History's Closet

Making the case for an Austin gay barchive

History's Closet

We are history. Some of us freshly minted, others sepia with tattered edges. We are stories, ripe with turns of phrase and twists in the denouement. We are memory, sometimes sure in our details but most often unconfirmable. Forty years after Stonewall is where we are. A random night in late June 1969 is a strange launchpad for modern gay struggle. But, at least it is there – a point on the line, a dot in time, our cha-cha-heeled Memorial Day we can recall and say, "We are history."

Where is Austin gay history? Where is Austin in the larger scheme of gay history? We'd like to tell you we knew. But instead we'll tell you about our odyssey in trying to get a foothold.

First, an observation from Miss O, a self-proclaimed "ridiculous Austin queen from the Seventies and Eighties":

"Last year I watched a program on KLRU about the history of the live music scene in Austin. It started with the Armadillo World Head Quarters, and my interest was piqued. A flood of memories came back; you see, I moved to Austin in 1971. I was 19, and I remember those days well. Bette Midler came to the Armadillo in 1973, and the gays turned out. It was fun! But I digress, back to the program on PBS that segued to the Red River music scene of Stubb's, Emo's, and so many other new clubs that showcase bands. According to this documentary, the current Red River night life sprang out of junk stores, the Salvation Army, and hookers, not one mention of all the many gay bars that for 20 years existed in that area a couple of blocks from the police station on Red River and Sixth: Austin Country, Red River Crossing, Chances, Blue Flamingo, Private Cellar, Chain Drive (originally on Seventh just east of Red River), Friends & Lovers on Sixth Street, all places I frequented, come to mind. I called the station to inquire and was told by a very polite programmer that the piece was not produced in Austin. I was dismayed. So what is sad about an honest mistake, a missed detail irrelevant to the story about the live music capital of the world? Why should anyone care that the gay bars were erased from a street's history on a PBS piece about music in Austin? I'll tell you who should care: Every gay man and woman in this town should mind that our bars, and ourselves, were erased."

We looked up that episode of the KLRU show Downtown which contains this clip. "Red River Rocks" appeared in the first season, episode 101, and indeed, it was as if Chances had never happened. As if the "rock journalist" and the "historian" they filmed walking around Red River for validity didn't know about Friends & Lovers or Austin Country or DJ's. Miss O was right. We were pretty bummed out. So, we thought, what a great idea for a feature. Little did we know.

First we hit the Internet. Information was nonexistent. We did, however, find a few feature stories of interest, two of which were first published in The Austin Chronicle. Lars Eighner, local author of the novel Travels With Lizbeth, has housed on his website (www.larseighner.com) a piece called "Death of a Gay Bar," a personal reminiscence of Dirty Sally's. And in 2001, Stephen MacMillan Moser wrote one of his best – a most engaging roundup of late-1970s/early-1980s Austin gay bar memories titled "Life at the Cha-Cha Palace," which appeared in our first Lost Austin issue.

Surely there was more than this to be found?

We called around to clubs and local "experts" in clubbing, with wildly mixed results. Some tight-lipped folks wanted to remain "off the record," while others flung the doors of personal archives wide open. We began to see the need for some sort of local repository, or at least a forum for our stories to be told ... stored ... validated. We compared notes with the Happy Foundation, an archive in San Antonio that already does for the Alamo City what we hope can be possible in Austin.

We talked to archivists.

A trip to the Austin History Center yielded less than it should have but more than we expected. Less, in that the collections filed under keywords such as "gay," "lesbian," and "homosexual" are thin. More, in that the staff are amazing and eager to help us grow their stacks and assist in any archiving of Austin LGBT artifacts that we might wish to help acquire. Our encounter there pretty much ignited the rocket that was set on the pad by Miss O's dismay.

The rocket is this: Austin needs an LGBT archive. And this is our call up.

Impatient for this archive, Andy Campbell, Ash Bell, and I called a number of local folks with some memories. We decided to focus first on the bars. Due to deadline and space constraints, these are not pure "oral histories," but they have the makings of damn fine ones. These are but wistful looks back at a gay old time. A gay old history not well documented for a city that wears its weird on its sleeve.

We are hoping this call up will move that weird to its rightful place – right over our hearts.

Friends, Producing this section would not have been possible without the kindness of the following establishments and individuals:

Marcilea Fletcher, Miss O, Carolyn Phillips, Rob Faubion, Ann Cvetkovich, Gene Elder and the Happy Foundation, Esther Chung and the Austin History Center, TWIT magazine (www.thisweekintexas.com), Ceci Gratias and Jimmy Flannigan of AGLCC, Antoinette and Twin Liquors, the Gay Place Krewe, and the amazing writing of Lars Eighner and Stephen MacMillan Moser.

This project has only just begun. Chapter 1 is the gay bars, but all facets of the Austin LGBT experience contain valuable stories in need of preservation. We are committed to the cause of collecting and archiving our history. Until a formal project is put into place, Gay Place would like to volunteer to collect the names and e-mail addresses of any person or organization interested in participating in this exciting project. Please e-mail us if you wish to volunteer or support this project in any way:


Many thanks, Kate X Messer

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