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On June 28, 1969, New York City’s Stonewall Inn tavern entered the history of the fight for gay rights in America. On that day, a routine police raid resulted in what has been described as an uprising by LGBTQIA patrons who decided to finally resist what they saw as relentless harassment and discrimination.
San Antonio may not have had its Stonewall Inn equivalent, but in the 1970s it did have the San Antonio Country, a revolutionary club for its gay men, lesbians, drag queens, hippies, and gay-friendly denizens to gather.
A new documentary film by Noi Mahoney, Hap Veltman’s San Antonio Country, premieres with a free screening 6 p.m. Sunday at the Bonham Exchange, which Veltman also founded years later. The full-length feature tells the story of “the first gay disco nightclub in San Antonio” – according to its promotional materials – and of Arthur P. “Hap” Veltman Jr., the club’s visionary owner.
Many figures who witnessed firsthand that era in San Antonio’s history are present in the film, including Gene Elder, who started the nightclub with Veltman and who went on to run the Happy Foundation, named after the fuller version of Veltman’s nickname. The club’s first regular disc jockey, Jamie Alexander, also appears in the film.
“I had never been in a gay bar before,” Alexander said. But Veltman, a prominent gay personality in San Antonio at the time, intended the club to be for more than one community. “He said, ‘Oh no, this isn’t a gay bar. This is a unisex bar,’” Alexander said by phone from Arlington, where he works as an events manager.
“We wanted everybody to come and have a great time. We don’t care what your persuasion is,” he said.
Alexander described “The Country,” as many in the film refer to the club, as an “upgrade” from the previous selection of gay bars in the city, which were often windowless, dark, and small. In Mahoney’s documentary, photographs of Veltman’s club show a grand, multifloor space with soaring, vaulted ceilings, elegant furniture, a rose window, multiple rooms – including a neon-lit, mirrored space frequented by showy drag queens – and a dance floor complete with disco ball.
“Here was a huge place that was really done very nice, and all the staff were attractive, wearing bow ties and dress shirts,” Alexander said. “It just was a very professional, upscale atmosphere.”
Bucking custom, though, the DJ would have no microphone, on strict orders from Veltman. The owner told Alexander, “because if we get raided, I don’t want the police or the sheriff to take over the mic to order the patrons around.”
Alexander recalls uniforms coming into the club, but his memories are vague, he said. “My orders were to not turn off the music, just to keep the party going. If they asked for a microphone, I told them we didn’t have one.”
In the film, Mahoney asks another prominent member of the gay community what it was like to live in the comparatively conservative San Antonio of the 1970s. “Everything was hush and low-key,” says Kip Dollar, seated next to Toby Johnson – the two were the first male couple in Texas to be registered as domestic partners in 1993.
“San Antonio had a thriving gay community, but it was a gay community that did not want to be seen by the light of day,” Dollar said.
Mahoney echoed Dollar’s thoughts. “There was a really thriving gay community [here] in the ’60s and ’70s; it was just sort of hidden from the rest of the city because they were afraid of harassment and [being] beaten up for being gay,” he said. At the time, military police could arrest service members for being in known gay bars, Mahoney said.
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Mahoney’s interest in making the film was sparked by an article he’d read in an Austin newspaper chronicling the two city’s gay histories. “A gay man in the article mentioned that the best gay club in Texas, and maybe all of the U.S., was the San Antonio Country. I got really interested,” he said. Four years, 10,000 out-of-pocket dollars, and many hours of interviews later, the San Antonio native has his hourlong documentary. Now, he hopes his own interest will translate to a potentially wide audience.
“One of the reasons I made this documentary is just to show a part of San Antonio that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” he said. “Obviously if you’re into gay rights or human rights this is a story you’d be into, but this also just a fun story. It’s a story about a nightclub.”
Mahoney’s sensibility echoes Veltman’s inclusive vision for his pioneering nightclub. “A lot of people I interviewed for the movie were surprised that a straight person would be interested in this subject. I always told them it’s a great story, an interesting story, and gay rights is human rights,” he said.
“I think on one level it’s just an interesting story about San Antonio itself,” he said.
The premiere 6 p.m. screening of Hap Veltman’s San Antonio Country is free, though donations will be accepted for the Happy Foundation, which maintains an archive of local LGBTQIA history housed at the Bonham Exchange.