August 7, 2021
I am at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University, as one of their associate directors, and I've been living in Houston on or off since 1997. That is, in large part why I studied Houston; I moved here from North Carolina with much smaller towns than this one, much less established LGBTQ+ visible communities by comparison, if you use bars and organizations as the metric. And so I got very fascinated by that. I fell in love with the LGBTQ+ communities here and got curious about what their past was like. And that's taken me all sorts of places, from moving here to do an anthropology Ph.D., which I finished in 2005, to teaching, getting involved in activism, and my research.
I reallly care about how a place gets tethered to sexuality. And that's really why I started studying two different neighborhoods in Houston in parallel, the Montrose neighborhood with its reputation as a gayborhood, and Freedmen Town, which is where the city of Houston put a red light district in 1908, and then closed it down in 1917. I also ended up getting very curious about how the Ghazi neighborhood and Athens got connected to gay community as well. All 3 are very different stories.
Freedmen and Montrose in Houston
So, Freedmen Town's story has a lot of tellers. So I'm telling parts of the story that often are dropped to the side. Some people may be familiar with the Red Book of Houston, that 1915 publication produced by Black Houstonians themselves, putting forward the best parts of Black Houston, showing how organized, how educated, how wealthy, how pious, how with it they are. And those doctors, lawyers, clergymen, nurse practitioners, they were all respectable. But what was very interesting for me is that story, that 1915 story, took place right in the middle of the same timeframe that the red light district was running in the original part of Freedmen Town, the Hard Castle edition, and the Burton Home Edition. They're not going to talk about a red light district in their backyard. So for me, talking about how Freedmen Town's history is related to the present day, people talking about the Red Book, people talking about the San Felipe quarter apartments that became white only public housing for Allen Parkway Village. They are accurate about how race and capitalism combined in Freedmen Town to disinvest Black Houston, but they leave out that there were steps that took place before.
The reason the city was able to put public housing in Freedmen Town is that it owns the land on which that public housing unit sat. The reason they were able to own the land is that they had purchased it piece by piece because people sold it to them who did not want to own parts of a red light district. Another reason they were able to own land is that they passed an ordinance allowing them to appropriate land from people who did not pay their property taxes. All of these combined create the possibility of public housing units. It’s one of the first institutional attacks on Black Houston, the placement of this public housing unit for just white people in the Freedmen Town. But there's a long history that makes that possible. Part of which is predicated on how sexuality changes the value of the land.
The Red Book was written by Black Houstonians for themselves in part, but also for everybody else, as in the “see how well we're doing despite the barriers you put in our way.” This also participates in a global phenomenon, because you may be aware that W.E.B Du Bois had just recently gone to the Paris exposition with massive amounts of data and charts depicting the welfare of the Black community in Georgia and that international exposure of how Southern Black life was thriving. Again, despite the barriers put in place under Jim Crow, I can't but believe that that inspired Black Houstonians to do something similar themselves and that resulted in the publication of The Red Book. So part of what I think we see through things like The Red Book is a concerted effort to disavow the lie that somehow Black folk are naturally inferior and therefore appropriately subject to Jim Crow, but also to marshal the resources and the networks of the Black community for the benefit of the Black community through the project of creating The Red Book itself. So not only is that a disavowal, but it's also an embrace of a particular kind of self-sufficiency; this is my interpretation of it.
Interestingly enough, at the very same time that the red light district was operating in Freedmen Town, the subdivision of Montrose was added to the city plan in 1911. A lot of the people who were involved in that real estate speculation were connected to Rice University as well, so there's a deep connection socially between the investors and the Houston Land Corporation and Rice University through the Rice family. At the same time, Montrose was supposed to be the elite upper-class suburb for wealthy business people to escape the dirt and heat of the urban core of Houston. It had wide boulevards with palm trees from the T's nursery. It had a streetcar line, discreetly tucked to one street off of the main boulevard so as not to spoil the sightlines. And one of the main investors in Montrose, J.W Link, built his own mansion on the corner of Alabama and Montrose. That mansion still stands today as the administrative building for St. Thomas University. But at the time it was built, it was the most expensive single-family dwelling in Houston and the best advertising for what Link thought Montrose should be. He even did something rather clever. He knew that Courtland Place was a small subdivision with only 22 houses for the very, very wealthy. He knew that the symbolic capital of Courtland Place could be linked to Montrose if he were to link the roads.
