Galveston’s Queer Community: A Step Back in Time
As long as there has been a Galveston, there has been a queer community. Galveston was the largest city in Texas until almost 1900. It was a port city, with a steady influx of various cultures. It had connections to the port cities of New Orleans and New York, and the kind of services available to gays in those cities eventually became available in Galveston.
In 1966, the Kon Tiki bar opened, and over the next 40 years it was located at six different sites. After two of its locations burned to the ground, the club inadvertently became a symbol of gay survival.
From 1966 to 1969, the Kon Tiki operated at 800 21st Street. The location is now a parking lot. From 1970 to 1971, its address was 215 19th Street. That structure burned to the ground, and today a warehouse sits on the land. Moving to 214 23rd Street in 1972, the club eventually expanded to include baths. The dance floor there was the Kon Tiki’s signature touch—colored squares that flashed on and off to the music and displayed silhouettes of male genitalia.
In 1983, the entire complex was lost to a fire caused by a gas leak in the wake of Hurricane Alicia. That site is now the lawn of an upscale café. The bar opened again in 1984 at 111 23rd Street, a location now occupied by a Stuttgarden. The club then moved in 1985 to 2011 Market, directly behind the Galveston Opera House. That structure was also demolished and is presently a parking lot.
In 1987, the bar made its final move to 315 23rd Street, and remained open until 2006 when the owner died. That structure (which is currently a private residence) is the only one of the bar’s six locations that survives, and dates back to around 1890 when it was a part of the three-story Marble Palace Hotel. (After a fire in the mid-1950s, the structure and a few neighboring buildings were rebuilt as “modern” storefronts. It was occupied by the Galveston Chamber of Commerce before the Kon Tiki moved there in 1987.)
John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston
In 1965, the hospital began to see patients with gender-identity issues. In 1966, a 23-year-old underwent male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). It was low-key and without media fanfare. In 1971, a second SRS was completed.
Houston transgender pioneers Toni Mayes and Phyllis Frye were both clinic clients in the early 1970s. Mayes underwent SRS in 1973. In 1976, the Janus Information Facility was opened in a building off-campus, providing gender-identity information worldwide. Although UTMB initially funded the facility and its mailing costs, they chose to close the clinic in 1980. That clinic building was later demolished, but the hospital where the pioneering surgeries were performed still stands and is now known as the John Sealy Hospital Annex. Located near 6th and Strand streets, it was likely built as a 1935 Works Progress Administration project.
The reverse-cruciform hospital was once one of the largest and tallest buildings in Galveston, but the structure has since been conjoined with new hospital additions and is now barely recognizable from the street.
When UTMB’s gender clinic closed, a private clinic was opened at 1103 25th Street. For years, it was one of the few gateways for persons seeking legal gender changes and/or sexual reassignment surgery.
Former Houstonian Jessica Wicks was a client in the 1990s. She recalls enjoying annual “reunions” where many past and present clients could meet and share experiences. Although the clinic closed in 2010, the building that housed it is still standing and in excellent condition.
The two-story blue-stucco structure features influences of the Prairie architectural style and was built circa 1915 in a residential area. One would never guess that it was once a clinic with an annual client base of 450 transgender individuals.
The oldest continually operating gay bar on the island is Robert’s Lafitte, which opened in August 1969. The club is located at 2501 Avenue Q, just a few blocks from the Galveston Seawall.
The club is named after the smuggler and pirate Jean Lafitte, who won a legal pardon by helping General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in the final battle of the War of 1812. The name Robert was added to distinguish it from New Orleans’ Café Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continually operating gay bar in America. Robert’s Lafitte survived Hurricanes Alicia and Ike, and is still in business today, over 50 years after its opening.
The relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff, and superb drag shows have made it an institution for local residents and a popular attraction for beachgoers. The two-story, broad-front commercial building is clad in brick veneer and was built around 1920. The original storefront has been altered for various uses over the years.