Posted May 31, 2022

How LGBTQ+ History and Culture Have Shaped Austin

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The motto “Keep Austin Weird” may as well be “Keep Austin Queer.” Wearing its weirdness as a badge of honor, Texas’ capitol city has come to serve as a mecca of inclusivity and pride — a bright blue dot in America’s largest red state. In a lot of ways, despite the fact that the State Capitol building is smack dab in the middle of downtown, presided over by a governor actively enforcing discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ youth, Austin is the least Texas of all the big Texas cities, synonymous with hipster hangouts, laid-back lifestyles, and an increasingly youthful (and open-minded) populace, all a kind of heartwarming weirdness in a state where LGBTQ+ people still fight for basic rights.

Photo by Florence Jones

Although the state-wide voting population is steadily shifting, turning Texas practically purple in the most recent presidential election, Austin still reigns as an urban beacon of hope, diversity, and pride. Long one of the toughest states for LGBTQ+ youth, the city has had its work cut out for it in terms of undoing discriminatory laws and paving the way for progress.

Today, Austin is regarded as having one of the most vibrant LGBTQ+ communities in the nation, often heralded as one of the most queer-friendly destinations for travelers and transplants alike. While LGBTQ+ bars and clubs tend to cluster around 4th Street and Red River Street downtown, including Cheer Up Charlie’s and Oilcan Harry’s, the city feels thoroughly inclusive and welcoming, from the feminist- and LGBTQ-centric selections at BookWoman and family-friendly drag brunch at Irene’s to queer-owned Jo’s Coffee, famous for its “I Love You So Much” mural.

Photo by Unsplash

But before queer couples felt safe holding hands for photos by such a mural (or holding hands in general), there was much foundational work that needed to be done to get Austin weirder. A Texas pioneer in broadening rights in the state, it started small in 1970, as a group of 25 individuals convened at University Y to begin an LGBTQ+ movement in the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York City. In true Austin fashion, things progressed quickly — the Gay Liberation Front and queer indie publication The Rag both debuted in the early ‘70s, the Austin Lesbian Organization and the Gay People of Austin both followed in 1974, and the city’s first LGBTQ Pride event was a smaller gathering that same year at Shoal Creek Park. But in true Texas fashion, progressive thinking was met with hostility — homophobic protesters rallied against Pride events, a party hosted by the Austin Lesbian Organization was raided by the University of Texas Silver Spurs, and Pride floats for Round Up Weekend were vandalized.

It’s been a constant ebb and flow ever since, with Austin ever at the forefront of the state’s overall advancements. Although still a turbulent time for the city’s LGBTQ+ community, Gay Pride Week was established in 1976, including an annual march to the Texas State Capitol building. The ‘80s saw the establishment of more organizations, including Gay Community Services and the Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, along with a slew of new gay clubs.

It was a slow burn, though. Acceptance didn’t happen over night, no matter the attendance numbers at the annual Pride marches. As recent as 1990, the Austin Lesbian and Gay Pride Commission had to fork over $1,500 for liability insurance if they wanted to throw a Pride event for 2,000 people, simply for the fact that it was a queer event prone to antagonism. But from oppression came progression, with the formation of the city’s first official Austin Pride organization, starting with a festival at Fiesta Gardens in June, 1990. It has since evolved — and expanded enormously — into the Austin Pride Foundation, which sees more than 400,000 attendees at its August festivities.

Photo by Dave Wilson

Austin has always been weird — and queer. After the city’s first gay bar, The Manhattan Club, emerged in 1958, the city has had at least one active gay bar ever since (though nowadays the number of active gay bars is quite a bit larger than in the closeted ‘50s). Over the decades, including the ones where organizations and advocates had to operate more underground, the city was laying a foundation for future acceptance. With its rapidly growing — and diversifying — population, those efforts have become much easier in recent years. Now home to multiple Pride events and festivals each year, including free-to-attend Queerbomb and Austin Black Pride, along with myriad LGBTQ-owned businesses, the Texas Gay Rodeo Association in Austin, and various gay sports leagues, the city has become a bastion of LGBTQ+ culture and community year round.

Kimpton Van Zandt, photo by @shelbysorrel

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