By Andrew Edmonson
It was a watershed moment in Houston LGBT history, galvanizing a community, igniting a wave of activism, and ultimately sparking a national debate about antigay violence and hate crimes.
On July 4, 1991, 27-year-old gay Houston banker Paul Broussard was attacked, stabbed, and murdered by a group of 10 teenagers from The Woodlands after he left a Montrose nightclub. The crime received little media attention until Queer Nation, a direct-action group formed to confront and defeat homophobia, organized a “Take Back the Streets” march nine days later to channel the simmering anger of Houston’s LGBT community. The protest mobilized 2,000 people and stopped traffic at the intersection of Montrose and Westheimer for an hour in a spontaneous act of civil disobedience. It put the story on the front page of newspapers and at the top of every newscast.
In the wake of the murder, the Houston Police Department launched Operation Vice Versa, deploying undercover officers in Montrose posing as same-sex couples. The level of violence that they experienced was so overwhelming, and it came so swiftly, that the officers were quickly pulled off the streets. The operation provided vivid proof of the harassment that many LGBT Houstonians regularly endured.
In November 1991, Phillip W. Smith was shot in the 600 block of Pacific Street as he walked to his car. His subsequent death again confirmed the high level of lethal antigay violence. Queer Nation went on to form the spinoff organization Q-Patrol, a community-watch group that patrolled the streets around the gay bars on weekends to monitor for potential gay-bashers and report suspicious activity to the police.
Emboldened by their success, and with their ranks swelling with new recruits, Queer Nation went on over the next two years to stage high-profile actions protesting discrimination against people living with HIV, employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, defamatory depictions of LGBT people in films and popular culture, and homophobic politicians. They organized kiss-ins at City Hall and parties for National Coming Out Day. Their efforts culminated in August 1992, when they welcomed chapters of ACT UP and Queer Nation from across the nation to spearhead protests and marches decrying the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome—one of the most homophobic presidential conventions in living memory.
With its raucous street-theater protests and in-your-face confrontational style, Queer Nation generated extensive media coverage, greatly raised the visibility of the LGBT community, and forced a discussion of antigay violence and LGBT civil rights. In a November 1991 column in the New York Times that referenced the Broussard murder, veteran journalist Abe Rosenthal captured the unfolding national discussion, observing, “Harassment and assault of gays and lesbians is an illness in our society. What will it take to recognize it and try to treat it by legal medicine?”
Twenty-five years after that seminal moment, Houston Public Media looks back at that time by exploring how it changed Houston in several profound ways. On Thursday evening, June 23, a documentary titled A Murder in Montrose: The Paul Broussard Legacy will premiere on TV8/Houston PBS, followed by a live town-hall discussion.
This is not the first documentary to examine the murder of Paul Broussard. In 2015, Houston hosted two screenings of The Guy with the Knife, directed by Canadian journalist and filmmaker Alison Armstong. That film took a revisionist look at the killing of Broussard, the rehabilitation of one of Broussard’s murderers, Jon Buice, and Buice’s long struggle to secure parole. Many media reports at the time of the Broussard murder asserted that “The Woodlands Ten”—as the teenagers who committed the murder came to be known—had driven an hour from the suburbs with the intent of finding gay people to bash in Montrose. Armstrong’s documentary posited the controversial theory that the killing had not been premeditated, but instead erupted spontaneously when a group of drunken teenagers, high on drugs, became angry because they had been refused entry to the Montrose nightclub Numbers.
When contacted by the Houston Chronicle, Broussard’s mother, Nancy Rodriguez, responded, “I remember Buice testifying in court that the group made a unanimous decision to drive to Montrose and ‘go beat up some queers’ and even put what they called ‘queer rocks’ in their pockets.”
The goal of the Houston Public Media documentary is not to re-litigate the murder of Paul Broussard. Instead, the film takes the long view, examining how the event changed the character of Houston over two decades from several perspectives: political, victims’ rights, and community activism.
Since February, Houston Public Media’s Ernie Manouse, producer of the documentary, has conducted in-depth interviews with such people as Queer Nation co-founder David Fowler, former mayor Annise Parker and her wife, Kathy Hubbard, longtime community activists Ray Hill and Jack Valinski, former Queer Nation member Gloria Rubac, and state representative Garnet Coleman, who worked to pass hate-crimes legislation covering LGBT people in the 1990s.
“I wanted to explore the question of [whether or not the murder of Paul Broussard was] Houston’s Stonewall,” Manouse observes.
A quarter-century later, Broussard’s murder still evokes strong feelings.
“I’m amazed by how many people don’t want to partake of this project—how many people want to let sleeping dogs lie. I’m surprised by how polarizing this case still is,” says Manouse. “I’ve encountered people who said, ‘If you talk to this person, I won’t be in your documentary.’ We had one person who said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this documentary; it will only re-open old wounds.’
“There seem to be two schools of thought on this case,” continues Manouse. “One camp views what happened to Paul Broussard as a hate crime. Another camp views it as an instance of out-of-control, drunk kids who committed manslaughter.
“I believe that [the community’s response to the murder of Paul Broussard] influenced the 1991 mayoral election,” Manouse says. “[Former Houston mayor] Bob Lanier paid very close attention to victims’ rights. Victims’ rights changed with the appointment of Andy Kahan by Bob Lanier to be a victims’ right advocate in City Hall. It changed law enforcement and the way that they looked at the gay community. 1991 was the year that Annise Parker first ran for public office.
“I think the perception of gay people was altered by the public at large, because you had a rally that included straight people,” Manouse says. “It paved the way for the start of understanding and acceptance of the gay community by the heterosexual community.
“When I started this documentary, I didn’t want to rip the scab off the wound, and leave it. That’s why we wanted to do a live town hall. We wanted to use it as an educational tool. We want to use this to help the community move forward,” Manouse concludes. “Paul Broussard should not have died in vain.”
Andrew Edmonson won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.