This paper places El Paso’s queer community in a larger discussion with the theory of intersectionality by exploring the city’s longest running “alternative” nightclub, the Old Plantation (or OP), across four decades – the 1970s to 2010s. By examining queer encounters along the U.S-Mexico border, it uncovers racial and sexual anxieties between the American imperial state vis-à-vis military soldiers in Fort Bliss and the surrounding queer Latina/o population. Different than other studies of homosexual life, it argues that scholars should engage community-based methods such as oral history to “create” an archive of queer historical memory. In analyzing several testimonies, it demonstrates how the history of borderland sexuality cannot be studied as a monolith, but through intersectional lenses, as many people of various ethnic origins and communities throughout El Paso defined and negotiated their sexuality in numerous ways.
Keywords: Chicana/o History, Cultural History, Gender & Sexuality, Intersectionality, Latina/o History, Latina/o Studies, Oral History, Queer Theory, Race & Ethnicity
Theories of intersectionality, established and cultivated by specialists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, have transformed the manner in which researchers deconstruct interconnecting notions of race, gender, and sexuality. While this intersectional lens has been utilized in Black Feminist Thought, and used to examine literature, little work has been done engaging the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands vis-à-vis the prism of intersectionality. This paper will employ this mode of analysis to explore the nexus of sexuality, citizenship, and ethnicity within the American Southwest. Specifically, it will investigate queer life in El Paso, a city situated east of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and north of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The Latina/o metropole features an exponentially growing collective of U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss, adding a level of militarism to the region. Through the analysis of oral testimony, newspapers, queer propaganda via magazines, maps, census statistics, and theoretical frameworks critiquing borderland publics, it proposes that scholars should extrapolate from multiple intersectional categories of analyses and academic methodologies to further disentangle the contested, and predominantly “undocumented,” saga of queer border peoples. In order to do so, it draws conclusions from the thirteen oral testimonies of El Pasoan natives who were active in the queer community throughout the last four decades. By its conclusion, the article will offer that in border cities with predominately Latina/o populations, researchers must inspect sexuality and the history of LGBT movements through multiple intersectional lenses to disentangle the contested past of queer individuals.
The history of El Paso’s queer population, in particular, has been briefly illustrated in various works, most notably by El Pasoan gay authors Arturo Islas and John Rechy, who both speak to various aspects of homosexual life in their burgeoning city. This paper will place El Paso’s queer community in a larger discussion with intersectionality by exploring the chronicle of the city’s alternative nightclub – the Old Plantation (or OP) – across four decades, the 1970s to 2010s. By studying queer encounters along the border through intersectional lenses, it will uncover varying racial and sexual anxieties between the American imperial state via Fort Bliss and the surrounding Latina/o population. Due to El Paso’s bicultural history and segregated past, queer life must be examined through several academic and community–based methodologies, which cultural historians such as Hayden White and Lynn Hunt have employed in their studies of peoples and interactions, especially the use of oral testimonies. Furthermore, a “people’s history” of queer life will elucidate sexual encounters (and transactions) that cannot be found easily in the traditional archive. Previous scholars like Madeline D. Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy have researched culturally homogeneous queer sexualities in cities before, but in locales without national borders or without multiple races like Latina/os.
In order to historicize this city’s queer nightlife given the deprivation of printed sources, it employs theoretical frameworks from Latina/o scholars such as Michael Hames-Garcia, Juana María Rodríguez, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, and Ramón Rivera Servera, all of who have investigated queer Latina/o communities, relationships, and discourses. Their scholarships retain the intersectional lenses of race, time, location, and sexuality to unravel histories of biopower and sexuality. The paper builds upon the models set forth by Hames-Garcia, contending that queer Latino identity is created in resistance to the “imposition of modern colonial manifestations,” such as white gay mainstream culture. Furthermore, it adheres to the scholarship of queer Latina/o dance clubs laid out by La Fountain-Stokes, Rodríguez, and Servera, who suggest that the dance floor, rather than being a site of literal dancing, is more a location where colonized subjects, usually Anglo gay males, feast on the Latino-ness, or “latinidad” of the “othered” men present in the club. Finally, it models oral testimonies upon historian Nan Alamilla Boyd, and the “historical narrative theory” proposed by Karen Halttunen. In “Cultural History and the Challenge of Narrativity,” Halttunen calls for a “domestication of theoretical issues [about] narrativity” within the discipline of history to elaborate upon the relationships and connections between people in assembling histories. This paper will construct a single narrative from several oral interviews to help uncover the queer past in the American Southwest, but should be used only as a starting point in further understanding the intricacies and intersectional nature of queer life and identity within contested borderlands between modern empires.