So what he offered them, the residents of Courtland Place, was a deal where he would get the city to pave and light their street if they allowed their street to flow into Lovett Boulevard, one of the other main cross streets of Montrose. And that happened. And so for some time, Montrose was symbolically linked to the most elite neighborhood in Houston. But eventually, over time, that changed and they put a wall back up in the 1980s when crime in Montrose had gotten so bad that they just didn't like it anymore. So they stuck a wall back up there at the end of Lovett Boulevard, where it now makes a T intersection with Taft. So that's what it started as; it started as an elite neighborhood. And there were middle-class homes and homes built for people with more modest budgets. But that was the idea, right? That was where the best of Houston would go. But in 1926, River Oaks was plotted, and the shiny new, also deed-restricted neighborhood attracted all of the wealthier families to move there out of Montrose.
Now, you've heard me say deed-restricted. This is another interesting thing to think about as a difference between Freedmen Town and Montrose; they're both parts of the Fourth Ward. Montrose had deed restrictions such that only white people could own, lease, rent or buy property. Those restrictions were later lifted by federal law in 1948. But by then the pattern had already been set. Freedmen Town never had any such restrictions; in fact, Freedmen Town is named Freedmen Town because it was one of the first places where emancipated slaves were allowed to purchase property. The guy who sold them that property back in like 1865, through 1878, was Garrett Hardcastle. He was the tax assessor for Harris County. And the story is that he helped slaves, previously slaves, purchase their property, and keep paying their taxes on it. He came from Maryland, and he was part of the Methodist Church. So it's entirely likely that he was an abolitionist.
In fact, the Methodist Church has a deep heritage of helping Black folk in the south. So when he died, his particular influence over that stopped. And I don't think it's any accident that in the 1880s and forward, a large number of Black landowners in Freedmen Town ended up selling their property for failure to pay taxes. Remember that ordinance that the city passed? That's when they passed it, right around the time of Garrett Hardcastle's death. So these two neighborhoods for me, we have to think about them together. Because together they tell a story on the one hand of respectable white, reproductive Houston, linked to capital, linked to luxury, and Black Houston, linked to sex work, and crime. But not because of anything that Black people themselves did, because of things that the city of Houston, by passing the tax ordinance and by passing the ordinance that created the red light district in Freedmen Town. And so these two neighborhoods are two sides of the same coin, of what was progressive your Jim Crow Houston, where we could create clean, respectable family places for white people, and push all of the vices off to the edge of the city, where it just happened that Black people lived.
There are three major factors that I would think about. One of them is the disinvestment from the wealthy who were now still landowners, but did not live there themselves. This kind of absentee landlordism allowed them to focus elsewhere. And these were just revenue-generating properties that they might not necessarily care about. At the same time around World War II, Houston was another one of those cities transformed by the war effort and the number of soldiers who needed temporary housing. Lots of houses in Montrose were under-occupied and became tempting places for people to subdivide their houses and put up soldiers. So a large number of houses in Montrose were subdivided during the Second World War. And after all those soldiers left, what do you do with a subdivided house? Well, you keep renting it out to people, but for cheap because at this point, Montrose is one of the cheapest areas and in the post World War II boom.
All the growth in Houston is out to the west and the north, think Sharpstown, the area that would become the Galleria. No energy is being invested in the urban core. So Montrose by comparison becomes cheap. So Bohemians, hippies, and gay folk end up moving in. The first sign that we have of anything connected to the gay community in Montrose is the 1956 opening of Art Wrens, a 24-hour diner, on Westheimer today, at the time, the street was named Hathaway. But it's where Katz's deli now stands just to give you a reference. This place was known not just in Houston, but across the nation as a place connected to the gay community. There is a fundraiser brochure for a drag performance in California, in San Francisco, in 1963 that lists Art Wrens as an interesting place to go in Houston. That's a really interesting reputation to have many years before Stonewall. So, even before Stonewall, Montrose had a national reputation as linked to the gay community by that time.
