Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Politics of Queer Disidentification and the Limits of Neoliberalism in the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equality in Houston

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Politics of Queer Disidentification and the Limits of Neoliberalism in the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equality in Houston

Article excerpt

On a warm, humid October afternoon in 1985, former Houston mayor Louie Welch stood outside Kaphan's Restaurant, near the Astrodome. As crew members from the local ABC affiliate Channel 13 set up equipment, Welch chatted jovially with the men, anticipating the interview that would run on the station's 5:00 p.m. broadcast. Nineteen eighty-five was an election year in Houston, and Welch, who had served as Houston's mayor from 1964 to 1974, eagerly sought to get back into the game. His decision to return to politics after a profitable decade in the private sector centered on challenging the popular incumbent, Kathy Whitmire, who in 1981 had become the first woman elected to the mayor's office in Houston's history. Welch hoped to build on his earlier political career, which had focused on the sunny and bipartisan theme of promoting the city's growing economy and business-friendly environment. In this new chapter, however, he also hoped to combine that earlier economic focus with the current reality of a city divided by volatile social issues.

During this particular television interview, Welch planned to discuss his four-point plan to combat the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in Houston. As the former mayor stood in front of the camera waiting for the broadcast to begin, he continued to engage in small talk with the camera operator, even joking that he could only remember two of the four points in the proposal. When another offcamera individual laughed and asked him to try to remember just one of his points, Welch quipped that the first point in his plan to curb the spread of AIDS would be "to shoot the queers." Little did he know that the broadcast had just gone live to his remote location, and his gaffe was televised across the city of Houston. (1)

Welch's public blunder was certainly not the first antigay remark uttered during the campaign. Houstonians had been involved in an intense and emotional debate about sexuality and citizenship since the previous year, when the city council approved amending the city's nondiscrimination and affirmative action ordinances to add sexual orientation to the list of reasons a person could not be denied employment. During the ensuing months, there had been a campaign and public referendum to overturn the council's action. Antigay activists had likewise launched a political campaign, known as the Straight Slate, aimed at unseating Mayor Whitmire and all the city council members who had voted in favor of the amendments. Despite it being said as a joke, Welch's utterance reflected just how hate-filled the campaign had become by the fall of 1985.

An analysis of this episode in Houston's recent history is critical to a fuller understanding of the role sexuality has played--and continues to play--in municipal politics. In 1970 New York City activists introduced the nation's first municipal bill to protect the employment rights of gays and lesbians, sparking a wave of activism supporting similar initiatives in cities and small towns across the country. Despite the significance of this political movement, as historian Kevin J. Mumford has recently argued, historians have not paid enough attention to the ways these local battles played out over the subsequent two decades. This lack of analysis seems particularly true for this period in the American South, where there remains a need for more work on gay and lesbian political activism generally, and particularly in the post-1970s period. An examination of Houston's own battle over a pair of nondiscrimination amendments in the mid-1980s reveals not only the contours of local politics but also the significant influence that gays and lesbians have had on the development of the city. As historian Timothy Stewart-Winter has argued in his groundbreaking study of Chicago, gays and lesbians have exerted significant influence on the reshaping of American cities in the second half of the twentieth century. (2) This has certainly been the case in Houston. …

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