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Galveston’s Invisible LGBT History

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Preservation Texas president says that’s about to change.
By Brandon Wolf

While Galveston is synonymous with the word “beach,” its other allure is its history—and the city’s embrace of that history. Still, the island city’s sense of LGBT history is practically nil. The same could be said about the entire state of Texas, where local LGBT history is, for the most part, unknown.

Dwayne Jones, executive director of both Preservation Texas and the Galveston Historical Foundation.
Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation and president of the Preservation Texas board.

But a new initiative by Preservation Texas intends to begin closing that gap, says Dwayne Jones, a resident of Galveston and the current president of the organization. The openly gay native Texan has been involved in preservation work for the last 32 years. (Jones is also the executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, which is the oldest preservation group in Texas and the oldest local preservation organization in America, dating back to 1871.)

A Focus on LGBT History in Texas Begins

Preservation Texas is a private, 501(c)(3) educational organization that works to save historical sites in Texas. This summer, the organization plans to launch an initiative to recognize historical sites important to Texas LGBT history. Evan Thompson, who is the executive director of Preservation Texas, says the first phase will be a Facebook page that will help people understand the project and allow them to suggest LGBT historical sites. Preservation Texas will follow up with an interactive map of Texas LGBT historical sites on their website.

Thompson says the organization first began to think about their project after the National Park Service began an LGBT historical sites project two years ago. The park service solicited ideas from the public, and so far about 600 LGBT sites across the country have been identified. Five of those sites are in Texas. The national map includes courthouses where important gay-rights cases were decided, LGBT bars and community centers, and the homes of individuals important to LGBT heritage. The list of sites and the interactive map can be viewed at nps.gov/heritageinitiatives/LGBThistory/places.html.

Preservation Texas was also influenced by the LGBT history presentations that have become a regular part of national preservation conference agendas in recent years. Jones will be making a presentation at the 2016 National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, to be held November 15–18 at the Houston Hilton Americas. Thompson says Preservation Texas also hopes to host an opening-night LGBT reception.

LGBT Historical Sites in Galveston

Several sites in Galveston provide good models for the Texas LGBT history project, demonstrating that hidden pieces of LGBT heritage are part of the history of several familiar buildings on the island.

John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston

In 1965, the hospital began to see patients with gender-identity issues. In 1966, a 23-year-old underwent male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). It was low-key and without media fanfare. In 1971, a second SRS was completed.   

Houston transgender pioneers Toni Mayes and Phyllis Frye were both clinic clients in the early 1970s. Mayes underwent SRS in 1973.

In 1976, the Janus Information Facility was opened in a building off-campus, providing gender-identity information worldwide. Although UTMB initially funded the facility and its mailing costs, they chose to close the clinic in 1980. That clinic building was later demolished, but the hospital where the pioneering surgeries were performed still stands and is now known as the John Sealy Hospital Annex. Located near 6th and Strand streets, it was likely built as a 1935 Works Progress Administration project. The reverse-cruciform hospital was once one of the largest and tallest buildings in Galveston, but the structure has since been conjoined with new hospital additions and is now barely recognizable from the street.

The former site of the Rosenberg Gender Clinic, which operated until 2010.
The former site of the Rosenberg Gender Clinic, which operated until 2010.

Rosenberg Clinic When UTMB’s gender clinic closed, a private clinic was opened at 1103 25th Street. For years, it was one of the few gateways for persons seeking legal gender changes and/or sexual reassignment surgery.   

Former Houstonian Jessica Wicks was a client in the 1990s. She recalls enjoying annual “reunions” where many past and present clients could meet and share experiences.      

Although the clinic closed in 2010, the building that housed it is still standing and in excellent condition. The two-story blue-stucco structure features influences of the Prairie architectural style and was built circa 1915 in a residential area. One would never guess that it was once a clinic with an annual client base of 450 transgender individuals.  

Kon Tiki In 1966, the Kon Tiki bar opened, and over the next 40 years it was located at six different sites. After two of its locations burned to the ground, the club inadvertently became a symbol of gay survival.

From 1966 to 1969, the Kon Tiki operated at 800 21st Street. The location is now a
parking lot. From 1970 to 1971, its address was 215 19th Street. That structure burned
to the ground, and today a warehouse sits on the land.

