Lesbian-bar owner Julie Mabry honored for Harvey relief efforts.
By Jenny Block
Photo by Eric Edward Schell
Sometimes a bar isn’t just a bar. Sometimes it’s a badge of honor, a sign of strength, a center for a community. Houston’s Pearl Bar is one of those places. And the reason is simple: owner Julie Mabry.
When she debuted Pearl Bar in 2014, Mabry did more than open a watering hole; she opened doors, both figurative and literal. This year, Mabry’s hard work is being recognized in grand style—she will serve as honorary grand marshal of Houston’s Pride parade.
“Julie was chosen as an honorary grand marshal for our 40th anniversary due to her service to our community, and especially her open arms to our community (as well as others) during Hurricane Harvey,” Pride Houston secretary Jeremy Fain says. “The compassion that she showed others during a time of dire need, even when she could have been tending to her own, was beyond sympathetic. It was heroic.”
Memorial Villages police officer Toni Mascione agreed. Mascione and her wife lost everything in the storm, which flooded their home while she was on duty. But Mascione quickly got back on her feet, thanks in large part to Mabry’s charitable efforts.
“Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say, ‘This is my community, and it’s my responsibility to make it better,’” Mascione says. “In the darkest hour of our community and of our city, a hero rose. That hero is Julie Mabry. I am a better person for knowing her, and Houston is blessed to have her.”
The 44-year-old Mabry says she grew up as a tomboy who loved the outdoors.
“I lived in Albuquerque, Tucson, and San Antonio, where the weather was always beautiful,” Mabry says, adding that her first job was delivering newspapers at age 12. “I’ve always had a business state of mind, which meant that even at a young age, my work was a priority. I opened my first checking account at age 12, and bought my own bicycle via layaway that would cost $800 in today’s money.
“My sister is also gay,” she adds. “When I was 16 years old, we would go out to clubs or Olmos Park, which is an LGBTQ gathering place in San Antonio. I would always be intrigued by how comfortable we both became when we were in the presence of other ‘gays.’ It was a high I felt every time I was surrounded by my own type of people. Lesbian bars were more common in the ’90s, and opening a lesbian bar was my obsession for 24 years. And then I found Pearl.”
Opening a successful bar—let alone a lesbian club—is no easy task for anyone. But Mabry faced an additional challenge. Before Pearl, she spent about two and a half years working with another lesbian bar called The Usual. “[I was] drinking alcohol, making bad decisions, and yearning to make my dream come true.”
So there was only one thing for her to do. “I quit drinking alcohol nine months before [Pearl Bar] opened,” Mabry explains. “My past mistakes proved to me that I could not drink alcohol and be successful owning a bar. I spent half my life [going out to bars and] observing what lesbians drank, what made them feel sexy, and what made them mad. I hosted lesbian events in Houston for many years, and I knew Houston needed a lesbian club. I have always believed in myself when it came to opening a lesbian bar where I had full control.”
Mabry says Pearl has become precisely what she had always envisioned. As for the future, Mabry dreams of Pearl becoming its own compound of sorts. In pursuit of that, she continues to up the ante by bringing in more entertainment from all across the country.
“Seeing the money we as a community have raised under the title ‘lesbian’ is amazing. One of my mentors is Charles Armstrong, and one thing I respected about him was what he did for his community. I would have to say giving back to the community is something I learned while working for him. I will continue to do so, just as he has.”
Mabry says that Pearl wasn’t just something she wanted. It was something that Houston needed. “The world is changing, and so are lesbians. Houston has always had the luxury of a lesbian bar, but there are very few left in the entire United States. Los Angeles doesn’t have a lesbian bar. San Francisco doesn’t have a lesbian bar. Houston has a lesbian bar.”
This article appears in the June 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.