Another Year and More Reflection–But Anyway, Happy Pride 2014, Houston!

 

OK, so even out here in the suburbs, we can show our pride.

OK, so even out here in the suburbs, we can show our pride.

It’s that time of year again–LGBT pride month.  Really, it’s all about the parade, which is going to happen today in Houston–8:15 down on what we used to call lower Westheimer (well, maybe lower Westheimer is really beyond Montrose Avenue).  The festival is today also and starts at 11:00 AM.  Get any info about these events and all other Houston Pride activities here.)

I seem to always get reflective this time of year.  It’s hard not to.  It’s the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which in a way was the start of the concept of “Gay Pride” and the point (at least in the U.S.) in time when some gay people decided to “stop taking shit” from the cops and others for just being who they were.

I only know about this from reading about it a number of years later.  At the time, I had just finished my sophomore year at Fort Hays State University out in western Kansas and had a summer job working for the Union Pacific Railroad (other posts about that here).  I might have heard something about Stonewall on the TV news, but if I did it just got mixed together with all the anti-Vietnam War protests that were happening in other places in the country, and were a rarity (I do remember at least a couple that happened near campus) in rural areas.  In fact, for me, at that time, isolated as I was, I had no idea about me, or anyone else, being gay; it was a totally unknown concept. (But all of that has to be left for another post.)

I attended my first gay pride after I had returned to college.  Some friends and I from Kansas State University drove to Kansas City and marched in the parade there.  I say “marched” but groups were not all that organized, so it was more like we “snaked” through the downtown streets of KCMO.  The year was either 1979 or 1980, but my memory leans toward the earlier year.

I’m pretty sure that the first pride parade that I attended in Houston was in 1984.  I’ve missed some–but not very many along the way.  After moving out to the suburbs, it’s always a decision whether it’s worth the drive back into the city and the struggle to find a parking place.  However, that decision has already been made.  And like last year, I’m picking up a friend and we’ll go down to Montrose to enjoy the pre-parade people-watching and then the actual event itself.

There is something new though this year: lawn chairs.  It’s time.  It is just too much to go early to find a not-too-far-in-the-boondocks parking place, walk to find a good spot on the parade route, and stand waiting and then stand watching.  So into the car trunk the folding chairs will go.

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A LGBT Pride Month Story: And A Couple of T-Shirts That Were Saved from the Dumpster

This T-shirt from 1979 came from one of the dances put on by Gay Services of Kansas, at the University of Kansas.

Another hot Sunday is already upon us, and later on, when the driveway gets a bit shaded, I’ll tend to one of the planned weekend chores–washing the car.

The last time I was ready to do the same task, I pulled out a basket of car-cleaning supplies, which I had dumped under the work shelves in the garage when I was moving into my house, a year and a half ago.  In the basket, I discovered three old T-shirts, which I had saved for many

T-shirt from The Hide & Seek Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado--a souvenir from New Year's Eve 1979.

years for sentimental reasons in the bottom of a chest of drawers.  But like many items whose value changes when a person is making a move, these once nostalgia-filled keepsakes were turned into rags.

The funny thing is that afternoon, I did wash the car with them, even the grimy wheels.  But as I finished my task, and the car was looking all slick again, I decided that these shirts still meant something to me; I wasn’t ready to toss them all wet into the trash dumpster.

One of them–a bright red one–is a souvenir from a trip in 2000 to Chile.  It’s from the Capel Pisco Distillery in the Elquí Valley.  You haven’t lived if you’ve never had a Pisco Sour!

The other two–one black, the other, now a dingy white–are much older.  Unfortunately, the sleeves are cut off and long slits run down the sides, which was part of the look in the early 80s to go with the two pairs of parachute pants that I had.  With a red pair and a black pair teamed up with the slitted shirts, I had four different options to choose from to go out clubbing!

Actually, I had gotten the T-shirts when I still lived in Kansas, so it was probably about three years before I dismembered the sleeves here in Houston.

