In 2009, while visiting my compadre at his apartment on San Antonio Street, I realized that I was standing in front of the first location of the first gay bar I ever went to-- the Pet Shop. I first went to the Pet Shop in 1974 and I will always remember walking down the dark flight of stairs and entering the crowded bar filled with disco music. The first time was magical. I was beginning to recognize I was a lesbian, not quite sure what that would mean in my life, and I only knew a handful of gay men and no lesbians. Then that Friday night, I opened the heavy door and began walking tentatively down the dark staircase into the unknown.
Multi-colored lights flashed from under the dance floor, couples danced, and the music blared.
How I loved disco music. Earth, Wind, and Fire. Donna Summer. Sister Sledge. Dancing the Hustle. Listening to Boogie Wonderland. Ah, the memories of dancing for hours on the brightly lit dance floor. When I entered the now dusty, forgotten space 35 years later, I got up on the dance floor and danced.
When the Pet Shop moved down the street to another location on Ochoa Street, I remained a loyal Friday and Saturday night customer. It was there that I met Lee and her wife. They became my lesbian mentors, taking me under their wing. I thought of them yesterday as I drove through Orogrande, New Mexico. I always remember them when I drive through the almost de-populated town that once boasted a population of 2000, drawn by the discovery of gold at the turn of the twentieth-century. The 2010 census says it has about 50 people now.
Many of the buildings in Orogrande are abandoned now but I still remember Lee when I drive down US 54 accompanied by 16 wheelers and the occasional car. Lee was a butch truck driver who often made the lonely drive down 54. One day she stopped at a tavern to have a drink and met the woman she would fall in love with. For some reason I can only remember Lee's name. The woman who served her that day had beautiful golden hair that she wore in a big hairdo like Tammy Wynette. She was friendly and called Lee "honey." They fell in love and soon Lee and the beautiful blonde and her five children were a family living in Orogrande. Lee kept driving trucks and her wife became the postmistress of the town. Every weekend they would drive the fifty miles to El Paso and go to the Petshop. One night the beautiful blonde told me, "I didn't know Lee was a woman until the first time we made love." That's how butch Lee was.
In a bar full of Mexicans, a rural white couple became my lesbian mothers. (I had a Mexicana lesbian mom, too-- La Gloria. But that's a different story.)
I was a shy baby dyke back then so they let me sit with them, sipping beers. One night they met a young white butch and brought her over to meet me. She was equally shy. They tried to encourage us to talk to each other, but mostly we just sat there and nervously looked at our beers.
One of the last memories I have of them in 1975 before I left El Paso for Austin (and learned how to be a politicized lesbian) still haunts me. Lee had gone off to the restroom and returned flustered, red-faced, crying. "They kicked me out of the ladies room. They didn't believe I was a woman!" she told us. I had never seen her like that before. "I am a woman," she cried. Out of the many memories-- the police coming in and making everyone go outside so they could check our ID cards, the gangs of young boys that hung out outside waiting to harass us, their failed attempts to get me a girlfriend, this is the one that stays with me most.
Lee and her wife inspired me. They showed me that love and family between women was possible. In a time when bars were our only place to form community, where often our interactions were fueled by alcohol, where we sat in dark and smokey rooms, they showed me the possibility of queer life outside this setting. Not that I didn't love the bars-- not just the Pet Shop, but later the OP, and in Austin, the Hollywood-- but I needed more hope, more possibilities.
Each generation of queer people helps teach the younger generation about our culture, our relationships, how to be. I am grateful for Lee and her beautiful wife and all they taught me.