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UTSA archivist’s work shines a light on San Antonio’s queer nightlife going back to the early 1900s

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UTSA archivist Melissa Gohlke has unearthed historical evidence of a downtown drag scene dating to the start of the last century. - COURTESY OF UTSA
  • Courtesy of UTSA
  • UTSA archivist Melissa Gohlke has unearthed historical evidence of a downtown drag scene dating to the start of the last century.
For many, the 1973 opening of San Antonio Country, a popular downtown bar owned by openly gay real estate developer Hap Veltman, marked the emergence of LGBTQ+ nightlife in the city.

In reality, queer spaces existed in and around San Antonio decades earlier, according to Melissa Gohlke, an urban historian who serves as assistant archivist for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Special Collections.

We spoke with Gohlke about the role of the military in the city’s gay culture, its geographic evolution and notable queer enclaves inside and outside city limits.

You study how marginalized peoples’ use space and how that evolves. How does that relate to San Antonio’s queer community?

San Antonio is really a solid case study for this, because you initially see in the early 1900s and into the ’30s and ’40s and up through World War 2 that gay men and women are clustering, meeting in and around downtown. … In particular, this is due to World War 2 and the fact that many armed forces personnel were gay or lesbian. It was for many, the first opportunity to get out of rural towns. Get out, see the world, meet other people and often, for the first time, meet other homosexuals. … We had over 2 million armed forces personnel move through Fort Sam [Houston] during the war, and a lot of those folks were gay. They needed to find places to come together to socialize when they weren’t on post, and downtown was in very close proximity. …

We might ask the question, “How did they know where to go?” … Off-limits lists were put together by the military to identify clubs, bars, restaurants and businesses that were considered out of bounds to military personnel. … When you look at the off-limits lists, they state the reason in parentheses, and on there, you’ll have venereal disease, bawdy house, prostitution, venereal contacts, owner’s request. … The really interesting and ironic thing about the off-limits lists is that they were posted in the barracks, and they were also posted outside the doors of these establishments. So, armed forces personnel knew once they hit a new post, if they were gay and they needed to know where to go, all they had to do was look at an off-limits list. …

And these off-limits spots were primarily downtown?

There were [also] several on the East Side. … There was an entire section of a block on East Commerce that was off limits. There were establishments that were on the West Side, which is where the red-light district was. … It’s a little hive of activity that’s going on in the downtown core, and that still continues up through the ’50s and ’60s. ... There was one place — and this is based on an oral history and a meeting I conducted with a gal who lived here in the ’60s — just north of downtown on … Austin Street, just that little sliver where the railroad used to run through. It’s kind of industrial. ... But during the late ’50s, the early ’60s, it was a microcosm of queer life. There was a gay bar there called the Acme. It was a dive, but that’s where gay men and women would come to socialize and also find social and sexual partners. It was extremely popular. It was in this really derelict space, but it was a haven for military personnel. It was off the radar of the MPs and local police.

When was the significant evolution of San Antonio’s LGBTQ+ community?

In the ’60s, we have a different dynamic, in that you still have clubs that are sprinkled around downtown and just north of downtown, but for people who are afraid of discovery, especially if you’re in the military, you want to get outside of the city limits. So, outside of San Antonio, there were several spots where lesbians, gay men, trans individuals could go to be out of the spotlight. There was a venue out in Helotes called Paul’s Grove. It opened in the 1920s as a sports venue, morphed into a dance hall … and then in the ’60s and ’70s, it became this gay haven. Folks would get out there for the weekend. They had two bars which were repurposed, like airplane hangars, military hangars, and then they had a house and a swimming pool on the grounds. …

There was also in Von Ormy, which is just south of San Antonio, one of the most fabulous drag bars. When you see pictures of this place, you feel like you’ve got to be in San Francisco. These drag queens are just gorgeous and totally decked out, but again, you’ve got this dive that’s on a farm-to-market road in Von Ormy. Gay men, lesbians — when you look at the photos of the crowds, it’s a very mixed, diverse country bar, and extremely popular. ...

As you move into the ’70s and ’80s … it’s in the wake of gay liberation, which does make its way to San Antonio, and that opens up opportunities.

A lot of people tend to think about that as being the foundation for gay nightlife in San Antonio, the era of Hap Veltman and the San Antonio Country. But it sounds like so much preceded it.

It’s taken a lot of painstaking research to uncover that history before Hap and San Antonio Country. We had a really amazing drag scene in downtown San Antonio, starting in the early 1900s — as early as 1906. … Even for me, as an historian, I was really surprised when I found out that during the ’30s and ’40s, nightclubs in downtown highlighted female-impersonation shows. They were extremely popular. Chances are probably good that they were attracting a straight population of patrons. It’s really hard to know, but we have in the archives one of the programs from a place called The Gay Paris. There were all these little nightclubs peppered in there with female impersonators. So yeah, prior to Hap is this really rich history, but Hap ushered in a whole new era when he opened the San Antonio Country.

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