The Montrose Counseling Center came about long before HIV. The Montrose Counseling Center was one of the community institutions that was built in the aftermath of the protest against Anita Bryant, who came to sing for the Texas Bar Association at a hotel downtown. The story goes, that so many people turned out to protest Anita Bryant's presence in Houston, that they drowned out her singing, even from outside the hotel. Now, I don't know if this is just a good old exaggeration, but I'd love to think it was true. Nonetheless, that protest was one of the first mass events in Houston where a group of people marched in public in support of gay rights. And it was after that protest, that community organizers recognized that there was an energy that needed to be tapped and redirected into something that could last longer than just a protest, which is why they put together an event called town hall meeting one, rather optimistically named because there hasn't been another one since, nonetheless, it was out of town hall meeting one that lots of different community organizations emerged, some of which are with us to this day, including the Montrose Center.
The American Psychology Association took its time changing its stance on whether homosexuality was a disease. So imagine looking for therapy in a time when that decision had not yet actually been accepted, even though it had been made. Just because an organization pronounces something as so does not mean that all of the people who claim membership in it believe in the same way, so the Montrose Counseling Center came about to provide safe counseling for people who identified as lesbian, gay, and bi in an era where that wasn't necessarily the thing that was causing them trouble. That would make them go to a therapist. Imagine being told when you go to a therapist, oh, your problem is that you're gay when the problem might actually be how society treats you because you are gay.
Working at Montrose
After I finished my Ph.D. at Rice, I wanted to stay in Houston. And an opportunity came up to manage the Health Education Program at the Montrose Counseling Center, this is before it changed its name to just Montrose Center. So at the time, the Health Education Department had six educators who drove all over Greater Houston, providing different forms of education, about sexually transmitted infection, HIV, hepatitis, safer sex in general, to alcohol and drug treatment facilities that require to do that by state contract. So we were the third-party provider that gave those education pieces, which meant that though it was an LGBTQ-focused center, we were serving an enormous population spread out beyond the boundaries of Harris County. We had some odd 90 to 100, different organizations to which we provided education in some form or another. And those six educators were some of the most overworked and dedicated people you could ever hope to meet because they would teach a night class on one side of the county, and the very next day teach a morning class on the other side of the county. So I did that for about two years. And at the same time, I was teaching as an adjunct at Rice, the introduction to LGBT studies. And it became clear to me that there was only so much of me to go around. And when the opportunity came up to work more full-time for Rice, I jumped.
Try to imagine that each of these alcohol and drug treatment facilities has a range of people that it serves. Some of them specialize in women. Some of them specialize in men. Some of them specialize in young folk, and some of them specialize in people just released from prison. Some of them are inpatients, some outpatients. Anyone who finds themselves in need of assistance or in recovery might find themselves in one of these facilities. So it's entirely possible that the Montrose Counseling Center was touching every demographic that you could imagine in Houston, with no exaggeration. That's just the Health Education Department. There was a Street Outreach Department, there was a Case Management Department. There's also a Counseling Department. At any rate, just imagine all these different units of the Counseling Center, moving at the same time across the face of Harris County. It's not an exaggeration to say that the Montrose Center is one of the most important nonprofits in Houston. And it is the only nonprofit that managed to just recently open up a Senior Living Center built specifically for LGBTQ people. And they did it in an extraordinarily smart way. I think you may know that it's in the Third Ward. They have a benefits agreement with the Third Ward community around it, that they have access to the health clinic run inside of the Law Harrington Senior Center by Legacy Community Health, another one of the very important nonprofits for the Houston area. And the partnerships that go back and forth between Legacy and Montrose Center are kind of too many to count. Part of that has to do with the fact that Legacy used to be the Montrose Clinic. And so a lot of people got the Montrose Clinic and the Montrose Counseling Center confused and thought they were the same thing and they weren't. The two CEOs of both organizations are actually best friends; they go on vacations together, and they get into all sorts of good trouble together, John Lewis style. So they were very smart about how they thought about the Law Harrington Senior Center and placing it in the Third Ward in a way that would benefit not only the people who live within the walls, but the people who live beyond the walls.
