Safety on Trial in San Antonio
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Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


Editor’s Note: The following is by a grant recipient in a program launched in 2022 by The G&LR, our Writers and Artists Grant, which was awarded to three recipients in 2023. The purpose of this grant is to assist advanced students engaged in LGBT-related research, and awardees are expected to produce an article for this magazine as part of their project. This is the second of three articles from last year’s recipients.

FROM THE STONEWALL RIOTS of 1969 to the recent raid of a Seattle-based gay bar called the Cuff Complex, police harassment of LGBT+ people in bars and nightclubs forms an important part of our history. Unlike New York City or Seattle, a city like San Antonio, Texas—mid-sized, Southern, and largely Latinx—tends to be overlooked in the history books. And yet, San Antonio was at the center of an important legal battle between the U.S. military and a gay discothèque called San Antonio Country in 1973 and ’74. Indeed this court case provides a lens through which we can examine how gay people in this era survived in the face of persecution by outside forces.*

            In the post-Stonewall Gay Liberation era of the 1970s, a major change took place in the lives of LGBT+ San Antonians with the opening of San Antonio Country, commonly known as the SA Country, in April 1973. The club was founded by the developer Arthur “Hap” Veltman along with the bar’s manager and a close friend of Veltman, Gene Elder. Veltman was a well-known entrepreneur who developed the first restaurant facing San Antonio’s iconic Riverwalk. Up to that time, according to Elder in a 1993 oral history: “the gay bars in San Antonio were very small holes in the wall.” Another thing that distinguished the SA Country was the openness with which the bar publicized its sexual orientation. Perhaps for this reason, the bar was raided almost immediately by both the Military Police (MPs) and the local vice squad, and it was placed on the military’s off-limits list.

            For context, San Antonio is known as a “military city” due to the large population of active duty military and veterans who live in the city. Historian Melissa Gohlke remarked that being placed on the off-limits list was sometimes akin to free advertising and enabled LGBT+ servicemembers to know where the local gay bars were located, because they were often posted in barracks for the servicemembers to see. Conversely, placement on this list also meant harassment and increased risk for service members who frequented these bars.

            The Stonewall Riots had provided one model of resistance, but the response this time was different. Veltman and Elder, with the help of their lawyers, challenged this injustice in military court. This court case is legendary in San Antonio queer history and resulted in several published articles and oral histories, a documentary, and even a play. In these retellings of the landmark court case, there’s a standard narrative that the queer community of San Antonio triumphed over the homophobic military. This David and Goliath scenario has often drawn comparisons to the Stonewall riots and painted Veltman and Elder as champions of LGBT+ rights.

            However, these narratives conceal important facts about LGBT+ life in San Antonio in the early 1970s. While I’m not here to challenge the belief that Veltman and Elder were instrumental in shaping San Antonio queer life or to diminish the importance of the legal battle and its outcome, I would like to offer a more nuanced account of the court case and a more holistic approach to this contentious time (1973–’74) in the history of LGBT+ life in Texas. I hope to elucidate some of the complexity of queer urban politics in South Texas and, in doing so, to broaden our understanding of a larger swath of that life: that of Southern, Black and brown, and noncoastal urban queer experiences in the era between Stonewall (1969) and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

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Lucas Belury (he/him/el), a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Arizona, has published articles on urban informality, environmental justice, and race equity.


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