7 early queer and trans spaces in the Rio Grande Valley

For LGBTQI+ history month, we wanted to share some info on the Rio Grande Valley’s own queer history.

Gay bars as we know them have been in existence since at least the early 1920s in the United States. After World War II, bars aimed at the queer community began popping up in “gay districts” of big cities such as San Francisco and New York. With the “gay liberation” movement of the early 1970s, these bars began to open in growing numbers all over the country- and often played important roles in their communities. Below is a guide to some of the Rio Grande Valley’s early documented queer spaces.

Drag Queen Jessica Welch at PBDS circa 1990s

PBD’S

PBD’s lounge opened in 1984 and remains open today- making it the oldest gay bar in South Texas. There are several “urban legends” about the origin of the bar’s name- with some people claiming it stood for “Pretty Big D**cks” or similar names. The more commonly accepted story is that it stood for Poor Baby Drew’s- after the owner who was reportedly a big board game enthusiast whose friends would call him that whenever he lost.

Ad for PBDS in Valley Voice

Located on Ware Road, the bar was initially much smaller and did not feature drag shows or have a dance floor. Instead, it had several pool tables across what is now the dance floor and stage. When drag shows first started, they were held in a space in the back of the bar. One person remembers that the bar initially had a more “leather bar” vibe than other bars at the time and that it attracted an older crowd.

Related: Valley Voice: The Rio Grande Valley’s first known LGBTQ advocacy group

In many of their advertisements in the later part of the 1980s, PBD’S emphasized that they were a “play safe” bar- indicating a growing awareness of the AIDS crisis and sexual awareness.

Lyle’s Deck

Lyle’s Deck

Lyle’s Deck on South Padre Island opened in the mid-1980s as both a hotel and a bar. In the early 1990s, it was bought by a new owner and reopened as the Upper Deck. It had a reputation for being a “crazy, wild space” that catered to both tourists and locals. Possibly because of its island location, it was less restrictive and conservative than other gay bars. Many young queer people who came of age in the Valley in the 80s and 90s describe going to the deck as a kind of right of passage. The Upper Deck closed in the late 2000s but reopened a few years ago and is still in business in its original location on Atol Street.

10th Avenue Ad

10th Avenue

10th Avenue opened in the mid-1980s and remained open until the early 2000s. During that time, many people considered it to be the Valley’s biggest gay hang out.

10th Avenue featured regular drag shows headlined by drag queen Misty Duvall- who had previously performed at Bumpers. The club also featured two stories and a huge dance floor- making it extremely popular at the time. The bar frequently hosted drag pageants and fundraisers to raise money for people affected by AIDS and HIV and in 1992, Valley Voice held a fundraiser there to be able to raise money to continue their In Touch Publication.

10th Avenue was located on 10th Street in McAllen in between Sycamore and Redwood Aves. The fact that it was located on a busy street in the heart of McAllen meant that sometimes people would come by to harass or taunt people leaving the bar. One person remembers looking out through the door before heading to his car to avoid this.

Homophobic and transphobic police were also a concern for people who attended 10th Avenue. One woman remembers that the police sometimes go into the bar claiming that they were looking for drugs. At other times, police would wait outside the bar as people were leaving and then follow them home until they found an excuse to pull them over and harass them. One time outside of the bar, a man was hit by a car and killed as his partner watched. The police made homophobic remarks about the man and jokes about AIDS and HIV.

Related: 21 LGBTQ Latinx historical figures you should know about

10th Avenue was also known for it’s “straight night” beginning in the 1990s. This was a night where the bar would have 99 cent drinks and wet T-Shirt contests and would advertise to both queer and cisgender heterosexual people. One man remembers that “straight night” actually gave an opportunity for many queer people who were not yet out of the closet to go to the bar without outing themselves. These nights were also unfortunately marked by violence- often due to the fact that members of rival gangs would go to the same bar, get intoxicated, and then fight once the lights came on or they saw each other in the parking lot. After several incidents of violence occurred, police began to increase their presence and the bar eventually closed down.