Before the OP: Cold War Gender Rights
In the early 1960s, the second wave of feminism permeated the United States with intellectuals such as Betty Freidan pushing for women and men to redefine gender roles by working in jobs and political spheres that were traditionally reserved for a single sex. At the same time, Cold War era political and social sentiment transformed the nation’s civil rights positions, “as the primacy of anticommunism in postwar American politics and culture left a very narrow space for criticism of the status quo.” Consequently, racial and sexual diversity were notions that were considered dangerous in a black/white, heterosexual society. Given the influence of the Feminist movement and the Cold War, 1960s El Paso homosexual life was hidden within “McKelligon Canyon or past the border into Mexico,” recalled Cristina Hernandez, a self-identified El Pasoan lesbian. Hernandez, a fifty-five year old Mexican American, had spent her entire life in the borderlands region. The history of cruising, or driving slowly through city alleys and streets scouting for sex had been one of the main vehicles for El Paso gay men to find each other, but not lesbians. Because of a lack of queer, in addition to heterosexual nightlife, El Pasoans negotiated the national boundary to experience the vibrant entertainment of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.
Ever since the 1950s, Ciudad Juárez was deemed a cultural hotspot for northern Mexico and the southwest United States, hosting famous celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean who publicized their visits to the city known for its vivacious lifestyle. Scholars, such as Rachel St. John, have even proposed that most northwestern Mexican border cities experienced a golden age of vice and international nightlife during the first half of the twentieth century. El Paso resident Cristina Hernandez commented that before the rise of the disco era and the year 1973, Ciudad Juárez became “the city of sexual expression that lesbians could retreat to when they were not living different lives as heterosexual women in the city of sexual repression [El Paso].” For several decades, El Pasoan queers not only separated their public from private lives, but also traversed the U.S.–Mexico border to fully embrace and perform their reserved sexual lives, especially when Cold War America retaliated against the conception of sexual freedom. In 1973, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission lowered the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, and “many lesbians who crossed the border for alcohol and partying could now remain within the U.S., consuming booze,” stated Hernandez. Perhaps it was of no coincidence that the legal drinking age changed, as the American disco music movement was concurrently growing in tandem around the United States, “especially among Hispanic and Black demographics.”
Hernandez alleged that the disco movement “brought mainstream gay culture into straight bars and clubs, allowing for lesbians and gays to return to El Paso and participate in a new [revitalized] gay nightlife.” The Pet Shop, one of the first lesbian bars in El Paso history, opened sometime in the early 1970s. According to El Pasoans Yolanda Chávez Leyva and Irma Montelongo, the Pet Shop was located underground in a prewar building that would later become the San Antonio Mining Bar. Leyva, a leading fifty-eight year old Chicana lesbian, moved back to the city after completing college at Austin in the 1980s. Montelongo, a native fifty-two year old El Pasoan, experienced the many changes in nightlife within the region. Leyva and Montelongo revealed that the social environment of the bar was distinct from established disco bars and clubs, as “working-class femme and butch lesbian couples made up most of the patrons and they listened to a mixture of rock and roll, blues and disco.” Furthermore, Montelongo maintained that “many of the butch lesbians embodied masculinity and at times, exhibited that masculinity by engaging femme and other butch lesbians within the dance space of the establishment.” Leyva stated that her first experience in the Pet Shop was surprising yet comforting: “I walked downstairs into a place where all kinds of women had the freedom to do what they wanted.” The Pet Shop succeeded in attracting a large lesbian population, in part because of the revitalized El Pasoan nightlife, or in part because of the new drinking law. But most of all, because this space operated as separate venue from mainstream disco culture, providing a safe haven for lesbians to congregate and express their sexualities. Word of mouth about its success reached other parts of Texas, and soon, more “alternative” bars began to open up downtown.
Creation of the OP: Queer “El Chuco”
In the mid-1970s, Dallas-based company Craven Entertainment dispatched businessman Bob Bonaventure to scout for possible alternative bar locations that would bring the lesbian, gay and hetero-disco communities together in West Texas. Bonaventure, according to friend and co-worker Jak Klinkowaski, was thought to “believe that the trade secret to gaining a large audience – whether gay and straight – was to position a large ‘alternative’ club away from other clubs.” Klinkowaski, an Anglo American El Paso native, worked in many of the queer bars throughout the last decades of the twentieth century. The space Bonaventure purchased eventually led to a conversion in El Paso’s queer culture. In 1977, he discovered that 219 South Ochoa Street had become vacant, and founded the thirty-five year-old bar that would go down as one of the longest running gay establishments in West Texas: the Old Plantation (OP). According to several lesbian and gay oral histories, the OP bar was mixed with both women and male patrons. During its first year, the bar included “multiple performances” of “drag shows, foam parties, all girls nights and military nights,” as well as a diverse audience of “whites, blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, lesbians and gays and everything else in-between,” recalled Klinkowaski. The minority, Montelongo and Klinkowaski recalled, “were Anglo males,” which was understandable given the large El Paso Latina/o demographic.
