Dallas LGBT Community

By: Sam Childers

Type: General Entry

Published: June 18, 2021

Updated: July 30, 2021

Early documentation of gay and lesbian people in Dallas is virtually nonexistent. There is little scholarly work on LGBT history in Dallas and few primary sources are known to exist. Newspapers of the day rarely wrote about the subject, although in 1891, the Dallas Morning News frequently noted the performances of female impersonators, and one, Elliott Stuart, was frequently praised in the newspaper. A review of the musical burlesque 1492 said Stuart “works with graceful ease and without apparent effort.” A subsequent article reported that Stuart, who started as a chili stand operator in Dallas, had become a headliner “in the East and went to Europe, where he made a triumphal tour” and was described as “the best in the world.” 

Phil Johnson, whose recorded oral history recalls early gay social life in the city, stated that in the 1940s gay men in Dallas frequently met at the corner of Commerce and Akard streets, a spot referred to as “Maggie’s Corner,” due to its location at the base of the Magnolia Petroleum Building. By 1947 Club Reno, located at 316 S. Ervay, was known as a gay nightclub. In the early 1950s several interior decorator shops, many gay-owned, opened along Cedar Springs Road in the Oak Lawn section of the city.

During the next two decades, LGBT bars and gathering places remained concentrated primarily in the central business district, though a few began to open in the Oak Lawn area. The locations of these gay bars were shared on a “need-to-know basis” to protect patrons from being “outed” and bar owners from police raids. In 1964 the Dallas Police Department’s Special Services Bureau arrested 460 persons for being “perverts,” the common term for describing gay people at the time. Police arrested forty-seven people in a single raid at an unnamed club on the edge of downtown Dallas early that year after undercover officers claimed to have observed “morals offenses.” Police reported they “found some women dressed as men and men clad in female attire.”

In 1965 the state’s first gay organization, The Circle of Friends, was established in Dallas. Initially a social group, it began to publicly take on political issues, particularly after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. That same year, Alvin Buchanan filed a federal suit against the Dallas Police Department and claimed the police harassed and targeted gay men and women for arrest. In early 1970 the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled the state’s sodomy law was unconstitutional (Buchanan v. Batchelor). After an appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, the case was remanded to the lower courts.

Political organization of the Dallas LGBT community grew at a rapid pace, spurred in part by media attention to the Buchanan case and to the 1969 Stonewall uprising. In 1975 the Dallas Gay Political Caucus (renamed the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Alliance in 1992), the first LGBT political organization in Dallas and the primary membership organization for the LGBT community, was organized. Its president, Don Baker, a Dallas schoolteacher, had been fired for being gay, and in 1979 he sued, challenging the state’s sodomy law again (Baker v. Wade). Although United States District Court Judge Jerry Buchmeyer ruled in favor of Baker, his ruling was overturned in 1985 after an appeal by the state. The law remained in place until 2003, when the U. S. Supreme Court struck down all such anti-sodomy laws across the nation (Lawrence vs. Texas). In June 1978 Dallas hosted the Texas Gay Conference and invited San Francisco Board of Supervisors member and nationally-known gay rights activist Harvey Milk to speak, an indicator of the local community’s stature nationally.

In 1977 Reverend James Harris became the first openly gay person to run for Dallas City Council, although he lost his race and came in fourth out of five candidates. William H. (“Bill”) Nelson, who was president of the Dallas Gay Alliance from 1984 to 1987, ran and lost in both 1985 and 1987. The first openly gay man to be elected to the city council was Craig McDaniel in 1993. More openly gay people were elected to the city council in the next twenty-five years. Other openly gay office holders have included DISD School Board member Jose Plata (1995), Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (2005), Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons (2006), and Dallas County Judge Jim Foster (2006).