Movements and Activism
I intended to do my fieldwork in the United States, looking at the way that networks of activists, academics, business owners, and ordinary citizens, combined to make movements happen. Where does the money come from? Where does the theory come from? Where do the volunteers come from? Where does the energy come from? Where does the excitement come from? How do all these things combine? And then I had an opportunity to do what I thought was a one-time thing: supervised fieldwork experience in Greece. So I spent six weeks running around Athens, with nothing but time on my hands. And I got to know a bunch of people in the gay community by going out to bars, and a lot of bars, and going out to coffee houses and a lot of coffee houses and going on vacation to beaches with different people. And by the time I finished that six weeks, I realized that I needed to do my project in Greece instead because the conditions on the ground were different. The politics were different.
The history was different, the sense of what the left meant and what progressive movements mean, in Greece is entirely different. Just for starters, there are more than two dominant political parties in Greece, one of which is a Communist Party, one of which is a socialist party, one of which is a conservative party, and one of which was a far-right party. The political landscape of where a movement might find a coalition is entirely different from in the United States, where some people might believe that the only possible coalition is with the Democratic Party. So just from the get-go, the idea of where money moves, how it moves, and how movements harness volunteers into organized activities are absolutely different. And I wanted a reason to go back. So I did. So I spent about two and a half years in Athens hanging out with activists studying what they thought they were doing, to whom they turned for inspiration, how they made their coalitions, how they raised money, and how they gathered volunteers. It was entirely different from how the United States does it. One concept that was just to name one very indicative is that the idea of someone who gets a salary for doing activist work is quite common in the United States.
People have full-time jobs with the Human Rights Campaign, and the National LGBT Task Force just to name two and there are way more than two. The idea of someone getting paid to do activist work in Greece was anathema. That was a form of theft; that was a form of the Greek word for it, which translates to exploitation. And so it meant that everything had to be organized quite differently. Everyone had to be a volunteer, and that changes the tenor and structure of what people can do. And that was just the beginning. And then, it wasn't just that there was one gay neighborhood and in Athens where there were lots of different neighborhoods that had a little gay slice to them. Bars are scattered all over central Athens not just in one place, but Gazi began to attract an inordinate number of them. Unlike Montrose, which was a residential neighborhood, Gazi was an industrial neighborhood, it sprang up around a coal plant that made gas. You bake coal to release gas from it to light street lights at night. I can't imagine a dirtier industry to put at the center of an urban core. And yet Gazi is within sitting distance of the Parthenon.
A lot of people wanted to shut it down forever and ever, and they finally did in the 80s. But then they didn't know what to do with it. So it sat there, kind of derelict and cheap. So they ended up renovating the coal plant into an arts center and put a new metro station in and a whole bunch of other things. But this takes time and money. And you know, while all that time and money is being spent, it's an ugly neighborhood construction stuff all-around mud, dirt, broken roads, noise, who wants to live there? The people who can afford to: immigrants from Albania, Nigeria, Romania, Egypt, Turkey, you name it, that's where they went. It also meant that that's where it was cheap enough to be able to afford to pay the rent on a bar and still have the business model or bar work. So literally over the time that I was there, Gazi became a gayborhood before my eyes from that perspective, of where the bars were moving to.
