Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Roaring Sixties

The Tumblebugs take on 
City Hall (1967)
Roaring Sixties

Location: 2305 South Sheppard, Houston, Texas, USA

Opened: June 23, 1967

Closed: Still needs to be verified

Jim Sears, the author of Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, says the following about the Roaring Sixties and its pivotal role in gay and lesbian history:

Known as the homosexual playground of the South, Houston was already home to a dozen gay bars and clubs when the Roaring Sixties opened on June 23, 1967.

With its checkered tablecloths, crimson drapes, and ruby walls, the Roaring Sixties was a place that a lot of folks called home.... In addition to lesbian regulars like Dee Dee, who’d waltz in with slacks, cuffs turned up, hair slicked back, and tanned Mexican shoes, there was a one-armed guy who’d shoot pool with Rita [Roaring Sixties owner Rita Wanstrom] for $20 a ball. Rita used one of her matched pair of San Toeos; he used the end of a broomstick–and "cleared the table."

But it wasn't all pool and good times.

"A lot of club owners back then said women couldn’t come in if they didn’t turn their pants around" or wear dresses, remembers Rita. Two months after her club’s opening, Houston’s vice squad came to visit.... Separating out the more butch-looking patrons, an Irish sergeant barked out commands. "You get over here. You get over there." Twenty-five lesbians were hauled to jail for wearing clothing of the opposite sex. "The enforcement of the ordinance, of course, was directed only at those people perceived to be gay," underscores Rita. Used for police harassment and extortion, it was also a convenient excuse for some bar owners to restrict lesbians. "Everyone got mad," remembers Rita. "But what could you do?" Rita paid all of the $25 fines and hired an all-girl band, led by "little butch" Sandra to "pump our business back up."

A month later there was another raid. As in Stonewall, something snapped. "I don’t think the other bar owners could see what was happening," swears Rita. However, she "saw the need for someone to speak out on behalf of this community." It was an unjust law that "deprived me of my right to do business."

Wanstrom sought out the help of Percy Foreman, whose legal fee matched his status as the preeminent lawyer of the Southwest. Foreman was willing to represent Rita when another raid befell her club. As Rita headed down to the Roaring Sixties that evening to rally folks, "I happened to see a little tumblebug. Now, a tumblebug will just lay there until somebody turns it over and helps it back on its feet." And so, as the summer of 1967 receded into history, the Tumblebugs were born.

Selling sweatshirts, hosting benefits, and sponsoring drag shows, the dozen or so women who made up the Tumblebugs raised Foreman’s $2,500 fee.... In challenging the city ordinance, Rita hoped to get "people to think for themselves about what was happening to us and what we needed to do to take the heat off."

At that time (1967), there was virtually no lesbian or gay political activism in Houston, so the actions of Rita Wanstrom and the Roaring Sixties' lesbian patrons were unprecedented. But the August-September raids were far from the end of the police harassment. In fact, there was a yet another raid in late December:

Two nights before New Year’s Eve, a sergeant and his men of the vice squad rushed into the Sixties and found women "dressed in men’s pants, men’s shirts, and men’s shoes."

Rita reminisces: "They lined people up and started questioning. One woman who was asked her occupation said: ‘I’m a weenie peeler.’ That just broke everyone up. More cops came in and they made her repeat it. It turned out that she worked in a meat factory and when the weenies came through she would peel one to make sure it was stuffed right. So they put all of the butches in the paddy wagon."

This time, though, things were different. Amidst a bevy of "not guilty" pleas, a shocked magistrate stared down at the Tumblebugs as their celebrated attorney asserted: "This will not be a test of the law.... It will be a test of the vice squad’s concept of the law."

Meanwhile, pugnacious activist Ray Hill worked for change behind the scene.... Ray was summoned to "come through the back door of City Hall and walk up three flights of stairs to the mayor’s office." At the appointed hour, Ray remembers climbing the stairs, entering through the fire exit, and meeting with the mayor’s assistant, Larry McKaskle, in a converted maid’s closet. Ray wrenched from McKaskle a promise that City Hall would indeed "check into" the lesbian bar raids.

On the day of the trial, Rita and her "girls"–wearing dresses and makeup–appeared before Judge Raymond Judice. The cases against the 11 were dismissed due to the failure of the vice officers to appear. The sergeant, however, announced that he "definitely intended" to refile charges and to continue to enforce the ordinance. Inexplicably, however, he was transferred to the Narcotics Division. Rita affirms, "They never bothered us again!"

I have not been able to verify when the Roaring Sixties closed, but Rita Wanstrom lived till the ripe old age of 85 before passing away from breast cancer in November 2009.

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