On the Grounds of Belonging: A Note from Playwright Ricardo Pérez González

Ricardo Pérez González.

I was first told about The Red Room and The Gold Room, the racially segregated gay bars in Houston where our play is set, by a man named Michael Melton and his friend Stanley. They were patrons of The Gold Room, two Black men now in their late 70s and living in L.A. They told stories of their time spent at the bar in the 1960s, their attempts to sneak into the whites-only Red Room, and the codes, customs, and conventions they employed to stay alive.

When I heard their stories, I wasn’t surprised by the existence of racially segregated gay bars in the 1960s (after all, gay bars are still largely segregated, and you can still find plenty of Whites Only signs on gay dating apps). I was surprised as I began digging deeper into the story of these two bars and found that Houston is, and always has been pretty darn Queer. Gay bars have existed in the city since at least the 1940s, far beyond the current “gayborhood” of Montrose. One of the first pamphlets addressing HIV and AIDS was written in Houston. The University of Houston was the site of some of the final organizing for the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. LGBTQ+ folx have made the city a vibrant home for decades.

This proud history contrasts starkly with the history of lynching in Texas, the state with the third largest share of extrajudicial killings of Black folx. I made the choice to set the play in the 1950s, despite the fact my stories of the Red and Gold Rooms originate in the 1960s, to position the play closer to the epicenter of our country’s ongoing campaign of mass terror against Black citizens.

Indeed, On the Grounds of Belonging is set in the 1950s but the importance of Queer Love in times of resistance and the ongoing threat to Black bodies feels more urgent today than I wish it did. Stories like this belong in our larger cultural narrative. Figures like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin have been relegated to our historical closets for too long. Activists like Ray Hill and Sue Lovell deserve to be remembered. Now is the time to reaffirm that U.S. History is Queer History. It is Black History. It is Puerto Rican-Mexican-Asian-Indigenous History. It is Our History, and every day we continue to write it together.

Ricardo Pérez González
Playwright, On the Grounds of Belonging