Moving to 214 23rd Street in 1972, the club eventually expanded to include baths. The dance floor there was the Kon Tiki’s signature touch—colored squares that flashed on and off to the music and displayed silhouettes of male genitalia. In 1983, the entire complex was lost to a fire caused by a gas leak in the wake of Hurricane Alicia. That site is now the lawn of an upscale café.

The bar opened again in 1984 at 111 23rd Street, a location now occupied by a Fuddruckers. The club then moved in 1985 to 2011 Market, directly behind the Galveston Opera House. That structure was also demolished and is presently a parking lot.

In 1987, the bar made its final move to 315 23rd Street, and remained open until 2006 when the owner died. That structure (which is now gutted and for sale) is the only one of the bar’s six locations that survives, and dates back to around 1890 when it was a part of the three-story Marble Palace Hotel. (After a fire in the mid-1950s, the structure and a few neighboring buildings were rebuilt as “modern” storefronts. It was occupied by the Galveston Chamber of Commerce before the Kon Tiki moved there in 1987.)

Robert’s Lafitte, the island’s oldest continually operating gay bar.
Robert’s Lafitte, the island’s oldest continually operating gay bar.

Robert’s Lafitte The oldest continually operating gay bar on the island is Robert’s Lafitte, which opened in August 1969. The club is located at 2501 Avenue Q, just a few blocks from the Galveston Seawall.

The club is named after the smuggler and pirate Jean Lafitte, who won a legal pardon by helping General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in the final battle of the War of 1812. The name Robert was added to distinguish it from New Orleans’ Café Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continually operating gay bar in America.

Robert’s Lafitte survived Hurricanes Alicia and Ike, and is still in business today, nearly 47 years after its opening. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff, and superb drag shows have made it an institution for local residents and a popular attraction for beachgoers. The two-story, broad-front commercial building is clad in brick veneer and was built around 1920. The original storefront has been altered for various uses over the years

The Birthplace of Influential LGBTs

Lesbian rocker Gretchen Phillips was born in Galveston in 1963. Openly gay football player Michael Sam was born there in 1990.

But few people in Galveston or in the local LGBT community are aware that one of America’s most important gay historians, Jim Kepner, was born in Galveston in 1923 and spent most of his early years there. He never knew his birth parents, who left him wrapped in newspapers under an oleander bush, possibly because he was born club-footed.

Kepner began his involvement in the gay movement in 1950s Los Angeles by joining ONE Inc., a spin-off from the Mattachine Society. He was a regular contributor to ONE Magazine, often using pen names to give the appearance that more people were involved in the publication.

Homes of gay historian Jim Kepner located on (top to bottom) Avenue L, 53rd Street, and Avenue Q.
Homes of gay historian Jim Kepner located on (top to bottom) Avenue L, 53rd Street, and Avenue Q.

Kepner started collecting LGBT material, and in the late 1960s he moved the collection into a small Los Angeles storefront. The archive grew and changed names several times over the next four decades. It is now known as ONE Archive, the oldest LGBT archive in the nation. 

Galveston phone directories show the Kepner family living at 3712 Avenue L in 1928, when Jim was five years old. The original center-hall cottage was built circa 1870, and was likely moved to its current location after the 1900 storm. It was placed on a wood-frame foundation that served as additional ground-floor living space under the elevated cottage.

In 1938 (at age 15), Kepner’s address was 2312 53rd Street. A two-story, wood-frame dwelling there, built circa 1920, was likely an apartment house. It features influences of the International style, with a flat canopy cantilevered over the entry door. The building was likely altered when it was clad with asbestos-shingle siding.

By 1939 (at age 16), Kepner was living at 5225 Avenue Q. The structure there is a one-story bungalow-style home built around 1920, with an open porch that appears to have been enclosed. An undated ID card belonging to Kepner, now housed at ONE Archive, lists his address as 5225 Avenue Q, confirming that the Kepner listings in the phone book are for the same family.   

Amazingly, all three structures still stand and have been renovated, so it would be a coming-full-circle tribute to Kepner if the boyhood homes of an LGBT historian are included in this LGBT Texas history project.

Saving our community’s history has proven to be an enormous task, and has largely been limited to documents and memorabilia. Now the opportunity exists to add a new dimension to our story by identifying and preserving historical sites that anchor our legacy with even more clarity.    

The author thanks the following people for their research that contributed to this story:

Jo Collier in the Houston Public Library’s Texas Room; J.D. Doyle, creator of houstonlgbthistory.org; Randy Pace, historic preservationist, author and historian; and Loni Shibuyama at ONE Archive.

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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