Houston, 1998. You’re sitting in your living room after supper, flipping between channels on your bulky television set. On the screen, there are lingering tidbits of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, advertisements for candy-colored pagers, and maybe some final episodes of Seinfeld

On Channel 54, jittery intro music plays as a two-dimensional rainbow animation swoops into view. An array of mystical, Windows-era fonts beckon you to home in on astrology segment “Astral Wind,” where a muscular host gleefully recites your horoscope for the week. Sweaty, shirtless men grind on each other inside popular Houston gay club Rich’s as an eager reporter runs around in the dark interviewing bartenders and ravers. Not long after, we’re taken inside a Houston gay and lesbian Democratic political caucus where a nervous police chief fields attacks from an angry mother whose son was gunned down in an alleged hate crime downtown. “You failed to do anything to help him,” she pleads. “Why? Because he was gay?” 

If it sounds subversive for the time, that’s because it was. This was TV Montrose, the brainchild of Montrose resident Steve Baker, who dubbed the program the “first LGBT cable show in America.” Every Monday at 8 p.m., with reruns on Tuesday and Wednesday, hosts Kim Sevier and Suzanne Anderson would pop in and out of establishments in the “gayborhood” to present segments that covered interesting people, places, and events happening within the sacred confines of Montrose. 

“It was before social media, so if you were an isolated gay kid living in Katy or something, you needed a show like TV Montrose to even find out about these events,” says Emily Vinson, an audiovisual archivist at the University of Houston. When Steve Baker passed away in 2018, his partner, Russell, donated all of the TV Montrose tapes to the UH Special Collections department. “The tapes were part of our collection, but they were pretty inaccessible due to them being on these beta cam video formats.” Just two months ago, though, Vinson got a grant approved as part of a much larger-scale Houston LGBTQ digitization project, which allowed her team to publish the tapes online for public viewing. Suddenly, Baker’s treasure trove was unlocked.  

In between now-nostalgic commercials for the “Gay & Lesbian Yellow Pages” and queer internet shopping mall ERGOCOM, on-the-street reporters whisked in and out of local art openings. They covered drag fundraisers, the 1998 AIDS Walk, nationally ranked wheelchair basketball leagues, and queer performance art collectives. They surprised viewers at their doorsteps with Patti LaBelle concert tickets. The crew would even show up to your intimate get-together on short notice—as long as you had stories to tell—and viewers could nominate a “Community Person of the Month” (you could fax it to the TV Montrose headquarters or write to their @AOL.com email handle, of course).  

The show’s smiley stalwarts—Sevier, a spunky young aspiring actress, and Anderson, an older Southern real estate broker—had a clunky chemistry. Clearly reading off cue cards, their banter felt forced at times. But through their intentional in-your-face positivity and exciting local events coverage, a sense of normalization—Gays: they’re just like you!—was portrayed. 

Steve Baker circa 1998. Courtesy of Russell Byrd
Steve Baker with TV Montrose reporters Fred Walters and Joseph Molina at Eleanor Tinsley Park. Courtesy of Russell Byrd
Left: Steve Baker circa 1998. Courtesy of Russell Byrd
Top: Steve Baker with TV Montrose reporters Fred Walters and Joseph Molina at Eleanor Tinsley Park. Courtesy of Russell Byrd

Baker, who wrote, filmed, edited, funded, and even starred in much of the footage himself, still made it a point to highlight the uncomfortable stories that so often defined being an out queer person at this time. He fearlessly reported on location at the opening of a gay bed and breakfast in Galveston, where KKK protesters and neo-Nazis circled the premises spewing antigay rhetoric. He promoted sexual health clinics for lesbians and transgender women, as well as the Houston Buyers Club, which provided vital medications for people living with HIV. He gave gay Montrosians an outlet to decry Texas sodomy laws and discuss the ins and outs of coming out, all of which aired during primetime in the 350,000-plus Houston homes serviced by Warner Cable. 

In one compelling clip, Steve Baker stands outside of the entry to the now-shuttered Astroworld. For weeks, TV Montrose had been telling its viewers that they would be covering the amusement park’s Pride Day, but when he called the park’s public relations department to confirm access for the show’s cameras, they informed him that Astroworld was not interested in being a part of a gay television show. “They said, ‘If this happens to air this year, your community may have to endure protesters outside this park,’ ” Baker scorns. “Yet they’re willing to take $40,000 of gay money [on a day supposedly devoted to Pride].” (That moment of corporate friction has stood the test of time: just this year, Target publicized its Pride clothing line before partially yanking it out of stores; Bud Light came under fire for gifting a special can to trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.)

In other ways, Baker had tremendous access. Mayor Lee P. Brown said he watched the show every Monday night and would host Q&As with TV Montrose reporters about his promises to the LGBTQ community. Before she was Houston’s first lesbian mayor, Annise Parker was a mainstay on the show, and during 1998 Pride parade coverage proudly smooches her girlfriend for the cameras. 

“It felt like we were almost on the cusp of something happening,” says former host Kim Sevier, who has since become a successful voiceover actress for Japanese anime films. “People just couldn’t ignore [the gay community] anymore.” 

But community influence didn’t equate to advertising revenue, and TV Montrose presented its final show in April 1999. A few months later, Baker was thrown from his vehicle in a pickup truck rollover accident. He suffered severe head injuries and became paralyzed from the waist down. “It was hard for a couple of years because I felt like he would never recover enough to recognize me, and I was his caregiver at that point,” his partner, Russell Byrd, tells me. Eventually, Baker regained his memory, but he had vision and hearing issues so could not continue his work. “There were so many times I would fall asleep on the floor, in his studio, hearing him edit, and listening to Kim and Suzanne’s voices for hours and hours. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

With the current attacks on LGBT rights in Texas, the reemergence of the TV Montrose archive feels especially relevant today. Baker couldn’t possibly have predicted the future, where sexuality is still such a hot-button issue (and teens on TikTok are obsessed with “nostalgic” aesthetics). But as the digitization project reminds us, before we can shape the future, we must look to the past.

Video clips courtesy of Russell Byrd and University of Houston Libraries Special Collections, LGBTQ+ History Research Collection; video edit courtesy of The Big Queer Picture Show.