The OP, like the Pet Shop, became a prime location for same-sex sensual expression and intimate encounters. Montelongo mentioned that the most unique part of the bar was the “female” bathroom, where “lesbians, straight women, and drag queens congregated and interacted with each other.” She recalled that the conversations that took place were illustrative of how different each “woman” viewed fashion, boys, girls and popular culture: “I remember talking about hair, dancing and music and even learned new colloquialisms.” The bar brought the queer population of El Paso together on a single dance floor, and in closed, safe spaces like the bathroom. Rodríguez suggests in her work that “in multigendered queer Latino spaces, fags and dykes, both friends and strangers, will often invite each other out on the dance floor.” The OP was no exception. There finally existed a fully public venue for perceived “deviant” behaviors and identities to congregate.
After homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, it was assumed that lesbians and gays were able to express themselves with the understanding that their sexual identities were no longer classified federally as mental disorders. This was not the case for the transgender community, as American psychiatrists maintained the notion that transgender identity was an illness that was synonymous with Gender-Identity Disorder (GID). Susan Stryker has argued that after 1973, transgender populations throughout the U.S. felt left out of a national gay rights discourse because their identities had remained stigmatized. Stryker upheld that the transgender movement’s “politics toward the medical establishment were more like those of the reproductive freedom movement than those of the gay liberation movement.” Moreover, she suggested that transgender individuals “wanted to secure access to competent, legal, respectfully provided medical services for a nonpathological need not shared equally by every member of society,” a concern that their queer sisters and brothers did not have to worry about. While the political activism and awareness of lesbian and gay communities mobilized nationally and within the OP and El Paso, transgender persons still had to grapple with the reality that federal recognition and support of transsexuality would not arrive for some time.
As legal transgender legal rights idled, trans culture flourished. Klinkowaski pointed out the early 1970s were exciting due to the rise in “drag king culture and transgender participation at places like the OP.” Drag kings essentially performed a gender and sexuality that was usually opposite of the drag king’s biological sex and acted gender. Thus, many drag kings were persons born with female sex organs who embodied notions of “masculinity” and contested “maleness.” Chanel, an forty-five year old Anglo American El Pasoan drag queen, or male performing femininity, stated that she “met various transgendered ‘women’ who told [Chanel] that they would perform as drag kings within the OP because other homosexuals and friends were more accepting of their lifestyles as drag queens and kings.” Chanel commented that when she witnessed many transgendered females pushed to perform drag, she questioned her own desire and sexuality. Transgender persons posed a threat to the El Paso gay rights movement in that the people who represented transgender identities did not fit into the homosexual and heterosexual binary that was formed uniquely in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. While 1970s El Paso nightlife evolved to include more private spaces for lesbians and gays to interact, it reinforced the discrimination and overall national intolerance for the lifestyle and identity of transgender people living along and crossing the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands.
Even though the El Pasoan heterosexual population viewed the sexual conduct inside the OP bar as illicit, sexual behavior was not as polarized during the 1970s before the time of carnal epidemics. The exchange of oral and anal sex was “usually unprotected,” commented Chanel, as HIV had yet to enter society. Chanel and Klinkowaski noted that while many individuals came to the bar to enjoy alcohol and disco music, others, “especially Anglo American males,” came there for sex. The two described that the place had become an outlet to “fast-track” sexual experiences. Chanel remarked that many of his “straight-identified” male friends “came to the OP, scouted out some Jorge or Guillermo [meaning any Latino looking boy], penetrated them and then left the club, never to speak to them again.” The bar was an innovative dance space, not only due to the consumption of latinidad, which Rodríguez, La Fountain-Stokes and Servera articulate in their research, but also because the location operated as a space where two men, one identifying as “gay” and the other “straight,” executed sexual acts without personal knowledge of one another, but with complete anonymity and disclosure. In addition, the proximity to the national border bifurcated cultural and sexual understandings between Anglo, Latino, and other “foreign” men.
The reputation of the OP as an alternative bar would take a “moral blow,” after 1982, when Lawrence Altman described a disease that “attacked and killed homosexual men” called Gay-Related-Immune-Disorder, or GRID, in his controversial New York Times article. In the words of Chanel, “it was as if everything they [bigots, heterosexuals, society] said was vindicated, our lifestyles were scientifically condemned.” Thus, OP sexual politics for gay men, as Chanel pointed out, “were disrupted and sexual activity decreased in number for several weeks,” as the public waited to learn about the proper precautions in distancing oneself from contraction. Still, unprotected sex occurred between various bar attendees. Chanel and Klinkowaski reaffirmed that “having unprotected sex up to 1984 was considered normal and there wasn’t the stigma that existed today.” After GRID (Gay Related Immune Disease) was reclassified scientifically as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and the use of a condom was articulated as the best defense in protecting oneself from the disease, the sexual behaviors in the bar rehabilitated with the increased use of the condom.
