How did the Main Street Strip become San Antonio’s gay district? KSAT explains

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio is rich in history from all walks of life. A small part of this story is found in the 1400 block of Main Street north of downtown. If you’ve ever walked through this area, there’s no doubt that it’s claimed by the LGBTQ+ community. Crosswalks are painted with rainbows and pride flags abound. But why is this particular area of ​​San Antonio known as the gay district?

“It comes from decades of very intentional people claiming space in San Antonio.” – Melissa Gohlke, assistant archivist at UTSA, expert in LGBTQ history

On June 25, the “Pride Bigger Than Texas” parade marched through these rainbow-painted streets. Thousands of people were in attendance for what is being called one of the nation’s biggest Pride celebrations. The weekend is an essential time of celebration for the LGBTQ+ community to honor the progress made in achieving equality. The simple fact that this celebration has reached the scale it has today shows the progress made for the LGBTQ+ community.

Main Street filled with rainbow flags as the Pride Bigger Than Texas Parade marches through the strip. (Dylan Collins)

Melissa Gohlke is an Assistant Archivist at UTSA with immense knowledge of queer history. She says San Antonio’s demographics began to change in the early ’60s. It was what Melissa called the “white flight” era. Most white families moved north away from downtown areas as more diverse groups began to populate downtown San Antonio.

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Melissa said this movement has opened up space for minorities. One of the minorities that took advantage of the newly opened space was the LGBTQ+ community. During the 1950s and 60s, buyers could find a home for $50,000 or less. Low prices and open space were the perfect combinations for the LGBTQ+ community to put down roots.

“As the 1970s progressed, more and more businesses opened up and you had gay neighborhoods starting to form. We have proof of this from a 1983 gay census conducted by a professor here at the UTSA,” says Gohlke. This census was released during the Fiesta events in 1983. Investigators received thousands of responses, and after analyzing the numbers, they found that more than 5,900 people claimed to be gay in the city. Tobin Hills area The gay strip is conveniently located in this area.

“It was already a kind of area where there were three bars. They didn’t identify it as that because, like I said, you know, people back then, you know, even 15 years ago you didn’t really call it that because you just didn’t call it. And as we built everything and made everything visible and put trees and put this and put all that, we developed the name ‘The Strip’, and that belongs to me and my company,” says Randy Cunnif.

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For 38 years, Randy Cunnif has owned four of Main Street’s five bars, as well as title to “The Strip.” The first club Cunnif opened in the area was Heat nightclub in 2001. The building was once an antique store in the 1950s, but was abandoned when Cunnif bought it. Today the club has a main dance floor and two separate bars in the back, both with different vibes to invite people with different musical tastes. There is also a patio where you can admire the main street.

Release photo of Randy Cunnif outside Heat nightclub. (ksat12)

Cunnif also owns “Luther’s Cafe”, which today stands on the corner of Main and West Evergreen Street, but it was not always there. Luther’s was established in 1949 in another neighborhood of San Antonio. The owners moved to Main Street in 1976. Cunnif acquired the business in 2007 and renovated the building. Just two years later, San Antonio College purchased the land from Cunnif and demolished the newly renovated building to erect the Tobin Apartments. Luther’s was forced to move across the street from where Sparky’s and Knockout are now located until the apartments were completed. The restaurant is now the opposite of where it was in 1976.

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Photo of Luther’s Cafe believed to have been taken in the late 1970s. (Courtesy of David Mendelssohn)

“Sparky’s Pub” is another Cunnif venture. This building has been a bar since it was built in the 50s. Cunnif says it used to be a club called “Swank Lounge”. It has a hidden tunnel in the back that judges and lawmakers used to exit when law enforcement entered the bar. The building that Sparky’s is currently located in was the first to sell a mixed drink in San Antonio when mixed drink permits were approved by the state of Texas in 1971.

Publication photo of Randy Cunnif (right) and Peter Becker (left) at Sparky’s Pub. (Randy Cunningham)

In 2016, Cunnif opened a sports bar called “Knockout”. Eric Carrier has been a bartender around “The Strip” for almost 30 years. Almost every day and night, you can find Carrier serving in Knockout. He says, “Each year I’ve worked here, I’ve seen a whole new group of people come in with a completely different level of energy. Carrier says he sees all types of people at Knockout, from regulars to straight couples who want to have a night to remember. The building was once a giant drag club called “The Saint”. It once occupied the entire building next to Sparky, but closed in 2015. The building now houses Knockout and retail stores.

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Image of the logo outside the Knockout sports bar in San Antonio, TX. (ksat12)

Other than for fun, the bars and clubs of the early 80s were used to educate. The LGBTQ+ community was facing a silent killer: HIV and AIDS. According to HIV.gov, in 2020 an estimated 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide, up from 1.3 million in 2010. While those numbers are still colossal, there is hope — deaths related to AIDS have been reduced by 64% since the peak in 2004 and by 47% since 2010.

“During this period, in the early 80s, late 80s and early 90s, AIDS and the lack of a cure – at the end of the TWIT (This Week in Texas) magazines were the obituaries. And me and some friends would get together – I’m still choked up. And we’d see who was dying every Friday. We’d say, ‘I just saw him, you know, a month ago. He looked good. That quick . Get pneumonia, go to the hospital and die. And you saw him a month ago in great shape, having a drink and whatever. So, yeah, tough,” says Randy Cunnif.

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Bar owners, like Randy, started a Tavern Guild to help educate the community, bring a sense of hope to the LGBTQ+ community, and raise money for those who have succumbed to AIDS. One of the ways they raised money was through drag art.

“So it’s not just a social space, it’s becoming a space for activism and action. And this continues until the 2000s,” says Gohlke.

Photo from the July 24, 1987 issue of ‘The Calendar’. (Happy Foundation Archives, MS 394, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections)

Although the area doesn’t look or feel the same as it has in past decades, it still serves as an area to create history with others. It also serves as a reminder of the dark times the LGBTQ+ community had to overcome.

Cunnif says he feels compelled to continue his journey with the band and wants to continue educating younger generations about what has helped bring this frequented and loved social space to life.

“I’m thinking about how to educate young people who don’t even know where ‘The Strip’ comes from. I try to have walls that have pictures and walls to show. No pictures there when I opened 10 years ago were less than 10 years old,” says Cunnif.

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“I think if you think about history now that you know what you know when you’re there, think about how this space came about. Yes, it has changed, but it’s still the queer communal space,” Gohlke says.

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