Several myths spread among the Valley’s queer community about why 10th Avenue closed and some people continue to attribute it to a gay bashing that happened- although people involved remember that the last incidence of violence was a stabbing involving members of rival gangs.

RuPaul at Club X

Club X

Club X was an “alternative” or goth bar located on Nolana near 23rd Street in McAllen. The bar was known for playing industrial and alternative rock music and attracting a large crowd on weekends. At one point, the bar had “alternative” night on the second floor and hip-hop night on the first. The alternative night always attracted a large number of queer young people. One queer woman who was a regular at Club X remembers, “the first floor and the second floor- would always use the same bathroom though, which could get interesting with the crowds that would go.”

In 1992, Club X booked the now world-famous entertainer RuPaul- who had already begun a successful musical and modeling career- to perform. She drew a huge crowd and a UT Pan American publication wrote a story on her show. One young gay man stated in the article that seeing RuPaul was like seeing Madonna while a straight-identified girl complained that she had paid $20 dollars to see RuPaul perform only 3 songs.

Kathryn York at Club X circa 1992_ Keith Harring mural in background

At some point- possibly due to the popularity of the RuPaul show- Club X also featured regular drag shows. Interestingly, the backdrop for the stage that the queens would perform on was a replica of a mural done by queer artist Keith Harring- who passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications.

Archer Park

Some of the first documented queer spaces in the Rio Grande Valley were “cruising” spots or “cruising strips.” These were usually parks or other public spaces that by night became known as places frequented by mostly men. For many who did not feel that they had the option to be “out” about their sexuality, these spaces allowed queer men and transfeminine people would go at night to take advantage of the dark and meet others- often for anonymous, one-time encounters.

No one knows for sure when the first of these “cruising spots” emerged in the Valley. One resident who grew up in Rio Grande City in the 1960s remembers that a gazebo on Main Street was known for this kind of activity and other people remember parks in Edinburg, McAllen, and Harlingen that served this function.

Archer Park, in downtown McAllen, became known for this on a large scale starting as far back as the 1960s. At one point, people referred to the park as the “Fruit Loop.” In the 1970s, the park evolved into more of a large-scale social space. Although it was still known for cruising and hooking up, more and more people- mostly gay men and trans women- would begin to frequent the location to meet up with others on Friday and Saturday nights. Once more nightlife spots became available to queer people beginning in the mid-1970s, many would still meet up at Archer as the start to their “night out.” Others were too young to get into the clubs would make the park the center of their social interaction. One person remembers that there were crowds in the park itself and then people who would hang out in and around their cars on the edge of the park.

People who frequented the spot often had to deal with police, who would regularly come by to either break up the socializing that was going on or threaten and arrest people they suspected of “soliciting.” One gender nonconforming person who grew up as a teen in the 1970s remember that on Friday nights they would dress up “in drag” and hitchhike or find rides to Archer. She recalls, “it was fun…but we knew that if we saw the police, we needed to run…even if we were in high heels…we ran.”

Archer seems to have peaked as a social gathering space in the 1980s, although in the 1990s and early 2000s it still had a reputation as a queer “hookup” spot.

DUFFY’S

The first known gay bar in the Rio Grande Valley opened in the early 1970s. It was owned by a straight couple- a woman named Helen and her husband- who were not originally from the Valley. Helen is described as a straight woman “who loved the gays.” The bar was located in Downtown McAllen- near 17th street by what is now the McAllen Bus Station. At the time, the area was a popular shopping destination for tourists from both sides of the border.

Before Duffy’s if queer people living in the RGV wanted to experience going to a gay bar, they would either have to cross the border to Reynosa or Matamoros (residents of the Valley remember there being some more secretive bars in those cities dating back to the early 1970s) or go to Corpus Christi or Houston.

One gay man who grew up in Rio Grande City in the 1970s remembers hearing about Duffy’s and instantly wanting to go.