The erotic practice of “barebacking” also arose from the HIV/AIDS stigma in response to changes in contemporary sexual behaviors during the 1980s. At the time, many in the El Pasoan queer community were both in denial and acceptance of the possible consequences and “euphoric risks” associated with anal sex without a condom. Tim Dean historicizes and explains the phenomenon of barebacking in relation to the prejudice of homosexual life as “both the premeditation and eroticization of unprotected anal sex.” Thus, barebacking was the sexual act of unprotected sex in an HIV/AIDS conscious age. Before the pandemic, Chanel engaged in unprotected sex that was synonymous with barebacking, but the action lacked the associated social and moral stigma in a post-HIV/AIDS discursive environment. Now, the “gesture” of barebacking brought intimate, political, and social underpinnings. The lens of “gesture,” first used in deconstructing queer life by Rodríguez, can also serve as another intersectional unit in investigating queer behaviors. She explains gesture as “a socially legible and highly codified form of kinetic communication, and as a cultural practice that is differentially manifested through particular forms of embodiment.” Hence, the gesture and practice of barebacking was politically charged.
In The Subculture of Barebacking, Dean revealed that the notion of hypermasculinity was associated with the exchange of semen during gay bareback sex as “hypermasculinity accrues to the man who assumes what used to be thought of as the female role in homosexual relations. The more men by whom one is penetrated, the more of a man he becomes.” Chanel and Klinkowaski stated that barebacking held an inimitable attraction for them: “it felt good before, but now raw sex felt more intimate and deeper,” explained Chanel. Sex between two participants of the same gender altered structures of power, control and masculinity. Furthermore, kinship became the ultimate result rather than the consumption of more masculinity, as the entrance of sexual risk made the act of sex more dangerous. Dean argued that bareback subculture’s hypermasculinization of bottoming, “its picturing erotic submission as a proof of manhood could be seen as a compensatory response to modern society’s feminization of male homosexuality.” Dean’s contention is corroborated by the testimonies taken from various attendees of the OP, and fits the categorization of gesture, which Rodríguez unpacks in her research.
While the entrance of GRID and later HIV/AIDS reformed club attendance, sexual practices as well as understandings of sexual identities at the OP, the bar still became a landmark of El Paso queer culture. The bar featured weekends where “events were either sold out or near occupancy level,” remembered Klinkowaski. The OP, unlike other night clubs like The Pet Shop, attracted “the most diverse clientele out of all the clubs” as “Blacks, Whites, Cholos, and Drag Queens all shared the dance floor,” something various queer residents were not accustomed to seeing in El Paso. Attendance was high at the bar, and popularity only increased over time. Eventually, Bonaventure realized that his bar was too small to accommodate El Paso’s queer and “straight” audience, and decided to move it to a larger venue. In 1985, he found an open lot across the street at 301 S. Ochoa Street. The New Old Plantation as Bonaventure called it was advertised as “bigger, better and operated by gays and lesbians.” The OP’s move added more publicity and audience to the nightclub, and its existence was now fully recognized and felt throughout El Paso. Chanel stated that “tipping,” or the process of drag queens engaging in sexual acts with white and black military men, increased as the New OP’s building had two floors where individuals could retreat to and maintain a sense of privacy. As the dance space of the New OP was split between different stories, people could choose their crowd and ambience. Chanel remembered the sexual politics, and “gestures” of the club:
Younger boys situated themselves at the focal point of the dance floor while older men circulated the periphery, scouting for any men. And if he had luck, he and his boy would go upstairs and move to a corner to either make out, or perform oral sex.
Klinkowaski similarly recalled:
I remember the girls’ bathroom was where to hookup, mainly because its where all the trannies went. And it also helped that it was ‘cleaner,’ not just in hygiene but some trannies were ‘Poz’ [HIV-Positive] and therefore always used condoms.
It became apparent that while the club featured the same demographics of the original OP, sexual encounters and meetings were executed in new spaces in the two-story gay discotheque. Simultaneously, the anal sex that was performed in the dark corners and bathrooms of the New OP was split between barebacking and protected sex, whether or not knowledge of HIV/AIDS was present.
The club’s dance floors allowed for multiple performativities of gender and sexuality in comparison to its original, which was styled more as a bar than a nightclub. While Klinkowaski and Chanel mentioned that “straight” men came to find young Latino males, Mexican Americans and Mexican-nationals from Ciudad Juárez also interacted with the “heterosexual” men. The space of the club had perhaps transcended nation as well as ethnicity. Adrian Gutierrez, another gay attendee during the early 80s, noted that “the only reason why the OP was different was the inclusion of Anglo straight acting men.” Gutierrez, a forty-nine year old contractor for the U.S. Army Military Beaumont Medical Center, was a teenager when the OP first opened. Gutierrez revealed that many of the men he had sex with from the OP were enlisted soldiers who were usually single but mentioned that a couple of them were married to women and had children. He believed the “rush and taboo” associated with sleeping with “straight men” made the act attractive in addition to barebacking.
