Fifty years ago this June, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was raided by police. The Stonewall was one of just a few gays bars in the city, and the protests that followed the raid are widely considered the beginning of the gay liberation movement in the United States.
A new exhibit at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum looks at the many ways the Stonewall Uprising continues to influence the gay rights movement, both in the United States and internationally. “It’s a way to think about what kind of energies Stonewall would have kicked off,” says curator Dean Daderko.
The exhibit features three basic themes: One is trans visibility, largely told through a series of arresting black and white portraits. Another is the intergenerational dialogue between artists who were active in the years after Stonewall, and younger artists working now. The third regards LGBTQ artists working outside of the United States.
The exhibit also gets hyper-local. Of particular interest to me, a native Oklahoman, is Political Gestures, a five-channel video installation featuring four drag queens and a queer activist from Tahlequah, a tiny town with a population of just under 17,000 people in eastern Oklahoma.
For the project, Houston artists Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin asked drag queens to reenact important speeches from queer activists in the years following Stonewall, including trans rights activist Sylvia Rivera, marriage activist Robin Tyler, and radical black feminist Florynce Kennedy. Each speech is interspersed with a musical number, including an extremely satisfying performance of the Dixie Chicks’ “I’m Not Ready To Make Nice” juxtaposed with a slo-mo video of beauty-queen-turned-singer-turned-anti-gay-activist Anita Bryant getting pied in the face in 1977.
Yet perhaps the most striking objects in the exhibit come from legendary Montrose gay bar Mary’s, Naturally that figured prominently in local queer history.
“In the late 1970s, there was a situation where the Houston Police Department was raiding Mary’s in the week prior to the Pride celebration, and they were arresting lots of folks,” Daderko says. “I think it was a way of trying to tamp down the excitement as Pride was approaching, but instead it had the opposite effect. People were going out to Mary’s and trying to get arrested as an act of public resistance.”
Many Houstonians mourned in 2009 when Mary’s was sold, and the iconic Tom of Finland-style mural outside was eventually painted over as the property was redone to become Blacksmith coffee shop in 2013. But thankfully, the photo-plastered bar top was salvaged by local preservationists.
“It was created around 1985, which of course would have been the moment when lots of those folks were losing brothers and sisters, lovers, close friends to the AIDS epidemic,” Daderko says of the bar top. When the bar was finally sold, Judy Reeves, curator of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of GLBT History, and others were able to get inside and remove the entire bar top. Those resin-encased images now greet visitors as they walk into the CAMH gallery.
One of the Mary’s regulars whose image is included is a young Annise Parker, pre-political career. The resin, yellowed with age and stained from a bygone era when smoking was still allowed in Houston bars, calls to mind a perfect animal preserved in amber. It’s a memorial for hundreds of people whom Stonewall ensured would never be forgotten, and a reminder of all the work that still lays ahead.
Thru July 28. Free. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Blvd. 713-284-8250. More info at camh.org.