A humid breeze blew through Jimmy Hutcheson’s hair as he drove with the window rolled down on his way out of Springtown, Texas. His car rolled past the chamber of commerce and the Eureka Masonic Lodge, familiar places filled with the locals who knew Jimmy the way he wanted to be seen in the early 1980s—as a straight man. That summer night in 1983, though, he was dropping the act and going to a gay bar in Fort Worth, thirty minutes southeast, called the Other Place. He pressed his foot harder on the gas pedal and turned up the radio as he left his hometown behind.
As soon as Hutcheson saw the cars pulled up in front of the nondescript warehouse building for the first time, he knew he was home. “I finally found some people like myself. . . . They were probably all around me, closeted in their daily lives, but it’s ‘Here we all are and we can now all be friends,’ ” said Hutcheson, who is now the owner of Club Changes, known as the gay Cheers of Fort Worth. “It was a wonderful time.”
When the Other Place closed in 1986, Hutcheson was bereft. “It was like my second home, and I had carved out my identity there,” he told me recently. It was also a sign of things to come. Over the past four decades, Hutcheson has seen the LGBTQ bar scene in Fort Worth get chipped away. When he started going to gay bars, there were at least sixteen in Dallas, ranging from side-street hideaways to laid-back watering holes. The good times of the early 1980s unraveled, however, with the AIDS epidemic, forcing many queer spaces in the Metroplex, and throughout the country, to close their doors forever. Then, this century, as Texas rents rose, there was another crash for queer spaces in Fort Worth, with the closures of the Come Along Inn, the 651 Fort Worth, Corral Club, Magnolia Station, Stampede, Vivid, and Hot Shots. “Each one took a piece of my liver with it,” Hutcheson says. The only proofs that many of the bars ever existed are in the hazy memories of patrons like Hutcheson: the blurry figures swaying under the disco balls.
Fort Worth isn’t the only city experiencing this trend: in the past fifteen years, LGBTQ bars have been closing throughout Texas at high rates, declining in numbers by more than 36 percent between 2007 and 2019, according to a report by Greggor Mattson, professor and chair of sociology at Oberlin College and Conservatory. Across the state, only 58 LGBTQ bars remain, down from 122 gay bars in the 1980s. Lesbian bars were some of the hardest hit. Only two are left in Texas—Sue Ellen’s in Dallas and Pearl Bar in Houston—and only 27 are left in the U.S., down from at least 206 in 1987, according to Mattson and the Lesbian Bar Project, a campaign created to preserve the country’s remaining lesbian bars.
In the last fifteen years, some of the state’s most iconic queer spots have shuttered. Chances, a popular lesbian bar in Houston, closed in 2010. In 2020, Zippers, a Dallas mainstay of LGBTQ nightlife, shuttered permanently after being unable to pay rent while the venue was forced to sit empty because of COVID-19-pandemic orders shutting down businesses.
While most urban centers in the state still have dedicated “gayborhoods” or at least a few LGBTQ bars, the loss of LGBTQ spaces has been felt acutely in smaller cities. Denton, home to the University of North Texas and more than 148,000 people, is now a gay-bar desert. The city’s legendary Mable Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair—which opened in 1979 and survived arson in 2007—suddenly closed in 2017, not with a whirr, but with a whisper. In San Marcos, home to Texas State University, Stonewall Warehouse, the first LGBTQ bar in town, closed in January after eight years in operation.
Across Texas, LGBTQ bars have faced many of the same challenges as other bars over the past few years: high rents, thin profit margins, and little to no income. In Austin, in particular, new development has threatened the city’s Fourth Street “gayborhood.” There are demolition plans for at least three LGBTQ bars there—Coconut Club, Neon Grotto, and Oilcan Harry’s, the city’s longest-running gay bar—to make room for high-rises. While Oilcan Harry’s may reopen on the ground floor of a forty-story mixed-use apartment complex, Scott Neal, managing member of the bar’s ownership group, said any shutdown, even if temporary, poses more than just a business dilemma. “We’re not just bars, nor are we just entertainment complexes—we are community centers as well,” said Neal, who fondly recounted his first experiences at gay bars. “And that means that not only do we have to answer to the concept of being a functional ongoing operating business, we also have to answer to our own community.”
For the bars that have managed to survive the pandemic and rising rents, the last year has subjected them to new pressures. State lawmakers have set out to regulate and restrict LGBTQ spaces this session, with Republican legislators filing numerous bills that would ban children from drag shows in Texas and require venues that host such shows to operate as “sexually oriented” businesses, regulated the same way strip clubs and porn shops are. This week, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill that would defund public libraries that host drag queen story hours and legislation that would ban children from drag shows deemed lewd (one Democrat, Royce West of Dallas, voted for the latter). Both bills await votes in the House.
Meanwhile, right-wing groups have staged armed rallies at at LGBTQ-friendly venues. In December, protesters heckled patrons of a Christmas-themed drag show at the Aztec Theatre in San Antonio, not far from some of the city’s LGBTQ bars and nightclubs. That same month in Grand Prairie, a suburb of Dallas, neo-Nazis and other extremists protested outside of an all-ages drag show. An anti-LGBTQ group, Protect Texas Kids, has also protested drag shows in Dallas and Arlington. In January, an anti-LGBTQ protester was caught on camera outside of a 21-plus drag show in Dallas saying, “Most of us want to kill all of you, so be lucky.”
Many bars and clubs are reevaluating their safety protocols in the wake of protests and the mass shooting last year at Club Q, an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs. At Club Changes, Hutcheson said that the drag performers are “troopers, undoubtedly a little afraid, but they continue on in the truest sense of show-business sensibility.” But other proprietors of LGBTQ establishments are worried. The owners of two LGBTQ bars in Texas declined to be interviewed for this story out of fear that the publicity would make their bars targets of protests. Another owner of a bar in Houston said he recently had his staff receive active-shooter training.
Nonetheless, even as right-wingers set their sights on LGBTQ establishments and LGBTQ spaces close around the state, many older queer Texans remain hopeful. Robert Emery, a 62-year-old entrepreneur and LGBTQ trailblazer, says he’s seen a lot of progress since the days when he first started attending gay bars in the mid-seventies: the spread of annual Pride parades across the U.S. and around the world; the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing LGBTQ people to serve openly in the U.S. military; the legalization of same-sex marriage in all fifty states. About the only thing that hasn’t changed, he noted, is that he still can’t grow a mustache.
Emery vividly recalls the day in 1976 when he followed a big group of men into the Old Plantation, a gay bar in Dallas, in order to sneak past the bouncers checking IDs. The earthquake bass that night transported him to a world where he—and others like him—could feel safe and be himself, even if it was only for a few hours. When the Old Plantation permanently closed in the eighties, Emery felt the loss acutely. But he says LGBTQ Texans have long adapted to change and won’t be going anywhere. “If you are any age, any race, any part of the LGBTQ spectrum, if you are anywhere on that intersectionality, you can find at least one, probably three clubs where you could meet like-minded people to form friendships and a community,” he said. “It’s there.”