On the corner of Westheimer and Waugh in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, there’s a quaint brick building. Inside, patrons can order from Blacksmith’s familiar cafe menu of “barista-made drinks, home-baked goods, and light fare in an industrial space.” To the east of the coffee shop, to the west of a brand-new Shake Shack, and just a few doors down from a Sweetgreen, is an empty lot.
Historically known among locals as the Gayborhood, Montrose used to be where the weirdos were. Now, mid-rise developments are going up, and most homes sell for more than half a million. The empty lot—half paved, half gravel and weeds—is owned by private real-estate investment company MLB Capital Partners. In the mornings, the paved portion serves as parking for Blacksmith; in the evenings, from Tuesday through Sunday, it’s a valet lot for upscale steakhouse Georgia James. But this seemingly ordinary Houston plot is also a burial ground. The Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History estimates that it was the site of more than three hundred funeral services and remains the final resting place of an unknown number of people’s ashes.
From 1970 to 2009, this space was part of the legendary Houston gay bar Mary’s…Naturally!, which fostered such a close community that some regulars chose to have their funerals there. The empty lot held a patio called the Outback, while the bar was inside the building now occupied by Blacksmith. Mary’s, as writer Ed Martinez put it in a spring 1983 issue of Out in Texas, was “the mother house of all the gay bars in Houston.”
When original owner Joe Anthony opened Mary’s, it was primarily a leather bar where gay bikers would congregate. But it quickly became known as a place where anyone was welcome: gays, lesbians, punk musicians, writers, hippies, and bohemians all intermingled. “Mary’s has always had one inflexible admission policy,” Martinez explains. “If you could ooze through the door, you could stay.” (There was also a less frequently enforced no-underwear policy, in which bouncers stripped newcomers of their skivvies and tossed them to the rafters.)
At the site today, there’s no plaque or memorial to commemorate the history that occurred there—just new development and overpriced lattes. But for the month of June, at least, there is an art exhibit. Inspired by the gentrification and erasure of history in the neighborhood, “without architecture, there would be no stonewall; without architecture, there would be no ‘brick’” is a month-long show featuring twelve Latino artists’ exploration of what Montrose’s shifting architecture means for Houston’s queer community today.
“The Gayborhood is marked as much, if not more, by absences as by the visible markers of its past,” says cocurator Junior Fernandez, who organized the event along with S Rodriguez. “We are interested in how the disappearance or ‘redevelopment’ of these spaces into brunch spots and coffee houses might mirror the overall trajectory of gay liberation, from its earlier idealism to late-capitalist identitarian pitfalls like rainbow-packaged Oreos.”
The gentrification of Montrose has followed a familiar trajectory. But one could argue that Mary’s, too, was a gentrifier—one former patron reminds me that gay men in the seventies pushed Montrose’s heavily Hispanic population out of the area to claim a space for themselves. But this month, at the site of the Outback, Latino artists like Juan Betancurth and Alejandro Penagos showcase experimental work that reckons with the queer experience. In one video piece, for example, Penagos maneuvers his body to ring a bell against a brick, which symbolizes the mythologized “first brick of the gay rights movement” thrown by gay activists at the 1969 Stonewall uprising. “[The artists] are thinking of architecture as something that can be penetrated and transformed by the queer body,” explains Fernandez.
In a similarly performative work, para aquellos que no regresan en vida (“for those who don’t return alive”), Brownsville-based interdisciplinary artist Veronica Gaona staged a vehicular burnout at the former site of Mary’s. The car was her uncle’s white Ford F-150, which Gaona inherited after his death. She transported it from Brownsville to Houston, passing the U.S. Border Patrol interior checkpoints for the very first time. Artist Angel Lartigue staged a live “architectural intervention,” in which performers in devilish masks scaled the side of the Mary’s building to figuratively reclaim the space. Above all this queer-created art, a billboard alludes to the site’s history: “Prevent HIV,” the sign reads. “One Pill, Once a Day.”
The exhibit celebrates the full breadth of Mary’s, which—in the way that only a historic gay gathering place can—served as a hookup spot, a community organizing hub, and the site of many, many funerals. When Mary’s opened in the seventies, advertisements had to be discreet. Newspaper clippings from the time allude to the frisky and fun nature of the bar using innuendos: “Mary’s, Always Full of Surprises,” “Home of the Sympathetic Bartenders,” “A Masculine Atmosphere.” But any interested reader could connect the dots, and curious men gravitated to it in droves.
After Stonewall and the inception of the the AIDS crisis, the bar became a place for gays to meet, organize, and protest. According to one archive of Houston LGBT history, the group that became the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which bills itself as the oldest gay-rights organization in the South, began at Mary’s. Mary’s was the place to attend fund-raising rallies and work out how the Houston queer community, with Montrose as its center, would play a part in the national fight for AIDS research and funding.
Don Gill, a “fundraiser supreme” at Mary’s, recalls its shift from gritty gay hookup spot to the go-to venue where LGBT social organizations could communicate with the community. “[Patrons] started putting together events, and some of these guys would get in a dress because it would raise more money.”
As the death roll rose, the bar began hosting weekly celebrations of life for community members. In a 2002 Houston Press article, bartender and part-owner Gaye Yancey said it “wasn’t uncommon for three Mary’s customers to die each month.” The ritual was to bury the ashes and, for each grave, plant some sort of greenery over the marker. “It became a jungle back there, so overgrown and huge and lush and green,” says Judy Reeves, chair of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of GLBT History. Now only a small grouping of weeds remains.
“I’ve dug a hole and buried my friend there myself,” Gill recalls. “When I drove by and there were bulldozers [to pave the Outback into a parking lot], it was really a heart-wrenching feeling.”
Many of these men, especially the ones who were disowned by their families, had nowhere else to be buried. But this didn’t mean Mary’s was a safe haven: the bar was the site of serial raids by the Houston Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission—often during the days preceding Pride celebrations. On June 20, 1980, 61 patrons, bartenders, and even the bar’s owners were arrested on charges of public intoxication, or what a 1980 Upfront America article described as vague violations of the bar’s liquor licenses, such as “serving intoxicated customers.” In another police raid in September 1985, according to a Montrose Voice article, four people were arrested on charges of “public lewdness,” taken to the Harris County jail, and forced to “take blood tests to determine the presence of the AIDS virus.” The raids occurred so regularly that, as a 2003 Texas Triangle article recalls, the bar “actually scheduled the annual raid as a Pride event.”
After almost forty years of fighting to exist, Mary’s closed for good in 2009. And although widespread gay acceptance, cemented by the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, has pushed society forward, this exhibit is a reminder that the need for queer spaces like Mary’s is as important as ever—specifically for brown and black queers and trans individuals. “We hope that this exhibition will serve, just as Mary’s once did, as a catalyst for queer community engagement and political organization,” Fernandez explains. “I’d like to think that we are adding to the account of Mary’s and rendering it as something that is fluid and ongoing instead of something that’s squarely in the past.”
At a closing party for the exhibit—a warehouse rave in the East End—bright-eyed young people danced to techno cumbia while archival footage from the Outback was projected onto the wall. A pop-up bar, operating out of a large U-Haul moving truck, was branded as a reimagined Mary’s from the Latino perspective: “Maria’s…Naturally!” These artists and revelers are leading the modern Houston queer community —looking to Mary’s past, honoring it, and then abstracting it into thought-provoking work that feels like the future.