And so when they finally opened the metro station, there was this ring of gay bars literally around the construction area where the metro station would be revealed. And it was like, here's instant, gay village, even though that was never really an urban plan, even though that was not what the people wanting to revitalize Gazi intended even though that's not what any of the denizens of Gazi themselves intended, and yet, there it was. So Montrose and Gazi are not comparable at all. residential, industrial. But did anyone ever intend Montrose to become a gay neighborhood? No. Did the economics help it become that? Yes. Especially because of the places where the bars had been in Houston, downtown Midtown. As those areas changed, bars couldn't afford it when their space became too expensive and was about to be bought up to be turned into a skyscraper or a parking deck, which is equally likely and not probably Houston. Yeah, so there are some similar pressures, but very different historical trajectories.
Why questions are so hard to answer in any kind of compelling way when we're talking about groups of people. I'm not really sure that one story would be true for all of the people in either of these two groups, let alone the other groups that we could imagine thinking about, say activism in Nigeria versus activism in Berlin, right? But to take a stab at something that I did hear activists say, at least the activists in Greece, one of the reasons that they thought that volunteerism was better, is that they felt that they could trust the motivations of someone who wouldn't make a profit off of what they were doing. There was a suspicion of profit. In a way that doesn't quite happen in the same way in the United States, although we are suspicious if like, So show me the money, right?
We've got that narrative, believing that when we watch the money trail, we're seeing the truth of things, right. And that's the kind of evidence they would turn to in a courtroom for creating a plausible motive for whatever activity Oh, you stood to profit, therefore, right? So it's not too far afield. But there's a degree of difference in the way that we tell the story here about the motivation of money versus the way that I heard activists in Greece talk about why they would be suspicious of somebody, oh, well, he's making money off of it, where she's actually just promoting her career. She's not really into activism, she just wants a better job as a DJ. And I'm talking about an actual real person, right. So that's a granular answer to a question that I'm afraid doesn't really avail itself of an absolute one.
Networks form for all sorts of reasons, right? Examine your own life. Why do you count someone as a close friend? Is it just because they're in your college and you got to know them in your residential college over four years? And does that mean that you're actually going to stay in touch when you graduate? Or did you meet them out in a bar and you both thought each other was hot, and you went home and you had sex, and then a friendship came out at the sex and you never had sex again, but you were really close friends. And that friendship became something more important than just a friendship because you both had the same political passions, and you ended up finding each other at the same protests, you ended up seeing that you had a shared goal. We live in a world where those two stories are equally plausible and true, and more stories still. So for me, it's not so much that there's a general rule of thumb as to how networks form in ways that are tight and enduring.
But it's interesting for me to encounter the people in that network and let that texture reveal over time how people are tied together. Oh, they used to date Oh, that's good to know, oh, they used to date and they don't get along. That's good to know. All these things can happen. So when it comes to understanding the core questions that I came into graduate school with, my questions entirely changed. But they're related. They're right next door. So when I start asking people about why they get involved with something, I'm listening, not just for the Oh, I've always been interested in. I start listening for when was their first activity? Who did they do it with? How did that make them feel, did they get value out of it? Did they find themselves at home? These are things these emotions, right, these drive us in ways that I think we don't give enough credit to. “I have a belief in democracy.” Well, how did your activism towards democracy make you feel? Did you meet people who didn't judge you for being different? While you were doing democratic activism? Ah, yes, maybe that would help. Right. So the focus of my attention has shifted to things that are about. Political Economy. Yes. networks. Yes. Capitalism. Yes. large structures of race. Yes. ideas of inequality along sexuality and gender identification and expression. Absolutely. But also, who do you love? Which one? Do you feel safe? What are the signs of feeling safe? And who feels dangerous?
