The Surprising History of San Antonio’s Thriving LGBTQ+ Scene
At a center table in Clementine, a stylish restaurant in the Castle Hills neighborhood of San Antonio, the lights seem to shine—as they often do—on Amber Nixx. A prominent drag performer, pageant winner, and owner of the Miss Gay San Antonio pageant, she picks at a plate of hush puppies with wildflower honey and entertains my questions. “The older queens paved the way for the younger ones, who make a lot more money now. I wasn’t the first transgender entertainer here, but I was the most public,” she says about her beginnings as an outspoken queer presence in a conservative state.
San Antonio is a blue dot in Texas’s political red sea. This has allowed a vibrant LGBTQ+ culture to blossom in the city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, an evolution that stretches back to the 1950s, when drag and camp-based shows expressed on stage what could not be said in daily Southern conversation.
But it was through Fiesta, a 131-year-old citywide spring celebration, that it moved from the periphery to the mainstream, says Amy L. Stone, professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, and the author of Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition.
Coronation, a glitzy showcase of debutantes staged by an exclusive men’s club, had been a longstanding Fiesta marquee event. In 1951, a group of cis and gay artists came together to create an off-kilter comedy that gleefully poked Coronation in the eye. Dubbed Cornyation, it featured cross-dressing, camp, glittery costumes and set pieces, and theatrical satire of current events—especially of political and society figures responsible for ongoing discrimination.
“Having an event like this that is clearly run by gay artistry, with gay humor and fashion, is a way of showing that you belong in the city,” Stone says.
In 2022, Cornyation is run by a collaborative group of 150 cis and LGBTQ+ volunteers, and usually sells out. Profits from ticket sales—more than $3 million and counting—have gone to HIV/AIDS and other charities. The organization also provides annual scholarships for college-bound theater arts students. “What the organization gives back to underrepresented, underserved members of our community is remarkable,” says Mindy Miller Hill, Cornyation board member and a participant in the show since 2006.
The creative team also reaps the rewards, says Stone: “That feeling of having your artistry appreciated and desired goes beyond tolerance. It’s really [validating].”
Cornyation’s visibility within the city’s biggest party precipitated a sea change. By the 1970s, gay and drag bars had proliferated across St. Mary’s Strip, a former commercial corridor, transforming it into an LGBTQ+ entertainment district that later spilled over onto North Main Avenue, the city’s current hub of gay nightlife.
I get a taste of it at the Pegasus, where Nixx takes the outdoor stage, wearing a black ballgown and luxurious blond curls. She lip-syncs to Donna Summer’s Last Dance and spins, her dress fanning out like a beach umbrella as she collects fistfuls of cash from the whooping audience. I raise my phone to capture a video. She makes eye contact and mouths, “All that I ask is that you dance with me.” It feels like not just a lyric, but an invitation into her world.
The LGBTQ+ community has grown by leaps and bounds since Nixx first made a splash on the pageant and drag circuit. According to a 2020 report co-authored by Stone, San Antonio has a growing population of racially diverse, primarily Latino, LGBTQ+ residents. Thirty-six percent identify as bisexual or pansexual, 30 percent as gay, and 19 percent as lesbian. One-third of those age 16 to 24 identify as transgender, nonbinary, or nonconforming.
In 2013, the city passed a landmark nondiscrimination ordinance that aligned its policies with those of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Five years later, it installed the most visible expression of its support for the community: the Rainbow Crosswalk, at the intersection of Evergreen Street and Main Avenue, in the heart of the LGBTQ+ district.
While many of the original clubs from the 1970s have closed or changed hands, LGBTQ+ culture has flourished. Besides the Pegasus, the city’s gay bars include longtime dance club the Bonham Exchange, and Sparky’s Pub, an English-style tavern beloved for its happy-hour drink specials. Down the street, Luther’s stages a variety of shows, including an all-ages drag brunch on Sunday.
Fiesta itself has spawned nearly a dozen gay-run or -friendly events, paving the way for Pride San Antonio, a weeklong community celebration in June, as well as October’s San Antonio LGBT International Film Festival. On June 18, for the first time, the city’s tourism department will host a Pride parade and festival front and center on the city’s iconic Riverwalk.
Sandra Whitely, founder of San Antonio’s Thrive Youth Center, an emergency shelter that offers housing placement, counseling, and life-skills training for LGBTQ adults ages 18 to 24, is encouraged by the changes. She points to Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s 2018 formation of the LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee, and local leaders’ directive against the anti-trans policy implemented by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, as recent positive and impactful steps.
Still, Maddie Kennedy, Thrive’s director of community affairs/development, tells me, “Statewide barriers exist that we can’t overcome.” For example, changing a name or gender marker is costly and time consuming within the state. Medical services are so lacking for trans people that many wait six months or more, or else travel to Austin, for gender-affirming care.
“We have these blue dots in Texas,” says Kennedy “But when they’re surrounded by a red environment, the impact of conservative evangelicalism and an overwhelmingly white, rural Christian culture bleeds into how you view and what schools teach you about yourself.”
Until the legislation catches up to San Antonio’s progressive spirit, its LGBTQ+ residents continue to find ways to share their experience. Back at the Pegasus, Tonica Cavalli, Miss Gay Texas 2022, is in the spotlight, resplendent in head-to-hip nude sequins. As she salsa dances past my table to Thalia’s Amor a la Mexicana, I look around at the audience, clapping and singing along, and see a community that has mastered the art of being seen—no matter how small or large the stage.