Say “gay Texas” and most people are likely to imagine club hopping in Austin, Dallas, or even Houston. San Antonio may not even come to mind as any sort of LGBTQ+ hot spot in the country’s second most populous state. But this dynamic city, founded more than 300 years ago, is brimming with queer pride — and on a recent visit there, I was overwhelmed by all that I discovered.
I asked locals here what they most love about their city, and many of them respond with descriptions of what a great place it is to raise a family. There are attractions like Sea World, Six Flags, numerous waterparks, and a bevy of museums. There are also plenty of outdoor activities that residents can access year-round, thanks to weather that’s always warm — but not as humid as nearby Austin or Houston. LGBTQ families have taken notice, too. According to Pride Center San Antonio, the city is home to one of the highest concentrations of queer families in the country.
Interactive Queer Art
Tucked into an unassuming building in downtown that faces popular Travis Park is Hopscotch, an LGBTQ-owned art gallery that focuses on immersive art, and optical illusions. On the ground floor, Hopscotch has a delightful lounge and seating area, with expansive windows that allow visitors to people-watch on all the surrounding downtown streets. The bar serves cocktails, beer, wine, and a lovely selection of non-alcoholic drinks — “zero-proof” cocktails. The current drinks menu is delightfully called “Hopscotch in Space” and features out-of-this-world libations such as Ziggy Stardust, with Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka, lemon, butterfly syrup, violette, and electric dust. Ticket holders are welcome to wander the galleries downstairs with their drinks, a lovely option!
There’s also the option to snack here, too, as Hopscotch partners with multiple food vendors and food trucks to provide menu options for visitors. There’s even a monthly schedule of which vendors will be there on what days on the gallery’s website. On the day that I visited, ChurroStar was on site, serving some delicious sweets including drizzled churros with a variety of dipping sauces.
Descending the stairs to the lower level, you’ll discover 20,000 square feet of galleries, designed to make you think and experience and create. Exhibitions slowly change out over time, but there are currently 14 distinctive immersive works of art to become a part of. Some of my favorites were Color Therapy (Polis, Austin, Texas), where you are surrounded by slowly changing hues; Lightlines (Cambell Landscape Architecture, Austin and San Francisco), where you wander through a mazelike area surrounded by otherworldly vertical red lines; and Quantum Space (Kuflex, Moscow), where elementary particles seem to follow and consume your shadow as you move through the space.
Also popular here is GAZE, a joint exhibition with the Human Rights Campaign, which envisions “a world where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are ensured equality and embraced as full members of society at home, at work, and in every community.” Here, visitors walk through a glass-like maze with words of affirmation reflected on the different panels. It was moving and heartening to experience, especially as most of the visitors here were opposite sex couples with their kids, as well as school groups — and they all appeared open to the messages of inclusion.
A Club Unlike Any Other
I visited The Bonham Exchange one evening when in town, and I wasn’t prepared for how cool and unique this venue was. Originally built in 1891 as a German Social Club, the building (officially named Turner Hall) was converted to a LGBTQ club back in 1981 by downtown developer Arthur P. “Hap” Veltman. The building has a lot of history over the last four decades, hosting acts like Tina Turner, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, RuPaul, The Bangles, and more. Portions of the Sandra Bullock movie Miss Congeniality were even filmed here.
Lee Haines, the owner, and his manager, Tom, took me on a tour of the facility, and I was thoroughly impressed by its size — and variety of moods you could find here in a single evening. The main floor has a large bar and dance area that feels like the nicest gay bar in most cities, but it’s just one part of Bonham. Across the hall is a smaller bar and different rooms that are more sports bar oriented with pool tables and the like. Another bar toward the back has a laid-back vibe, with regulars constantly greeting each other as they come in. There’s a huge two-story open dance floor area, also towards the back of the building, with mezzanine areas for watching the action. The evening I was there, a local drag queen hosted a “Best Chest Contest” at midnight, which was a lot of fun, as it involved multiple men shedding their shirts to try and win the grand prize.
There’s an expansive outdoor patio area, too, and a cavernous ballroom area on the third floor that has yet another bar — and can host larger events, such as drag shows. While technically a queer space, the whole scene is so well done and engaging that, as Haines jokingly said, “they can’t keep the straights out.” And that was true in my experience. There were plenty of straight couples here on date nights, dancing and partying away, not caring at all that they were at a gay club. It was magical, and really a world I couldn’t have imagined 20 or 30 years ago.
Visiting The Strip
The Strip, or sometimes called St. Mary’s Strip, is the queer entertainment district in the city. Located just north of downtown San Antonio and near San Antonio College (a local community college), you’ll find a bit of everything here.
Queer-owned Luther’s Café is a burger joint and casual LGBTQ restaurant that has been around since 1949! Located next to the city’s popular rainbow crosswalks, it features both indoor and outdoor seating, and a laid-back vibe. Famous for its milkshakes and comfort-food specialties like the Red Top Irish Beef Stew, Luther’s also hosts drag performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 9 p.m., along with plenty of other events ranging from karaoke to drag brunches to Pups and Pints, where you can bring your dogs to the bar and enjoy $3 pints.
Ouch Apparel is a fun clothing store that sells custom t-shirts, underwear, fetish gear, and assorted sexy accessories. I found my husband some cute undies for his birthday, and the staff was very helpful. Next door is Hard Core Leather Co., another fun shop to peruse before heading to the bars.
There are numerous bars and restaurants all along this swath of St. Mary’s Street, all worth a visit — but I think enjoyed myself the most at Pegasus, a club almost three decades old. Pegasus features an amazing outdoor drag show on Saturday nights, with an enormous stage and plenty of outdoor seating. Grab a table for $20 or just sit or stand on the sidelines and prepare to be entertained. Host Tersa Mathews was hilarious, and her off-the-cuff interactions with the audience were as good as any standup routine I’ve seen. Other wonderful queens included Amber Nixx, Aaron Andrews, Dakota Whitney, Donet Mckim, and Tonica E. Cavalli.
And So Much More
There was so much more I loved in San Antonio, starting with incredible museums and some truly great food and culture. I did yoga one morning in the shadow of a three-century old Spanish mission. I kayaked on the city’s famed River Walk and saw beautiful nature amidst the highrises. I wandered through art galleries and sampled some incredible Texas wines at the woman-owned Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery.
There’s a real diversity of hotel options here, too. I stayed in the city’s newest digs, the Thompson San Antonio, a stunning high-rise addition that’s located a short walk north of the center city, and right on the River Walk. This luxe hotel has a stunning 4th floor pool deck with cabanas and lovely views of downtown. And the property’s main restaurant, Landrace, is by James Beard Award finalist Steve McHugh — who is known as San Antonio’s most celebrated chef. My meal there was simply outstanding from start to finish, which says something in this burgeoning foodie town.
San Antonio, you get a solid A+ in my book. Austin, Houston, and Dallas — you’d better watch your back. On second thought, you may have already been left in Texas’s proverbial dust by this overachieving cultural gem.