By Robert Wilonsky
The Dallas Morning News
It’s an obscure bit of Dallas history: Club Reno — or the Reno Lounge, as it was referred to in 1952’s U.S.A. Confidential, a tabloid-scented paperback that sneered at Dallas’ “queers” and “queens,” “fairies” and “middle-class deviates.”
The story of the former Club Reno — “the first gay bar in all of Texas,” according to Karen Wisely’s University of North Texas master of arts thesis — is just part of a story unknown to many Dallasites that is now the bronzed narrative on a historical marker planted Wednesday, Oct. 10 in front of another iconic gay bar: JR’s Bar & Grill on Cedar Springs Road in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas. The unveiling, years in the making, is, well, a landmark moment. It will make Dallas the first city in the state with an official Texas Historical Commission subject marker acknowledging a longstanding gay and lesbian community.
“Dallas gets criticized — fairly, perhaps — for not appreciating or recognizing its history. All of it,” Mark Doty, Dallas City Hall’s chief historic preservation officer, told The Dallas Morning News. “But this is an example where Dallas is actually on the forefront of something, for once.”
Some 400 state-sanctioned historical markers scattered across the area, according to Dallas County. Most have been planted in front of old buildings where Something Important Happened a few forevers ago or in cemeteries where Someone Sort of Important During the Way, Way Back was buried. At least 10 of those markers contain the words “log cabin.” For a relatively new city, Dallas has a lot of ancient history commemorated in bronze.
But in 2016 Dwayne Jones, a former Preservation Dallas executive director now in Galveston, thought it time to tell the “undertold story” of Dallas’ LGBTQ community. He reached out to Doty and Robert Emery and Sam Childers of the Dallas Way, keepers of this city’s LGBTQ history, who penned the necessary narrative, submitted the paperwork and raised the money for the marker.
For most Dallasites, the city’s LGBTQ history begins and ends in Oak Lawn, along Cedar Springs Road, where people march in parades and in protests. We know it as the “gayborhood,” or what’s left of it — the Resource Center, JR’s, Sue Ellen’s, Station 4 and the Round-Up Saloon. For decades it has been a place where men and women gather to celebrate when the news is good and come for help when things get bad.
Cedar Springs at Throckmorton Street, where JR’s sits, has always been especially important. The intersection had been known as “The Crossroads” since the late 1960s, but its legacy was forever cemented in 1980 with the opening of the namesake market there that became the community’s bookstore and meeting place.
By putting the marker there, Emery said, “we hope it can instill some pride in young people — in all people, gay and non-gay, to know the city in which they live has bravely been forward in standing up for decades. The young generation handed all of these rights, we hope they will stop and enjoy reflecting on the brave people who chose to identify as early as the 1950s,” when gay men were depicted in this very newspaper as “sex perverts” out “corrupting the morals of dozens of Dallas teenagers.”
To get the marker, Childers wrote about how in the 1930s, gay men would meet downtown in the shadow of the Magnolia Petroleum Building at Commerce and Akard streets — “Maggie’s Corner,” as it was known. In 1947, Club Reno opened nearby at 316 S. Ervay St., on Wood Street just across from what is now the central library.
For years, downtown was filled with wink-and-nod clubs because it was illegal to be gay in Dallas. Childers wrote about how in 1964 alone, the Dallas Police Department’s Special Services Bureau arrested 460 people for being “perverts.”
Over time, the gay community found a home out in the open along Cedar Springs — amid the “bohemian atmosphere and picturesque architecture,” described on the historic marker.
These days, the gayborhood is beginning to disappear, on the verge of becoming a long stretch of big-box apartments and chain eateries dotting Cedar Springs Road. The old familiars have disappeared, among them the Crossroads Market, Union Jack and The Bronx — pushed out by rising rents.
It is happening all over: “Neighborhoods associated with the LGBT community are now disappearing,” said Jones. “They have lost their connections, which isn’t a bad thing, just an indication of the times — of urban development that has changed the fabric, the businesses, the people who live there.”
And what had been Club Reno is now a parking lot.
For Doty, this one was personal: He grew up in Abilene and moved to Dallas from South Carolina in 2003, when Crossroads Market was still open. And there, he told me this week, he found a welcoming community where he could be himself — “without worrying what other people thought,” he said.
But now that community is disappearing. “And all we have left are our stories,” Doty said. “This marker is one way to commemorate that in a physical way.”
And a permanent one, too, out in the open.