If you were a gay guy in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 70s, the place to go was People’s Street. It was one of the few blocks downtown that still had some life to it. There were a couple of bars, the Ritz Theatre around the corner that hosted events. Down the street was the marina, where cruising took place under the watchful eyes of a small group of roller skating drag queens. As a 13-year-old trying to work out what the hell was going on with me, the place was heaven.
I couldn’t go to the bars, but I did get involved with the Theatre, being adopted by the community of musicians, artists and queers who made it a kind of second home. In the late 70’s queer visibility was still pretty limited outside of a few big cities. I remember being overwhelmed by the Miss Gay South Texas Pageant that took place at The Ritz maybe a year after I started going there. The drag show, the audience, which included people from across the race, age and economic spectrums in a way you didn’t often see in Texas, gay cowboys, gay beach bums, a gay rodeo clown, what wasn’t to love? Maybe three hundred queers, smiling, laughing, drunk. It was the first time I ever associated being gay with being happy.
Unlike school or home or even the couple of furtive sexual encounters I’d had at that point, People’s Street welcomed whatever I wanted to bring there. I was dressing, when it wouldn’t get me subjected to ‘faggot’ ,‘weirdo’ and other clever remarks thrown at me by my peers, in what can best be described as the stuff in Pinnochio’s closet that didn’t end up in the children’s book. I wore florescent shirts, Fiorruci mostly, and undersized shorts in primary colors. I had these DMs I painted, hats and old thrift naval jackets I ‘d throw on when it was cold. Eye liner, black lipstick occasionally (once I’d left the house) and a haircut that was so close to the scalp in places it would bleed sometimes, completed what for me felt like a suit of armor. Nobody could touch me when I was dressed like that, no one could see me, unless I allowed them to.
Anyways this pretty fucked up kid who in hindsight would probably have stood out even in the streets of 70s New York, was adopted by the small band of freaks and castaways who made People’s Street what it was. I only managed to get downtown a couple of times a week, but the roller skaters seemed to live there, and when I’d turn up on the back of a green moped owned by an older woman who took to me after we did a Lorca play together, the guys in their shorts or dresses, or should I say the ladies, would hoot and smile, and pat my battered head, and for a couple of minutes I was home.
For anyone who thinks having a physical place doesn’t matter, I can tell you that from this man’s perspective, those few shabby blocks of something different saved my life. It wasn’t territory that was easy to hold onto. There were quite a few bashings, one of the worst involving a half dozen of the rollerskaters ending up in water or in hospital. The attackers had come down to the marina in trucks. It was planned, part of a concerted effort by thugs, Christians and finally the city government itself to clean up downtown and get rid of the faggots. Within a year or so the street life had retreated inside.
AIDS had already made a few headlines when the city revoked the liquor licenses of the bars and starting enforcing vagrancy laws that been on the books for decades. The excuses were health related, that and a few under aged drinkers. The theatre was closed for safety reasons, its marquee torn off as part of an urban renewal initiative. Reagan was in the White House. South Texas had begun to embrace an intersection of faith of politics already familiar in the east and center of the State.
I’d been away at school, my parents wisely recognizing I’d probably end up dead, as had a few of my friends, if I stayed in what at that time was styled “ the sparkling city by the sea”. Coming back, the one place I’d looked forward to visiting was empty. There was no one on the street, on the T heads in the marina. The Ritz looked as if it had been abandoned decades before. It was incredible how little was left to indicate there had ever been anything unusual going on in that corner of the city. If not for the photos I’d had printed at the drive up I used on SPID that were already taking on a peculiar orange tinge, there’d have been nothing to suggest the tiny sovereign queer state of People Street ever existed.
It did. I did. And as we face another conservative decade, with familiar cruelties and disinformation directed at the same vulnerable people who are always targeted by those who think hate and morality should somehow go hand in hand, who count on exclusion not pluralism to fix the world, I thought it was worth sharing what a couple of bars, a few blocks, and maybe 30 or so playful, inventive, and in some cases damaged people meant to a kid like me. Thank you, wherever you are, for carrying me through one of the toughest times in my life. I owe to that place and those people the life I live now. And it is in there spirit that I do as I do. No eyeliner anymore, but I still have a couple pairs of really short shorts. Oh, and I’ve taken up roller skating.