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Saving Houston’s LGBTQ history through thousands of hours of radio archives

An image from the 1984 Houston Pride parade. Archivists at the University of Houston are working on archiving 30 years worth of local LGBTQ radio programming.
J. D. Doyle
An image from the 1984 Houston Pride parade. Archivists at the University of Houston are working on archiving 30 years worth of local LGBTQ radio programming.

For years, hundreds of fragile cassette tapes sat quietly aging in a storage locker in Houston, Texas. Each plastic case contained hours of radio shows, made for and by LGBTQ people.

The first shows aired in the mid-1970s. They continued, off and on, for more than 30 years -- a period that included the AIDS crisis, the women’s liberation movement and the rise of LGBT civil rights. A pair of archivists, Emily Vinson and Bethany Scott, have been working on preserving the programs, thousands of hours of them, online.

“Houston is not maybe the first place you think when you think LGBTQ history,” Vinson says during a meeting in the main library at the University of Houston. In her black outfit and chic glasses, she looks like an archivist from central casting. “You think maybe New York or San Francisco,” she continues. “But a lot was happening here. I mean, you can imagine what it meant to be on the radio in 1977, identifying as a gay person.”

The shows aired on KPFT (90.1), Houston’s Pacifica station. One of them, Wilde ‘n’ Stein (named for Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein) started in 1975 and ran through the early 1990s. A late night show, After Hours, ran from 1987 until the early 2000s.

In one June 1979 episode of Wilde ‘n’ Stein, you can hear prominent activists Larry Bagneris and Charles Law reflecting on their experiences as Black gay men in Houston. Then, an interview with Houston resident Tony Lazada, the former manager of the Stonewall Inn. Lazada was on the scene when the famous Stonewall riots broke out in New York’s Greenwich Village. Ten years later, he was running a Houston gay bar called Dirty Sally’s.

“I run a clean club,” Lazada informed his interviewer. “I don’t allow any dope. I don’t allow any sexual things happening in our place. And I don’t allow drag queens to come in. I’m friendly with everyone. It’s just I’m trying to run a legit club where I don’t have any problems like I had in New York. I don’t want another Stonewall.”

A Houston city ordinance at that time banned “a person from appearing in public dressed with the intent to disguise his or her sex as that of the opposite sex.” Police used the ordinance to harass and arrest LGBTQ people, especially drag queens, butch lesbians and transgender people.

Over the years, the producers and hosts of these radio shows brought their listeners live street coverage of Pride parades, music that celebrated LGBTQ experiences and interviews with city council members, activists, local arts luminaries, and public health officials. Because it was on the radio, often late at night, closeted people could listen quietly and discreetly, without the fear of discovery that printed material might bring.

Carl Han, a young Vietnamese-American, listened to the station’s LGBT programming at the lowest possible volume, as he told the radio show After Hours in 1992.

“That’s how I discovered the Montrose [LGBT] community,” he said. “At the age of 15, I hit upon KPFT one night and turned it down real low so no one can hear.” He would go on to be a leading local activist, who at the time of the broadcast was the secretary of Asians and Friends, a community group serving Houston’s LGBTQ Asian Americans.

Such content came as a revelation to 20-year-old Andrea Hoang. As an undergraduate at the University of Houston, one of her campus jobs was to help digitize and transcribe the shows. Hoang, who identifies as queer, was thrilled to discover the voices of Asian-American activists, including Han and After Hours host Vivian Lee, in broadcasts from before she was born.

“They had so many people of color coming onto this show and spearheading these local movements,” she marvels, adding that she also loved learning about the vibrant LGBT music played on the programs so much, she made this Spotify playlist honoring it.

The digitization of this audio history, says Vinson, would not be possible without three Houstonians who safeguarded the cassettes for so many years. Judy Reeves cofounded the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender History. JD Doyle maintains an extensive website documenting local LGBT history. Jimmy Carper was a longtime host and producer of After Hours. (He died of complications from HIV in 2014, at the age of 66.)

“They understood how important it was and they saved it,” Vinson says. “Radio is not the kind of thing that just gets saved by itself. Nothing disintegrated on us, thankfully. We’re very lucky, especially in Houston, because the environment is against us here. Humidity is like the enemy of audiotape.”

“That was part of the motivation for the project,” adds her co-archivist Bethany Scott. “If we aren't getting it off this these old carriers now, we might not have a chance to do it in the future. And we really focus on this as a part of Houston history. Listening to the recordings, hearing the themes that they talked about, it's not like some distant past.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 4, 2024 at 1:14 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story identified JD Doyle as JT Doyle. It has been corrected here.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.