Before Stonewall, LGBTQ+ activists recall the fight for equality in Houston

HOUSTON, Texas -- Imagine Texas in the 1950s and 60s. Police raids were common at gay and lesbian bars. Gay sex was illegal, and so was cross-dressing.

"Families would disown you. Your friends would disown you. I personally helped pick up people out of alleys that were dying and had nowhere to go," said Houstonian Skip Willett. "It was like a sport almost, I think. They loved to hunt us, they loved to stop us in the cars."

"The government could not prove that I was a homosexual and I could not prove that I wasn't," explained C. Patrick McIlvan, who moved to Houston as a teenager. "So, the end result, for the good of the country, I was discharged honorably from the Navy."

"Because I'm trans, back then, I could not get work. I had lost my military career. I had lost my first marriage. I had lost my son," said Houstonian Phyllis Frye.

Frye was a law student back then.

"Every day that I walked out the door to go to law school or to look for a job or to lobby to repeal that ordinance, I was subject to arrest," she explained.

In 1969, police raided the historic Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan. When bar patrons refused arrest and groups rioted for six days, those in Houston, 1500 miles away, were watching.

"At first I thought it was just New York," said Willett. "I didn't realize it was going to catch on like it did all over the United States."

"I like to remind people that our movement did not start with Stonewall," Houstonian Deborah Moncrief Bell said. "There were actually people meeting, there were groups, there were efforts being made but it was still a very fearful time. So, what Stonewall did was act as a catalyst and we fought back."

"I guess Stonewall was sort of the ignition," McIlvan said. "That was it. Anita here was sort of gas on the flame."

He's talking about Anita Bryant -- pop singer, beauty pageant contender, and anti-gay crusader. She was scheduled to speak at the Texas State Bar Association Convention in June of 1977, and the LGBTQ community planned to protest.

As the convention got closer, participants figured only a few people would show up.

Phyllis and her wife, Trish, showed up with umbrellas, just in case people started throwing bottles at them.

"There were queer people all over the place who had come, parked their cars either through their windshields or standing outside and when they saw that, our numbers began to grow, and our numbers began to grow, and our numbers began to grow," she remembered.

That number eventually reached somewhere around 10,000.

"What we do when we protest and when we march is bearing witness," said Moncrief Bell. "And that's really powerful, to realize that your visibility matters and that you can make a difference."

The 1977 march led to the rise of political power for Houston's LGBTQ community, and the creation of services that are still around today, like the Montrose Center and Legacy Community Health.

And, in 1980, thanks to years of Phyllis' lobbying, Houston City Council repealed its crossdressing ban.

In 2010, Phyllis became the first openly transgender judge appointed in the country.

"I'm known as the grandmother of the national LGBT political movement," she said. "I have affected lots of change. I have role-modeled lots of change. I have taken hundreds and hundreds of people through the courts."

Reference material coordinated in conjunction with local LGBTQ+ archives and the ONE Archives Foundation.

The ONE Archives Foundation is the independent community partner that supports ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. Founded in 1952 as ONE Inc., the publisher of ONE Magazine, ONE Archives Foundation is the oldest active LGBTQ organization in the United States. In 2010, ONE Archives Foundation deposited its vast collection of LGBTQ historical materials with the USC Libraries. Today, the organization is dedicated to promoting this important resource through diverse activities including educational initiatives, fundraising, and range of public programs.

ONE Archives Foundation's flagship K-12 education programs provide educators with the resources they need to teach accurate and authentic LGBTQ+ history, including professional development webinars and free LGBTQ+ lesson plans available for download on our website. In addition, ONE Archives Foundation mentors youth to become ambassadors for LGBTQ+ history through the Youth Ambassadors for Queer History program. Learn more here.
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