I think part of what makes the Montrose Center so successful is that it recognized a need that was never going to be met by the institutional structures that existed at the time that it came to be, and it kept staying in touch with the emergent needs its community had over time. Because counseling is not HIV services, but it has adapted to HIV services. And when people live long enough, past HIV, past trauma, to need senior care, they made space for that too. And when they recognize that, even after coming out became a political strategy available to lots of people, support in doing that, while young, was not necessarily a guaranteed thing. So they have a hatch group. And because they were also really good at managing money, and managing the resources they got from grants and the human capital they had in the form of their labor pool and their volunteers. They were also consistently in a position to become a safe harbor for community organizations that could no longer be run by volunteers and needed to be absorbed into something that could endure past a volunteer base. So the Montrose Counseling Center ended up absorbing the Gay and Lesbian Hotline in Houston (AssistHers), the Lesbian Health Initiative Act actually started as an independent organization, and the Montrose Center folded it in. What the Montrose Center has been able to do is be a steward to a community that it knew would grow and change over time. And I think a large part of that is due to the fact that Ann Robison, the CEO, thinks like that. She thinks long-term and she's been the CEO for a long time. Credit is due to her for having the kind of vision to create an organization that could be both responsible and nimble.
It's not just one thing that works. It's an ecosystem of things that work, where each part allows the other parts to function in concert with it. Everybody could just show up in the street for a protest. What happens after the protest? Somebody's got to be there to keep watching the news, keep answering the phones, keep raising the money, and keep holding political officials accountable for their votes. And that's just two ideas, right? There are other forms of activism that I don't think get thought of as such. That would be the conversation over the dinner table with a family who's never heard the word intersex when someone at the table isn't intersex, but someone at the table has learned about intersex and brings it to the family. Even in the absence of someone advocating themselves, there's a form of activism that happens there.
When each of us educates the people in our own circles about things that we've learned, that ecosystem all the way from these kitchen table conversations to street protests to strategically organized campaigns to influence the legislature. We need all of it. It's not like there was ever one activity that would do it. It's the connections among those activities that matter. So that when I'm at the dinner table talking about Did you know that there's a law that's been proposed to save intersex kids from getting unnecessary operations in the Texas Legislature, but it's entirely unlikely that that thing's ever going to see the floor for debate. But isn't it cool? If I don't have good knowledge to say, here's what was in that bill, how am I going to be an effective advocate at my kitchen table? So I need an organization that both lobbies, but then communicates to me. And maybe I'll go out and protest with my family when we realize that the legislature hasn't done what it should have done and passed a bill protecting people from unnecessary surgeries.
We will be figuring out the impact of the pandemic for many years to come. It's only in its initial stages of revealing what that long-term impact is going to be. It's not enough to focus on the idea of disparities, economic health, access, or otherwise. But what is becoming clearer to me now is that we are living in a time of a bifurcated experience of reality. Where my next-door neighbor sees the same data I do entirely differently. And it is my responsibility, not to tell them that they're wrong, but to understand what the investment is underneath the story so that I can meet them there. The pandemic has shifted the way that lots of organizations operated. The Montrose Center relies on face-to-face provision of operations for a lot of things. They had to abandon that in large part. And not everybody had the luxury to abandon face-to-face interactions. Many of the people in Montrose Center service do not have that luxury either. They couldn't shift to zoom-based interviews, for example, or classes.
How people feel about that difference, how people imagine someone being responsible for that difference, that's what's at stake next, in my mind. So that's where the bifurcated reality comes in. If I believe that my being vaccinated is a way of protecting other people, I have a different outlook than someone who says the compulsion to get vaccinated is an infringement of my individual rights to autonomy over my body. I have to be able to meet that person, there at the autonomy of the body, rather than the conclusion they make from it, to then be able to say, the Montrose Center might be a resource for you to keep the autonomy of your body and your long term health.
I hope that you don't end up in the hospital because of COVID. I don't want that to be a downer. What I want it to be is the way forward for hope, of how we can meet people and understand people different from us. We have to listen past the thing about which I disagree with them to find the value underneath the things they claim. To say, Yes, I agree with you on that. I hope that you'll do the same for me.
Brian Riedel received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Rice in 2005 and was hired by CSWGS in 2008 to manage an undergraduate research program, the Seminar and Practicum in Engaged Research. His own research and teaching interests include: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer social movements; these movements' complex relationships to feminism and feminist studies; oral and archival history preservation; community engaged research; and the concepts of place and collective memory. Geographically, his work has focused on modern Greece, Europe, and the United States.