Our city has a lot to be proud of, including these LGBT legends.
Most places hold their pride festivities in June, but it’s no secret that here in Austin we like to keep things weird. Our pride parade is traditionally held in August, and this year pride week starts August 2nd and culminates in a huge festival and parade on the 10th. So in anticipation of Austin pride week, let's celebrate the LGBT history and culture of this city GRAV is lucky enough to call home.
Austin is often referred to as a liberal island in traditionally conservative Texas, a blue dot in a sea of red, so it makes sense that in the past and present it has felt safer for members of the LGBT community than other parts of Texas. As a result, the presence of an LGBT community is an intrinsic part of Austin’s history and culture. Even the infamous “I love you so much” graffiti on the side of Jo’s Coffee on South Congress, reproduced on coasters and mugs and in countless tourist pictures, has a legend steeped in sapphism. Jo’s Coffee is owned by prominent lesbian hotelier and business owner Liz Lambert. The story goes that Liz’s then-girlfriend, local musician Amy Cook, spray-painted the famous words on Liz’s shop after the two had a fight. Who knows if it worked as a makeup strategy, but the mural has certainly stuck around.
typographic rendition of Amy Cook's "I Love You So Much" Mural - 1300 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704-2433
Leslie Cochran, a homeless man with a penchant for thongs and kicky heels, was an Austin icon during his life and his legend lives on as someone who fought for radical change on behalf of the marginalized. LGBTQ Nation put it best when they explained, “Though Leslie always considered himself a man, and never identified as trans or labeled his sexuality, there was a fluidity about him that resonated with LGBTQ people. At a time when our community was just barely starting to recover from the HIV epidemic, the idea of a man in drag protesting treatment of the homeless in the deep red streets of Texas was revolutionary.” Leslie’s visibility and popularity cemented Austin in the social consciousness as not only a place that “keeps it weird,” but also a place where marginalized people who don’t fit rigid social norms can be accepted and celebrated even as they fight for their rights and push for more justice and equality.
But beyond murals and cultural legends, there have been influential LGBT figures on the ground in Austin for many years doing important work in and out of the spotlight. Glen Maxey is currently the Legislative Affairs Director of the Texas Democratic Party, and he has a long history of political action on behalf of many important causes, including LGBT rights. In the mid-1980s, early in the AIDS crisis, Maxey was on the staff of Texas Senator Oscar Mauzy. With Mauzy’s blessing, Maxey took up a fight against the Texas Board of Health’s push to have HIV declared a quarantinable disease. Maxey’s side won, and the news coverage of the conflict identified him as a “gay activist” although no one had asked about his sexuality, and until that point he had been living deep in the closet. As Maxey put it “I was outed before outing was cool, by Dan Rather.” When he decided to run for the Texas House of Representatives as an openly gay candidate many people discouraged him, convinced he would only ever be seen as “the gay representative.” He ran anyway, and won, becoming the first out gay member of the Texas Legislature. He went on to gain a reputation as a hardworking representative who wasn’t afraid to push unpopular progressive bills despite the rampant homophobia he faced from other House members.
typographic rendition of Leslie Cochran's "Candidate for Mayor" cardboard sign - 2000-2003
In an essay for Out and Elected in the USA, Maxey said that one of the most important things he did during his time in the Texas legislature was to become boring. He explained, “I have become one of 150 members of the legislature. I do not have a newspaper headline, every time I sneeze, saying, ‘The gay guy said today…’ It’s become ‘The environmental leader, the consumer leader, the children’s health advocate, the disability advocate in the legislature performed today on…’ whatever the topic.” After a long legislative career, he was finally able to be judged by his merit and work ethic rather than his sexuality. While Maxey’s story and legacy are anything but boring, he played an important role in normalizing LGBT people and issues in and out of the Texas State Capitol.
Another celebrated Austin LGBT activist was Bettie Naylor, a political lobbyist and founding member of Equality Texas, the Human Rights Campaign, and Annie’s List. Naylor was married to a man for many years, and she began joining women’s rights groups while she was still married. Her attraction to a fellow female activist brought Naylor to the realization that she was a lesbian, and she divorced her husband in 1975. Around this time Naylor moved to Austin where she began what would become a long legacy of lobbying on behalf of women’s rights and LGBT rights. In fact it was at one of those groups that Naylor helped found - Annie’s List, a networking group where women could organize to endorse female democratic candidates - where she met her future partner, Libby Sykora. Sykora and Naylor were together for 9 years until Naylor’s death in 2012. A section of 4th Street (the street where Austin’s most well known gay bars reside) was named in her honor, making Naylor an indelible part of Austin LGBT culture and history.
typographic rendition of Bettie Naylors commemorative street sign - West Fourth between Congress and Rio Grande
These are just a few examples of the many individuals who worked hard and dedicated their lives to making the LGBT culture in Austin what it is today. And as we look back at Austin’s LGBT history, it’s important to remember how recent many of the victories are, and how much work there is still to be done. The first pride parade in Austin wasn’t held until 2002, and Texas’ anti-sodomy laws weren’t ruled unconstitutional until the following year. That means before 2003, any Texan could be legally arrested for having gay sex inside their own home. In Austin we have an ordinance protecting against LGBT discrimination in the workplace, but no such protections exist statewide, and our ordinance is constantly being challenged. And Austin can’t pretend to be some progressive haven excused from the rest of Texas’ disgraceful history when it comes to this topic. As recently as 1975 the Austin American Statesman was stilling running housing ads that said “no gays” and had to be picketed by multiple LGBT groups before they would stop. Even on our weird and sunny streets, hate and intolerance breed in dark corners.
Despite the changing times, there are children and teens everywhere, including Austin, who can’t be their true selves at home or school, who are abused or kicked out because of who they love or how they identify. That’s why we’re holding an auction for a custom pride pipe made right here in our hot shop in Austin, and donating 100% of the proceeds to Out Youth. Out Youth is a local organization that was started in 1990 by two UT grad students and has grown into a non-profit that provides a wide range of services to LGBT youth in Austin. One of the most important things they offer is a safe, communal space where any youth who is LGBT or questioning can be themself, make friends who share their experiences, and feel supported and loved when that may not be something they’re getting anywhere else. The future of the LGBT community in Austin lies with its youngest members, and we’re excited to do our small part in supporting them so that they can grow into activists, trailblazers, and happy, healthy Austinites that will make us all proud.
As much as the fight for freedom can seem hopeless, endless and exhausting; we know every step forward, every small act of kindness, every hug, high five, head-nod, fist bump and every single $1 donation has the capacity to bend the arc of history towards justice - for good. Over the last few years, things have felt especially heavy and dark, but in all of that smoke and dust, do y'all see the legends rising up in your local communities? Who is inspiring you to do just a little bit more, give a little more, laugh a little more, play a little more, fight for what's right just a little bit more?