The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states on Friday calls for celebration. The Main Strip – a section of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) focused and friendly establishments on North Main Avenue – is the place to do so in San Antonio. Hundreds of members and allies of the LGBTQ community gathered on The Strip Friday night to answer that call.
The timing of the court’s decision, a Friday night during National LGBTQ Pride Month, could not have been better. Weekend nights are typically busy at the restaurants, bars, and dance floors located on The Strip, but Friday night’s celebration was unprecedented. Locally, there is no place that represents the gay rights movement and its progress more. Attendees on Friday were ecstatic.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), beaming as he looked on the crowd at Luther’s, said that it felt good to be on the right side of history.
“It was a great day for people who I care about to be free and to express themselves.” The crowd roared its approval as rainbow flags flapped in the dusky sun.
“For many of us, it was expected, but when the day finally came, I was especially excited for the kids. San Antonio leads the nation in kids being raised in same-sex households. Family is something that this city is centered around, and there are so many families that have had to deal with being viewed as not being ‘real’ families, even though in their own lives they have been and are. This finally affirms what they’ve been doing.”
Cars slowed and honked as they passed, sharing in the revelry for a small moment. On the sidewalk outside Luther’s, Cristela Treviño told me what the day’s Supreme Court decision meant to her: “I didn’t think it would happen this year, but I hoped it would happen in my lifetime. Today is incredible, and we’re surrounded by those that support us. It validates us, and makes us welcome where we weren’t before.”
Chuck Hernandez, a San Antonio business owner, has visited the bars on North Main off and on since 1978. Living as a gay man when most of the city still disapproved, he said the area provided an outlet to express and experience an emerging gay culture in San Antonio.
“It wasn’t called ‘The Strip’ back then, and it was dark and quiet. Where Pegasus is now, there was a gas station and there were homes across the street,” Hernandez said. “Across from Heat, there was an upholstery place. The gay culture was still very small, and the spots to go to were far apart and patchy, unlike the neighborhood it is now. Few people really knew about what was happening there. Then in the 80’s, Crocket Park became active at night, and people started walking around. It developed a reputation.”
Now, moving between the throngs of jolly attendees, it’s hard to imagine the sneaky and elicit denizens of the past. The music is almost as loud as the drag queens’ outfits.
“There was a segment of the city that had to be careful, even at the strip. That includes the military. CO’s (commanding officers) would come into the clubs to find other people in the military. It was not at all encouraged.”
Since the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was repealed in Sepember 2011, recent studies found more than 66,000 members of the U.S. Military that openly identify as LGBTQ.
“In the 80s and 90s inside the clubs, it was a mostly safe environment. But once people left the bars, it was a different story. There are many examples of violence against gays and lesbians in Crockett Park and Travis Park and outside the clubs there,” Hernandez said.
The strip itself goes way back, with establishments like Luther’s dating back to 1949. For decades, the North Main Strip has offered closeted or just private residents the opportunity to express their sexuality in a safe environment. For those already out, North Main has offered a location to experience and co-create San Antonio’s gay culture.
Today, the celebration took a different tone. Different lives connected to queerness had very different responses. Some still viewed the institution of marriage as an outdated concept, but for some, the decision made all the difference in the world.
Joseph Aguilar, a Vietnam War veteran, told me, “For America, in my opinion, this is one of the finest moments. This whole week has been one of America’s finest moments. I feel that the sacrifices and my service are now worthwhile. The veterans weren’t very well received when they came back because of the unpopularity of the war. That didn’t stop us from living, but this is kind of my welcome home. It’s been a long time coming.”
At the bars, straight and trans club-hoppers feel totally comfortable, blending into the positive and affirming environment easily. Sexual orientation is no more a requirement for enjoying the venues than it is for marriage in the United States.
“To many of us, approval and validation under the law matters. Justice Clarence Thomas said that dignity can’t be bestowed or taken away from the people by the government, but practically speaking that isn’t true,” said Michael Ritter, a San Antonio lawyer. “Today validated the lives of so many Americans. That makes it historic in practice and in symbol.”
More simply put, Cristela Treviño told me, “I didn’t think it would happen this year, but I hoped it would happen in my lifetime. Today is incredible, and we’re surrounded by those that support us. It validates us, and makes us welcome where we weren’t before.”
The atmosphere of support was palpable on North Main Avenue on Friday. Love was openly professed and expressed through abundant smiles and raucous laughter.
If clubs aren’t your thing, at least half of the bars and clubs have spots quiet enough for drinks and conversation. If you are looking to experience something unique, then there’s plenty of room to be a part of the spectacle.
So, if you’re like many of us, and the Supreme Court’s decision made you feel like dancing, then there is no better place to do it than The Strip.
At the top of the hill, Luther’s has huge glass windows and a patio. It has a revamped modern look that disguises its nearly 70 year old roots. It has giant TV’s for Spurs games, burger and comfort food, and (most memorably) rum and coke slushies with ample bite. It’s a great place to start.
Across the street, Heat seems to have a different room for every mood. Intimate spots, dance halls, and the well-worn stage make the club seem like a labyrinth of smaller establishments. Once the drag shows start, though, the crowd gathers quickly and it’s tough not to be swept up in the spectacle. Photographer Scott Ball took some great shots, but the open atmosphere is best understood in person. Shows start at midnight.
Next, Sparky’s is a bar with rich, wooden rooms with a warm interior. As a gay pub, there’s limited dancing, but lots of bumping music. When we were there, everyone seemed to be talking and reconnecting. There is a back patio that is much quieter, where drinkers sip on fresh air. For earlier arrivers, there are tasty hors-dourves.
Pegasus, next door, is totally different. With impressively off-key karaoke, shirtless servers, and an unreasonable amount of shots, the attitude is rambunctious. Cosplayers and speedos were equally frequent, and smiles were everywhere. There is a front patio with plenty of shows throughout thenight.
With extra time, we would have made it to The Saint, which is a huge show bar and dance club. There are central rooms and private party rooms with bottle service. Drag shows are getting competitive there, and the music was bumping as we passed it. Still, it was getting late and we had one more bar before the main event.
Essence has a large central room and bar and plenty of dancing space. For those worried about alcoholic empty calories, there are plenty of stripper poles available for late-night cardio. It’s just important not to be self conscious dancing around the professionals on the bartops an intimidating number of bills in their banana hammocks.
Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe
Most revelers should end their night at Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe. Known most prominently for its three-pound cinnamon roll, this 20 year old diner is a distinctively iconic San Antonian establishment.
A couple weeks ago, I found the drag queens at an adjacent table kept on their makeup but had changed into normal shirts and pants as they ate breakfast.
After ordering, we found a bridge and groom, who came straight from their wedding party to get a chicken fried steak with queso. They grew up in San Antonio and had been coming to Lulu’s for years. They said it seemed like the right place to go to celebrate their love after their marriage. They certainly won’t be the last.
On Friday, the North Main strip was rowdy and elated. The area transformed from a refuge into a celebrated haven for gays and supporters.
“I get a lot of thank you’s for helping build this place, but really I love walking down this place, and having a space to explore,” said Randy Cunniff, owner of Luther’s, Heat, and Sparky’s. “It’s wonderful that we have a place where we can go together to celebrate. “To my LGBT brothers and sisters: congratulations. Today is your day.”