Gutierrez stated that “masculine” or “straight acting men” were most desirable for gays, mainly because they embodied a masculinity and sexuality that he and his friends envied and craved. The club transformed into a site of contact for consumption(s) of masculinity between distinct parties; in Gutierrez’s case, he received the thrill of being with a “straight” man, which informed his sense of manliness. More interestingly is that his Anglo sexual partners gained something particularly special in return: consumption of latinidad, or alternative masculinity, that he (the military male) had eroticized and “othered” onto Gutierrez. Historian George Chauncey has explored a similar sexual exchange of masculinity between effeminate “fairies” and more masculine “queers” in New York City; the difference in the case of the OP and Gutierrez was that ethnicity and race were also exchanged between sexual partners. Using the theories set forth by Hames-Garcia, Gutierrez also desired Anglo military men because of the innate “modern colonial power dynamic” that epistemically thwarted Gutierrez into desiring kinship from colonizers. But Rodríguez believes that scholars must think of consuming latinidad as a practice of reaffirming agency for the consumed Latina/o. She contends that “rather than attempt to redeem or erase our [Latina/o] experiences of violence and violation, register the possibility of recovering pleasure in the shame of abjection, a sexual pleasure that engages the sexual submission demanded of racialized subjects.” In applying Rodríguez, the exchange of racial fetishization serves both parties.
It is notable that the impact of Fort Bliss and its men held a unique position in terms of the behavior of people who attended the club. The presence of Fort Bliss had long been felt before the opening of the OP in 1977. Historian Leon C. Metz writes that Fort Bliss was founded in response to the U.S. War with Mexico during 1848, citing that the U.S. Department of War felt the need to form a military post to occupy and protect the area opposite Mexico’s Paso Del Norte. Fort Bliss was created at a time when Mexican-nationals and Anglo Americans fought a borderless conflict. And for over a century, the fort was steadily growing, and represented a facet of the past and presence of military history. When the original OP opened, this military presence had already existed and was over a hundred years old. According to the 1960 through 2000 censuses, the size of the Fort Bliss military population had progressively increased through time, with a total population of 8,286 persons or 1,444 households and families by 2000. That figure did not include troops who arrived at the fort for deployment overseas, government contractors, or El Pasoan hired workers, which would bring the population number to over 30,000. Moreover, it did not include troops who arrived to the area for a two-week briefing before deployment to Asia.
Klinkowaski, Chanel, and Gutierrez, revealed in their oral interviews that the OP’s dance stage was filled with military personnel: “we began to see not only whites and Latinos, but also Middle Eastern men who informed us that they were employed by the U.S. military as contractors.” Why did the OP environment attract so many agents of the state? In one of the interviews with an enlisted soldier who wanted to remain anonymous, it was noted that the club became the “only homosocial space where we [anonymous] could be intimate with each other and acknowledge our sexualities. Being on post [Fort Bliss] everyday takes a toll on you, as you must act straight-edged all the time in an environment that is dominated only by men.” The atmosphere of the club was much like that of Fort Bliss; the difference was that one’s sexuality and behavior was not judged and embraced on the OP dance ground and in the closed spaces of the facility.
The last few oral histories that this author conducted were with servicewomen that were referred to by other club owners. Based on several testimonies from anonymous military women who moved to Fort Bliss in the early 1990s, there indeed existed a large lesbian servicewoman community. One respondent stated that “lesbian and bisexual life was easy to navigate at the OP and other alternative bars like Nua Nua, the San Antonio Mining and the Whatever Lounge because they had been distanced enough from the military base.” The same female army soldier stated that she was looking for femme lesbians, and commented that the club was the best place to find mostly femme, Latina lesbians. Another female army officer regarded the Whatever Lounge as her favorite spot because she looked for both femme as well as butch lesbians. When asked if they saw or met any transgendered persons, both women replied no, suggesting that the “transgendered people they did see in the 1990s were able to transition and perform in full gender,” thus making them lesbian or gay rather than transgender in the women’s eyes. Before the use of the Internet, several spaces within downtown El Paso operated as meeting points for lesbian servicewomen.
The two female military officers also knew from other female colleagues before they were stationed to Fort Bliss that the lesbian culture had grown increasingly throughout El Paso since the late 1970s. The women confirmed that they felt a sense of “unanimity because they had the luxury of separating their public lives as military servicewomen from their lesbian lifestyles in downtown as their work would never leave the gates of Fort Bliss and into the larger, civilian El Paso.” While lesbian life was not exposed publicly on Fort Bliss, lesbian state agents migrated downtown, in the same way that 1960s El Pasoan lesbians traveled to Ciudad Juárez. The presence of Fort Bliss had a significant influence on the demographic that attended the OP. Chanel reiterated that “because the OP featured new and exotic men who wanted men, it became even more of a popular nightclub.” The original and New OP channeled sexual politics that reflected more national discourses concerning not only mainstream Anglo gay culture, but also racial and ethnic tensions and desires.