I got both of the shirts when I was a grad student at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.  (Read more about that here.)  One of them is from one of the dances that the KU gay group used to have in the Student Union.  A bunch of us from K-State would pack ourselves into cars and make the 90-minute drive (more if there were pit stops) from Manhattan to Lawrence.  Though there was a lot of KU-K-State rivalry on the football field and basketball court, the boys and girls didn’t have any time for that on the dance floor!  This shirt came from the 1st Annual Summer Fling, put on by the KU group, Gay Services of Kansas, in 1979.  The KU-Lawrence LGBT community has done a good job of chronicling its history, part of which can be found here, where I verified that my shirt was from 1979.

The other T-shirt is a memento from a road trip I took with a K-State friend to Colorado Springs over the holidays of that same year.  We spent New Year’s Eve at a place called The Hide & Seek Complex, which was the biggest club I had been to up to then.  I don’t remember so much about the physical features of the disco, but I do remember the fantastic pyrotechnic show that shimmered down from the top of Pikes Peak, which we viewed from the patio of the club.  (The Hide & Seek Complex lasted for many years.  From what I can see, it must have closed about eight years ago.)

I also remember meeting many military guys from Fort Carson and a couple from the Air Force Academy itself that New Year’s Eve at that club in Colorado Springs.  Even though it was just a few short years since I had been in the Air Force myself,  I remember thinking, “Oh, if I only knew then, what I know now.” 

Actually, I had a much better situation for coming out, surrounded by college friends, who were basically doing the same thing.  We could, for the most part, enjoy the process with a lot of support from each other, not a situation I could have had in the military.

I guess that’s why I can’t use these T-shirts for car washing; the significance that they have is just too much.  And rather than shove them back in a drawer, I have a room with a lot of my keepsakes on the walls.  Put in frames, they’d go perfect there.

“For Colored Girls” and H.A.R.C.–You Can Take the Boy Out of the Country But . . .

Program cover for the production of "For Colored Girls" given at the Purple Masque Theatre at Kansas State University in early spring of 1979.

A recent revelation about how much money the Knights of Columbus had given NOM (the anti-gay group that spends millions to fight against same-sex marriage, but goes to court trying to avoid telling where it gets its money) helped bring back some memories of my coming out days at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.  (Yes, you New Yorkers, there is another Manhattan, and Dorothy actually lived there, a number of them, in fact!)

After I got out of the Air Force (read about Greece and the 6916th here and here), I spent three years working in northwest Kansas and lived in a town of about 200 people, and back in those days, when Bachman-Turner Overdrive was cranking on the radio, it wasn’t exactly the environment for a guy still trying to figure himself out.

Even though I loved the people out there in the sticks in Sheridan and Thomas counties, you know what they say about the lure of the bright lights.  Those lights were a couple hundred long miles down I-70 in Manhattan, Kansas, where I started graduate work in theatre.  I had this idea that I was going back to school to become an actor, but looking back on it, unwittingly, I was looking for a place comfortable enough to find “me”.

And it didn’t take long to find that place.  I was barely starting classes when I got cast as Dr. Rank in the KSU production of  Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and about the same time, a guy in one of my classes invited me to a party, and “that,” as we say, “was that.”

I appeared in and worked on a lot of theatre and other productions during my time at K-State.  I also found a group of gay “brothers and sisters” and a camraderie and connection within both groups (and, yes, there was a lot of overlap there) that was something very special.  I know a lot of it was that most of us came from small rural towns, and for the first time, were finding others like ourselves.  Too, it was our time.  Stonewall had taken place in New York City in 1969, and by the late 70s, even out in the middle of the Great Plains, there was a sense that it was OK to be gay.  (Somehow, you’d think it’d be a lot better these 30-odd years later.)  Kansas City had a great disco station, which we could sometimes pick up.  I remember listening to it all the way in, to be part of KC’s first, I think, gay pride parade.  (Sorry, for all the “I thinking”.  Some stuff needs to be written down before it fades.)