The advances made politically and socially in the 1970s were tempered by the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS epidemic beginning in the early 1980s, but, as in other cities across the nation, the disease united the local community in many ways. By the time the third Dallas AIDS death was reported in 1983, the Dallas AIDS Forum had been established to educate the public about the disease. The Dallas Gay Political Caucus incorporated the Foundation for Human Understanding in June of that year, and two years later the foundation established the AIDS Resource Center to provide education on disease prevention, legal services, a food pantry, and emergency funding for those afflicted with the disease. In 1988 it opened a clinic offering treatment, clinical drug trials, and HIV testing. Among the Resource Center’s founders were Bill Nelson and his partner, Terry Tebedo, for whom the clinic was named following their deaths in 1990 and 1988 respectively. By 2021 the Resource Center as it is now known, was one of the largest centers of its kind in the nation and provided clients with behavioral and mental help programs, nutritional services, HIV case management, insurance services, and counseling.  

Culturally and socially, the Dallas LGBT community is today one of the largest and most vibrant in the nation. The first pride parade was held in 1972, and ten years later the Dallas Tavern Guild was formed to organize the annual event, known in 2021 as the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade (after the longtime director of the Tavern Guild), one of the largest such events in the country. The Metropolitan Community Church, established in California in 1968 as a ministerial outreach to gays and lesbians, established its first church outside of the West Coast in Dallas in 1970. In 1990 the church was renamed the Cathedral of Hope, and in 1995 architect Philip Johnson was commissioned to design a new church campus. In 2006 the church was accepted into the United Church of Christ and became the fourth largest church in the denomination; in 2021 it called itself the “world’s largest gay church.”

The community is served by the weekly Dallas Voice newspaper, established in 1984. The Turtle Creek Chorale, organized in 1980 and described as “primarily a gay men’s chorus,” is the most recorded men’s chorus in the world and has toured internationally, including performances for Queen Elizabeth II. Nine years later, the Women’s Chorus of Dallas was founded. Originally the only chorus in Texas comprised of primarily gay women, the chorus today is a diverse group of women, both gay and straight. Since 2001 the Uptown Players professional theater company has staged productions that explore topics including diversity, relationships, family, prejudice, and values.

Philanthropically, the LGBT community in Dallas boasts one of the most successful fundraising events in the United States, the Black Tie Dinner, first held in 1982. The annual event is one of the largest sources of funding for many North Texas LGBT organizations. Since its founding in 1984, Dallas Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA) has grown from a grassroots organization to a national foundation with chapters across the country. The group has provided more than $47 million to HIV/AIDS organizations nationwide.

In 2015 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. The Dallas LGBT community celebrated the first legal same-sex marriage in Dallas County between longtime partners and LGBT rights activists Jack Evans and George Harris.

By 2021 Dallas had one of the largest LGBT communities in the country, and gay men and lesbians were woven into the fabric of civic life. Although the Oak Lawn neighborhood, which was recognized with a Texas Historical Commission historical marker (the first LGBT subject marker in Texas), continued to be the heart of the community, openly LGBT people worked in every conceivable occupation and made their homes in every part of Dallas and its suburbs.

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Dallas Morning News, April 17, 1898; June 22, 1910; January 11, 1964; September 23, 1965; January 22, 1970; February 22, 1977; June 11, 1978; October 9, 2018. Petra L. Doan, ed., Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces (New York: Routledge, 2015). Phil Johnson, “Maggie’s Corner: Downtown Heart of Early Gay Dallas,” This Week in Texas, August 8, 1991. Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, U.S.A. Confidential, (New York: Crown Publications, 1952). Dominique Mosbergen, “After 54 Years Together, Jack Evans and George Harris Become First Same-Sex Couple to Marry in Dallas,” June 29, 2015, HuffPost  (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/first-same-sex-couple-dallas-jack-evans-george-harris_n_7684464), accessed June 15, 2021. Karen Wisely, The “Dallas Way” in the Gayborhood: The Creation of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community in Dallas, Texas, 1965–1986 (M.A. thesis, University of North Texas, 2011).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sam Childers, “Dallas LGBT Community,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dallas-lgbt-community.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 18, 2021
July 30, 2021

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