New Leadership at the OP: The Decline of Queer “El Chuco”
In 1986, Klinkowaski left the employment of the New OP and Bonaventure eventually sold his club to its current owners, Jesus Santillan and his partner Gilbert Morales. Under the leadership of Santillan and Morales, who also owned The San Antonio Mining Cluband The Whatever Lounge, the use of social media was employed, as they advertised their New OP through magazines such as El Paso 411, a local digest. In the 1990s, the two men achieved more publicity by promoting the club in West Texas queer publications such as 1994’s El Paso PRIDE and 1999’s Microcosm El Paso/Juarez, which were circulated throughout El Paso, Las Cruces, and Ciudad Juárez. Klinkowaski and Chanel continued to visit the OP during milestone events, such as the “Halloween costume garty,” and the New Year’s Eve party, both of which were usually heavily attended. The owners contended that during the 1990s, they began to see “a decrease in attendance to the OP, as the clubs on Stanton Street were more popular and more people cruised them.” During the early 1990s, newer gay clubs began opening on Stanton Street, an area located directly in the heart of downtown El Paso. Klinkowaski and Chanel believed that because of the creation of a “pride square that featured new and upcoming clubs such as 8 and ½,Chiquita’s,and The Briar Patch,” there was less of an impetus to return to the other side of downtown to visit the OP.
At the time when queer individuals and interested heterosexuals had a choice in attending different alternative clubs, Santillan and Morales decided to advertise the club as a space that featured an exclusively gay male clientele by appealing to the majority-male, military community. Marketing was again spread through word of mouth, but also through El Paso 411, and queer publications like PRIDE.The new owners not only had to compete with other gay and lesbian bars and clubs, however, but also had to remain knowledgeable of current trends and fads in popular culture that they could incorporate into their gay male nightclub. In one interview with a source affiliated with the New OP who wished to remain anonymous, the New OP tried hosting events, which aimed to spark the interest of younger males as well as portraying a nostalgic 1970s theme such as disco to the older crowd. Thus, themes like “July All Red White Blue Block Party,” and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Dance” were commonplace at the club. The argued result was that the OP would see a return of past attendees. The actual effect, however, was a dwindling attendance rate, especially since the owners mainly appealed to gay males and interested heterosexuals.
The process of recreating a male homosocial gay club by projecting Anglo military culture as caricature is similar to the notions of Jasbir Puar’s ascendency of whiteness and larger homonational projects. As Puar writes, the “national homosexual subject,” who has historically been a white Anglo male, “seeks to dismantle any foreign homosexual culture or politic,” and impose a uniformed Anglo homonormativity that “aims to destroy any sexual-racial other that does not adhere to whiteness.” The themed events that Santillan and Morales constructed illustrated how beliefs of imposing homonational sentiment in the OP would assist in attracting a larger male audience. Gutierrez notes that during the 90s, “many mid-aged men lost interest in the OP and the club was more populated with young under-21-year-olds and older, white Anglo and African American military men.” The multiculturalness and diversity of the OP shifted to Hames-Garcia’s epitome of “modern colonial” systems, where military men exoticized not only the colonized, Latino-ness of the younger men, but also their gayness that did not prescribe to the hegemonic, homonationalist model of queer identity that the military men understood. And so, as the military presence on Fort Bliss increased through the 1990s, so too did the Anglo male attendance at the club.
The 2000s “saw a steady interest back into the New OP, increased participation in queer events like Mr. Pride Texas, and its citywide collaboration with El Paso Sun City Pride” during June Pride Fest, revealed Klinkowaski. Chanel stated that with the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 “much more Puerto Rican and African American vets were seen in the club,” something that they recall was “new and called attention in the gay community.” When asked how they knew these men were veterans, Chanel responded that “their straight edged-ness with distinct military haircuts, which were usually short fades, pinpointed them as vets.” The sexual encounters in the OP throughout the 2000s were “militarized” due to the increased attendance from wartime soldiers. Santillan and Morales had succeeded in revitalizing the level of male attendance at their club vis-à-vis homonational propaganda. Puar argues that homonationalism is a byproduct and symptom of war-related sentiment and emerges in response to “terrorist assemblages and attacks upon notions of citizenship, identity and sexuality.” The Iraq War and the proximity of Fort Bliss to the New OP reasserted the need for military men to escape the government land and perform their same-sex desires with Mexican-national and Mexican American males. Homonationalism and a post-9/11 Anglo gay identity, however, became difficult to completely impose in a border city, as many of the non-military attendees who entered the club “were mixed, bilingual and lived separate lives as Mexican Americans and as jotos (fags),” declared Gutierrez.