One of many “new” experiences for me at K-State was doing the make-up for the ballet and opera performances.  As part of my other theatre coursework, I took a couple of stage make-up courses, and found I was pretty good at it.  The drama department was going to do a production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” in the Purple Masque Theatre, which along with most of the speech and drama department was housed under the east side of the old stadium on campus.  I was selected to do the make-up for the show, and the apprehension on those seven African-American young women, who were portraying the Lady in Red, Lady in Blue, and ladies in several other colors, was quite apparent when this white guy showed up in the dressing room for one of the final rehearsals, when costumes and makeup were worn for the first time.  We all got over the initial awkwardness, and for me, being part of that show was another big part of the changes that were happening in my life at the time.

(I’m anxious to see Tyler Perry’s movie adaption from what was a relatively short stage production.   I just looked up the trailer, and it jogged my memory.)

Back on the social front, through my friend from class, I started meeting a lot of other people.  One of the reasons I’ve wanted to write this post for awhile is to write about the gay organization that we had.  Some of these things need to be recorded just for history’s sake.  In those days in Kansas, about the only formally organized gay groups were  connected to the universities.  KU, always being a liberal haven, in a conservative state, had a group, but I don’t remember the name.  They sometimes held dances in their student union, and people would drive to Lawrence from all over the state.

The group we had in Manhattan was not just a campus organization; though, we did have some meetings on campus.  It was called H.A.R.C.–Homosexual Alliance of Riley County, and we had members from the university, including a couple of the faculty, townspeople, and some from out of town, even here and there, a soldier from nearby Ft. Riley.  Yes, that was way before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  We often had our meetings in the back dining room of Sambo’s Restaurant (yes, that one), where several of our members were part of the staff.

One of our hangouts was a deli in Aggieville called “Say Cheese”, which was owned by a lesbian couple, who mothered some of us guys, often feeding us for helping out a bit around the store.

Like other groups, we had volunteer projects.  We helped refurbish some of the exhibits at the Manhattan Zoo.  One time we worked on the cage that held the wildcat, the K-State mascot, and there was a mini-brouhaha.

At our on-campus meetings, we were sometimes confronted by the reality of how some gay people had been “treated” just a few years before.  Oftentimes in attendance was a guy, whose name I don’t remember, maybe in his 30s, wearing an odd mix of clothes–women’s sweaters are what I remember most, the collarless ones, that have a head opening from shoulder to shoulder.  But he really wasn’t transgender or a crossdresser.  He talked out of turn and off-topic.  He wasn’t a student, and he must have walked to the meetings because I doubt if he could drive.  After we found out that his mother had sent him to Topeka–several mental hospitals there–because he was gay, and that he’d been given a lobotomy to try to cure him, it was a lot easier to deal with his odd behavior.  To this day, we still have people damaging perfectly good human beings because they think being gay is an illness.

Miss Tammy Whynot at HARC's "Evening in Paris" at the Manhattan Knights of Columbus Hall (circa 1979)

That brings me back to NOM and the Knights of Columbus.  In Manhattan, the Knights of Columbus Hall was across the river from the main part of town and could be rented for events.  At that time, the manager was friendly with our group–some said he was bi–and we started having dances there.  If I remember right, we had three dances while I was in Manhattan.  For us, they were the proms that we would have had in high school if we hadn’t all had to act like straight boys.  We hired DJs, put up decorations, and had some crazy times.  I know I did.

I doubt that the Knights of Columbus members knew who paid to rent the building on those evenings.  Maybe the manager even pocketed it.  Who knows.

I hope if anyone who reads this has any more details about H.A.R.C., they will comment.  It’s part of our history, and if it doesn’t get written down, it will be lost.  I’ve done some searching but have found no mention anywhere.