown), which is basically the city's "gayborhood." (You can read more about the brunch here.) Aside from the Latino bartender and an older white guy in a rather impressive bright green Hawaiian shirt, most of the patrons at Bayou City are black gays and lesbians. While Scott and I wait for our breakfast tacos and margaritas, a young black man named A.J. saunters up to the bar, shouts an order at the bartender, lets out a loud laugh, and says, "Don't you just love being gay and not giving a fuck?"
Montrose was once Houston's red-light district, but those days are just sunburned memories now. Now it's one of Houston's most sought-after neighborhoods for homeowners and resembles New Orleans' Garden District — except with more rainbow flags and gay bars.
Sipping on his margarita, A.J. rattles off the names of at least six other gay bars all within a few blocks of each other. "Yeah, honey. This is Montrose. Houston is Fags-ton, basically," he adds, with another sharp laugh, before walking back to his friends.
In the early 1970s, when gay Houstonians began to claim Montrose as an LGBT hub of sorts, there were between 30 and 40 gay bars in the area. As has been the case in other major cities across the country, there are fewer gay bars in Montrose now. More than a few locals I speak to suggest that the rise of online dating sites and hookup apps as well as increased tolerance of LGBT folks across the area has resulted in fewer gay people feeling the need to hang out in exclusively gay bars. There's only one lesbian bar still open in Houston. (The same is true for San Francisco.) And Mary's, the city's oldest gay bar, closed its doors for good in 2009.
Even still, when A.J. comes back to the bar for another drink, he mentions that gay folks from not just Houston but suburbs and nearby small towns still flock to Montrose. For many queer people, Montrose is still a home away from an often unwelcoming home.
Sunday, June 16, 3:00 p.m.
The brunch is four hours long with drag performances every hour. After the third set, we decide to take a walk around Montrose and see what we find. Just as A.J. said, there's South Beach, the 611, George's Country Bar, JR's, and Montrose Mining Company, all within a three-block radius. We stop into Black Hawk Leather, which has been designing and selling handmade leather and fetish gear since 1998. The air conditioning is just as appealing as the black leather chaps.
I grew up in Lewisville, Texas (just north of Dallas), so the heat isn't a surprise. Even still, Houston's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico creates a humidity that zaps you of all strength within minutes of being outside. After walking around Montrose for less than 20 minutes, Scott and I begin to wilt. We'd run for the car if we weren't already so worn out.
In the parking lot, an older gentleman with a smile that refuses to fade stops us. "Do you know if that place is open yet?" he asks, pointing to Montrose Mining Company.
When we explain that we aren't sure because we're visiting from San Francisco, he perks up. "Oh, I was there once years ago. I went to Badlands. They had a really nice disco ball there."
I want to be polite and keep up the conversation. I want to tell him that Badlands is still open in the Castro and I've been there a few times, but goddamn it's hot outside.
"We're so sorry, but we have to go! Nice to meet you," I say, already walking away.
"What's your names? I'm Robert!"
"Scott and Saeed," we shout back before jumping in the car and turning on the air conditioning to full blast.
Sunday, June 16, 8:00 p.m.
We're back at Bayou City Bar & Grill for the Sunday evening drag show. After being there during the day when it was almost empty — maybe 20 patrons showed up for brunch — it looks like we're at a different bar entirely. The parking lot is packed, and there's a valet now. We can hear hip-hop booming and drag queens cackling on the microphone before we've even gotten out of our car. A few heads turn when Scott and I walk in.
"All the white people in the room say hey!" says the show's hostess, a Latina drag queen named Aliyah Crawford, looking directly at Scott. He offers a polite "hey." "All the Mexicans in the room say hola! All the n***as in the room say what's up!" Some people join the call-and-response, but mostly folks are busy ordering drinks, checking each other out, and smoking on the porch. "All the tops in the room say hey! All the bottoms in the room say hey!"
Later in the evening, Aliyah takes Scott by the hand and leads him into the spotlight. "Baby, I've got a message for you from the gods. Are you ready?" she says into the mic. He nods. "Hit it, DJ!" The DJ presses play and "This Boy Is a Bottom," a parody of Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire," begins to play. Scott, ever the sport, does a little dance while the drag queen howls and the audience applauds. I buy the next round. It's the least I can do.
Sunday, June 16, 10:00 p.m.
As we head to Montrose Mining Company, I have to admit I'm surprised by just how lively the gay bar scene is here on a Sunday night. The same streets that Scott and I walked along this afternoon are lined with parked cars. White, black, and Latino folks are going from bar to bar, which is easy to do because none of the bars have cover charges and they are all so close to one another. There are drag queens seemingly everywhere. In fact, I don't know if I've ever seen a city with such a thriving drag queen scene. Almost every bar we step into hosts drag shows every night.
Inside Montrose Mining Company, older gay men leer at the three steroid-pumped go-go boys dancing on stage. A black man in flowing white linen pants, an oversized white silk shirt, and a string of pearls looped several times around his neck asks for change for a $5 bill and then walks up to his go-go boy of choice to give him a tip. We take a break to play a round of pool before walking across the street to JR's (yes, there is a chain of gay bars across Texas inspired by the '80s television show Dallas) to see yet another drag show.
Sunday, June 16, 12:00 a.m.
As the day and evening have progressed, I've transitioned from a state of curiosity to amused awe at Houston's impressive gay scene to full-on glee. The thought of all my friends warning me to "be careful" going down South makes me want to giggle. Of course, this margarita might have something to do with that feeling as well.
We're still at JR's. We thought turnout would be low on a Sunday night and that most bars would be empty well before midnight, but people are still streaming in. Our bartender, Tyler, says that in Montrose "the best night for going out really is Sunday night." It's hard to argue with him. Drag queen Kofi Cake, a legend here in Houston who has been performing for almost 30 years, is on stage in the main room doing a medley of Patti LaBelle songs that's driven me to throw every dollar bill I have in my wallet at the stage. The other room serves as a karaoke bar on Sunday nights, and you haven't lived until you've heard a cute Latino cowboy do karaoke in Spanish.
When we tell Tyler that we spent most of the day at Bayou City Bar and Grill, he says something about it being "too ghetto." It's right across the parking lot, but Tyler hasn't been there in more than six years. We ask him for recommendations on other places to see this week and he says that Meteor, a gay bar a few miles away, has Jell-O wrestling on Tuesday nights and he will be there. Who are we to say no to such an offer?
Sunday, June 16, 2:00 a.m.
The drag show is still going. The queens, each more elegant and showstopping than the last, have performed songs by Whitney Houston, Shirley Bassey, Rihanna, and Anita Baker. One queen does Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" so well, I have no choice but to go to the ATM and get more cash so I can tip her.
I'm beginning to get the feeling that drag queens run Houston. In most cities I've lived in, two or three gay bars feature drag performances a few times a week. JR's alone features drag shows, often hosted by Kofi, three or four times a week. And if the queens at JR's aren't your flavor, there are regular shows at TC's Show Bar (famed for its blind drag queen host), The F Bar, and, of course, Bayou City Bar.
Last call in Houston is 2 a.m., but instead of thinning out as we pass 2, JR's has actually gotten more crowded. I step outside to see if maybe this is just a fluke, maybe this is just the bar everyone goes to, but no. All of the bars in the neighborhood are still packed with crowds. And at this point, some of the parking lots have turned into impromptu clubs with folks gathering around the burrito truck to meet and greet.
I'm exhausted. I can barely keep my eyes open. My feet hurt from standing and dancing. My shirt is drenched in sweat. And Houston, I promise, I can't wait to do it all over again tomorrow.