Santillan and Morales began to employ new social media outlets that had never been accessed before, such as MySpace and eventually Facebook, to maintain the slowly growing interest in their decades-old club. The posters the two circulated in downtown El Paso and on social media websites employed images of queer military men to attract the various demographics the OP had seen in attendance during the early 1980s. They commissioned these images and concepts from the late 1990s until the 2010s. The themes associated with these documents illustrated the appeal and fixation for Anglo military personnel. In a study of archived posters produced by the owners of the OP, one can view how these advertisements conflated traditional images such as the military uniform and colors reminiscent of national holidays, such as Labor Day, with queer themes. Moreover, veterans who revealed their military IDs at the door received free admission. Santillan and Morales hoped that by appealing and commodifying the military to the OP’s diverse clientele, the club would remain busy or at least regain its historic demographic of military men and El Paso Latinos. Images of army men illustrated the masculinity Gutierrez, Klinkowaski, and Chanel desired. At the same time, these images and others like them, reminded the spectator of a fantasy: sexual activities with the colonizer, an idea that “aroused” young men like Gutierrez. The backdrop of the Iraq War persuaded Santillan and Morales to recreate homonational imagery to attract a once popular demographic back to the New OP. Gutierrez surmised that many of the soldiers he met and slept with eventually left Fort Bliss and arrived to the club to forget the duties of a serviceman during war times.
Homonational imagery, the aesthetic that Santillan and Morales tried to embed in their club, succeeded in drawing gay males from the city, Northern Mexico, and Fort Bliss. But it could no longer contain El Paso’s ever growing queer identity of lesbians and other gay men. The U.S.-Mexico border and Fort Bliss functioned as catalysts in assisting Latina/o lesbians and gays to break free from “white Anglo gay culture and identity,” and embrace a queerness that exceeded the narrow categorization that Santillan and Morales tried to incubate. Over time, the OP no longer became a club for gays, but “for allies and everything in-between.” After thirty-five years of evolution, El Paso queer identity metamorphosed. The original and New OP was a bar, and later a club, that illustrated the power, gender, and sexual politics that would raise and harness the uniqueness and interchangeability of borderland sexual identities and behaviors.
The New OP officially shut down on October 27, 2012. No official word has been given to why Santillan and Morales suddenly closed it doors. Online social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook allowed El Pasoans of all generations to comment on the legacy the club left on the city.
In the history of U.S. sexuality, scholars have contended that the lesbian, gay, and transgender past grew in tandem with the Civil Rights era, blossomed during the Stonewall Riots and took shape through the 1970s and 1980s. This paper argued that in borderland cities with predominately Latina/o populations like El Paso, scholars must examine sexuality and the story of LGBT movements through multiple intersectional lenses and academic methodologies to further elucidate the contested history of queer peoples. The original and New OP provided the first long-standing alternative public space for folks of all sexual identifications in the bordered, bicultural city of El Paso. Bonaventure built a bar that staged music and sexual trends, which were in conversation with the national sexual movements of the U.S. from the 1970s to the 2010s. Sexual behaviors and identities transformed, however, with the entrance of HIV/AIDS and war, as attendees altered sexual acts based on national stigma, homonational imagery, and wartime sentiment. The dance floor of the OP came to represent colonial, racial, and ethnic consumptions between Anglos and Latina/os, gay males, and men who have sex with men, military personnel and civilians. Even more, the themes and commercialization of the OP revealed the interconnectedness between its political assemblages and sexual norms. After thirty-five years, the old and the New Old Plantation stood as a testament to the construction of community spaces and most especially, racial and ethnic fetishisms within the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands. Queer nightlife did reside in the American Southwest, fighting local, national, and international normative discourses of gender and sexuality. The principal border for queer communities and individuals situated along the U.S.-Mexico national boundary is the borderland called their sexuality.
- See Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-1299; and Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins, Race, Class, & Gender: An Anthology, 8 Ed, (Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2012).
- It must be noted that the author found his participants by meeting with the owners of several of the El Paso queer bars, prominent drag queens, and then was instructed to contact the five military soldiers and officers from club owners and friends. The ages of the interviewed subjects range from 23 to 60. Their nationality and race will be provided when first introducing them later in the paper.
- Arturo Islas grew up in El Paso, but moved during his adult life. For more on Islas, see Frederick Luis Aldama, Dancing with Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); John Rechy’s life as a male prostitute began in El Paso before he moved to NYC. For more, see John Rechy, About My Life and the Kept Woman (New York: Grove Press, 2008).
- For more, see Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); for more on cultural history and its methodologies, see James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman and Michael O’Malley, The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present and Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
- For more, see Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). For a recent study of how scholars encounter queer Latina/o studies, see Michael Hames-Garcia and Ernesto Martinez, Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
- See Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, “Gay Shame, Latina- and Latino-Style: A Critique of White Queer Performativity;” as well as Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, “Choreographies of Resistance: Latino Queer Dance and the Utopian Performative,” in Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader.
- Michael Hames-Garcia, “Queer Theory Revisited,” Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader, 41.
- Latinidad is also a contested term. For more on it, see Juana María Rodríguez, Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces (New York: New York University Press, 2003); and her later book, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York: New York University Press, 2014); and Cristina Beltrán, The Trouble With Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- For more, see Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque-Ramirez, eds., Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (London: Oxford University Press, 2012); and J. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
- Karen Halttunen, “Cultural History and the Challenge of Narrativity,” in Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture., 171.