“Me and my best friend knew we were gay in high school but we never told anyone. When we heard about Duffy’s we knew we wanted to go but we didn’t know how to get there. There was one gay person in town that we knew- they used to call him La Manuela and he was older. He would always wear the most fabulous outfits…pos, one day we just went up to La Manuela and asked her to take us. He agreed- although at first no queria (he didn’t want to). And we sat down in the back seat of the car agachados (crouched down) the whole way until we left Rio so that no one would see us with La Manuela!”

Duffy’s was very limited in terms of what it offered its patrons. Public displays affection between people of the same sex were not allowed and the bar’s small space meant that there was nowhere to dance. Going to the bar also came with some risks. As soon as the community found out the nature of the bar, people would drive by or wait outside to harass customers. They would often shout homophobic slurs at them or throw rocks or bottles. One patron remembers that the bar would close at 1:00 AM instead of 2:00- and that the men would sometimes run back to their cars to avoid this. Still, queer people- mostly men- flocked there every weekend to enjoy each other’s company.

Helen died in the early 1980s and the bar was sold to new owners. Duffy’s closed shortly thereafter.  

A few other bars opened after Duffy’s that did not last as long. One man remembers a small bar in the middle of a bunch of orange groves on 107 in Edinburg in the late 1970s and a small bar on old Highway 83 in Donna called The Ocean that was only open for a few months (his memory is a little hazy on the name). There was also a straight bar called Bocacio’s near 10th Street and Nolana that had one gay night a week and at some point hosted drag competitions in the early 1990s.

Ad for Choice’s Disco- Leonardo’s Bar in Reynosa

BUMPERS, ECT. ECT., THE EVOLUTION

The first gay bar that we know of to be owned by a queer person in the Valley was Bumpers (which would change it’s name several times- going by Bumpers, Ect. Ect., The Standell, and the Evolution at different times). Bumpers seems to be the name that most patrons remember it by.

Bumpers was owned by a gay man from Reynosa named Leonardo “Chaco” Mena. Chaco grew up in Reynosa and eventually opened an ice cream parlor/soda shop there that became an unofficial hangout spot for queer youth. He also opened a bar there called Choices. He also owned a successful landscaping business. He moved to McAllen in the early 1970s and is remembered by most people who knew him as a handsome, bold, and flamboyant figure.

Bumpers- which was located near 10th Street and Pecan in McAllen- was different from Duffy’s in two significant ways. The first was that it had a dance floor and the second was that it had regular drag shows. While I don’t know exactly when the first drag show happened in the Valley, once drag queen who began performing in the late 1970s says that the first drag show she was aware of happened at Bumper’s. Several drag queens staged a performance of the musical Cabaret– two bigger name queens from San Antonio played the two main roles and several drag queens from the Valley played the supporting characters.

Beginning in 1981, Bumpers also offered a monthly Star Search competition that allowed beginner drag queens to compete for regular bookings at the club. Leonardo would often help out and encourage these young queens. One of the drag queens who got her start at one of these nights in 1982 was Lady Laura- who continues to perform today.

Bumper’s closed in the late 1980s. 

Other important early queer spaces in the RGV included The 440 in Brownsville; Just Terry’s on 23rd Street in McAllen; The Planet- a bar located in the middle of downtown Harlingen in the early and mids 90s, and Zipper’s- another Harlingen bar in the early 1990s which hosted one of the first Pride celebrations in the Valley.

Special thanks to the many people who gave me some of the info for this article including Herbie Garza, Sonia Diva Rose Palacios, Misty Duvall, Gabriel, Lady Laura,  Miguel Celio Torres, Betty Jean Crocker, Adam, Melinda Sanchez, Kathryn York, Shady Lady, Luis Heffner, Asa Brooks, Alicia Lugo, Laurie Coffey, Artemis Torres,  Carlos Melguizo, Frances Marsh, and Amara Rivera.