- For more on the history of the second wave of feminism, see Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter, Sex wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995); also see Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001 ).
- Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), 12.
- Cristina Hernandez, interview by author, tape recording, El Paso, TX (10 April 2013).
- For more see Aldama, Dancing with Ghosts and Rechy, About My Life and the Kept Woman.
- Diane Sols and Alfredo Corchado, “Drug cartel violence may doom famed Kentucky Club, Ciudad Juárez institution since prohibition,” Dallas News (16 June 2010); Ciudad Juárez had a long history of queer nightlife. For more, see Víctor Manuel Macías-González, “A Note on Homosexuality in Porfirian and Postrevolutionary Northern Mexico,” Journal of the Southwest 43, no 4 (Winter, 2001).
- For more, see Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S. – Mexico Border (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
- Cristina Hernandez, interview (10 April 2013).
- Richard Allen Burns, “Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mdthz), accessed November 30, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association; Cristina Hernandez, interview (10 April 2013).
- For more, see the Introduction of Jussi Kantonen and Alan Jones, Saturday Night Forever (New York: Random House, 1999).
- Cristina Hernandez, interview (10 April 2013).
- Yolanda Chávez Leyva, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (19 April 2013); and Irma Montelongo, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (2 May 2013).
- Irma Montelongo, interview (2 May 2013).
- Yolanda Chávez Leyva, interview (19 April 2013).
- “El Chuco” is one nickname for the city of El Paso. For more, see Ramón Rentería, “ El Chuco tells of El Paso Pachuco history,” El Paso Times (30 June 2013).
- Jak Klinkowaski, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (10 October 2012).
- “Residence Map of 1970s El Paso,” Sanborn Texas Maps
- This is evidenced through the individual oral history accounts of Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Irma Montelongo and Jak Klinkowaski.
- Jak Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Irma Montelongo, interview (2 May 2013); and Jak Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Irma Montelongo, interview (2 May 2013).
- Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, 117.
- “Facts about Homosexuality and Mental Health,” on University of California, can be found at psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_mental_health.html
- Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008), 112. For more on transgender studies and history, see Anne Enke, ed, Transfeminist Perspectives in and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Joanne J. Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Leslie Feinburg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
- Ibid., 98.
- Jak Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Chanel, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (20 March 2013). For more on drag kings, see J. Jack Halberstam and Del LaGrace Volcano, The Drag King Book (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999).
- Lawrence Altman, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” The New York Times (May 12, 1982).
- Chanel, interview (20 March 2012).
- Chanel and Klinkowaski, interviews, (10 October 2012 and 20 March 2013).
- Tim Dean, The Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 1.
- Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, 6.
- Dean, The Subculture of Barebacking, 42. For more examples of what bareback sex is, see Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum A Grave?: And Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); as well as Jeffrey Escoffier, “Sex, Safety and the Trauma of AIDS,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 39, no. ½ (2011).
- Chanel, interview (20 March 2013).
- Dean, Subculture of Barebacking, 56.
- Chanel and Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012 and 20 March 2013).
- Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Quote taken from front door of the New OP.
- Chanel, interview (20 March 2013).
- Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Adrian Gutierrez, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso TX (27 October 2012).
- For more, see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay World, 1890 – 1940 (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), 14 and 50.
- For more examples of modern colonial gay relations, see Hames-Garcia, “Queer Theory Revisited,” in Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader.
- Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, 140.
- Fore more, see Leon C. Metz, Desert Army: Fort Bliss on the Texas Border (El Paso: Mangan Books, 1988); as well as Mario T. Garcia, Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); and Anthony Mora, Border Dilemmas: Racial and National Uncertainties in New Mexico, 1848-1912 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
- U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml
- Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Anonymous, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (29 September 2012).
- Anonymous military women, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso, TX (12 March 2013).
- Chanel, interview (20 March 2013).
- Jesus Santillan, interview by author, tape recorded, El Paso TX (22 October 2012).
- For their nearly complete collections, see the Norma Montellano papers, housed at Special Collections in the University of Texas, El Paso library; box 23, folder 27.
- Chanel and Klinkowaski, interviews (10 October 2012 and 20 March 2013).
- Norma Montellano Collection, box 23, folders 27-30.
- Anonymous, interview (22 October 2012).
- Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), vi – 2.
- Gutierrez, interview (27 October 2012).
- For more, see Susan Stryker, “Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity,” Radical History Review 100 (Winter 2008): 144 – 157.
- Klinkowaski, interview (10 October 2012).
- Chanel, interview (20 March 2013).
- Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, xiii.
- Gutierrez, interview (27 October 2012).
- Santillan, interview (22 October 2012).
- Evidence from second poster.
- Alex Hinojosa, “One of El Paso’s oldest gay bars, the Old Plantation, closes,” El Paso Times (28 October 2012) as well as confirmed on the OP’s official Facebook page.