Edited by Mike Anglin and William Waybourn
I was a military brat born in Roswell, New Mexico, but my mom was from Dallas, so I came here in the summers. When my dad retired and moved to San Antonio, I went to college at Texas A&M University in College Station, and, though I was not “out” there, I was certainly trying the water out. Getting my toes wet, as it were.
When I graduated, I first moved to Houston to build sets for Houston Grand Opera and the Houston ballet theatre. It was a very straight environment, as you can imagine, with construction workers and all.
I “came out” in Houston on Easter Sunday in 1981. There was this great guy I met at a party, and I knew I wanted to have sex with him, so I decided to tell him I was gay. And that was it. I rushed out of the closet and got caught up in the whirlwind of Houston gay society … dancing at the bars … the whole party scene. My favorite bars were Numbers and the Parade. I tried to go to the Loading Dock, which had a dress code and wanted to turn me away at first because I wasn’t wearing leather or denim. I had to explain to the bouncer that any man in there that I would take home would probably have pink panties on under all the leather. So he let me in.
I never got involved in any gay activism activities in Houston, but I do remember some of those activists in Houston, like Annise Parker, the former head of Houston Gay/Lesbian Political Caucus who later became mayor of Houston.
After working for the Houston Grand Opera for two years, I got a job in Florida with some college friends, and I traveled all around the Caribbean and South America installing satellite TVs. Everybody wanted those TVs because they were brand new back then. After about a year, the company went bankrupt, so I moved to Grand Prairie, just west of Dallas, and that is where I worked as a free lance production person, finally landing a job with Channel 13, the local PBS channel, working with their auction.
It was about this time that friends were telling me I had to meet a guy named Tom Hatfield, who happened to be a volunteer with the Dallas Gay Alliance. On our first date, he took me to a general membership meeting of the DGA. The meeting was memorable because it was filled with a lot of conflict. Bill Nelson wanted the organization to adopt the nearby Sam Houston elementary school and give them badly needed supplies. There was vocal opposition to the idea. This was in 1985, about the same time that some previous leaders of DGA (Louise Young, Vivienne Armstrong, Don Baker and Al Caulkin) left the organization because they didn’t like the social direction it was going. They wanted more focus on political activism and less to do with social issues, so they started up the Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus. That was all going on as I was first being introduced, including a name change of DGA to DGLA (Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance).
After that first meeting, several of us went went to dinner. Tom and I were with Bill Nelson, Terry Tebedo, William Waybourn, John Thomas and Mike Richards. All of them were major leaders in DGA, so I got thrown into the deep end quick and became involved in gay politics.
This was also the time that AIDS came to the forefront of all discussions in the community. Since DGA had started the Food Bank to support AIDS victims who had lost their jobs and means of support, I sought a paid job with DGA as volunteer coordinator to help staff the Food Bank. I didn’t get that job, so I ran for a position on the DGA board and won.
My specific duty on the DGA board was to be involved in editing and getting published its monthly newsletter, called Dialogue. The guy running it was Mark Rogers. I had been complaining to William Waybourn that Dialogue always seemed to come out late, so he, as the head of the publications committee, put me on the Dialogue working group with Mark. So Mark and I became great friends working on the Dialogue.
I also joined the Social Justice Committee that Terry Tebedo ran. I admit that I joined because Terry was so cute! Also I was on the membership committee, headed up by John Thomas, because a neighbor of mine, David Jones, was on that committee. That was about the time I moved from Grand Prairie into Dallas.
Then I met another energetic activist associated with DGA named Bill Hunt. He had been pulling together a major convention to be called “After 21.06 … Where Do We Go From Here?” So, I joined him in getting that event organized.
William Waybourn had become president of DGA around this time, and a number of major projects and events took place during his tenure in office … the hiring of John Thomas as the first executive director of the Foundation for Human Understanding, the whole litigation with Parkland Hospital on the standard of medical care being given AIDS patients there, and the England vs. Dallas litigation over the rejection of Mica England's employment application by the Dallas Police Department solely on account of being a lesbian. That case received major attention. Mica had told the police department from the beginning that she was a lesbian, and they recruited her anyway. When she was placed under polygraph examination, they asked her if she had engaged in “deviant sex,” and she said she had not … which, to her, was true, but the police department later interviewed her and said that, since she was admittedly gay, her claim was, legally, a lie. So she sued the city when she was denied employment. They never gave her the job, but the city did remove that question from future employment applications, and soon thereafter hired a gay person to serve as liaison to the gay community, and DGA was eventually allowed to participate in police academy sensitivity training.
This period when I was a board member of DGA was one filled with highly effective public demonstrations we conducted in the late 1980s. I was one of a group of volunteers who were especially eager to take public action. We called ourselves “GUTS” (for Gay Urban Truth Squad). For example, we had a “clothing bank” which was full of clothes, so we took those loose items and sewed them together and stuffed them with rags, making dummies out of them. We filled a U-Haul truck with about 100 of these dummies, representing victims of AIDS, then dropped them off outside the County Health Department offices to protest their conducting a CDC-funded “seroprevalence” study. We also had a very effective demonstration drawing chalk outlines around fallen bodies in front of City Hall and also the County Commissioners Court building. Although Bill Hunt had arranged a permit to protest at City Hall Plaza, the city got really angry with us for doing about 1,200 chalk outlines (again, representing the number of Dallas AIDS cases at the time) and threatened to sue us for damages. A donor stepped forward and paid for the cleanup. I remember that this protest was Terry Tebedo’s last public action because he had become very ill with AIDS by that time and ultimately passed away in February 1988. Anyway, the chalk outlining all took place in the cold hours before sunup, and there was Terry, although sick, give out hot chocolate to the volunteers. I can still taste it.
One more story I could tell is about the Black Tie Dinner. It was my first Black Tie Dinner. I was given three tickets because I volunteered so much. Anyway, it was at the Anatole and Bill Nelson was getting that year’s Black Tie Dinner Humanitarian Award, now known as the Kuchling Humanitarian Award. I remember the blow-up palm trees as decorations. There may have been thirty there altogether. Anyway, there was an “after-party” following the dinner in the Ronald Reagan suite of the Anatole Hotel. John Thomas had brought a friend to the dinner from San Diego who was an airline pilot. He was so good looking that nobody could keep their eyes off of him, and everyone, including Mark Rogers, was cruising him. Well, I don’t compete with that, so I just ignored him. Anyway, I was in the kitchen and the electricity went off in the building, and someone started talking to me in the dark. It was the pilot. Anyway, we started making out in the darkness and got over to a couch and started heavy petting when suddenly all the lights came on. All my friends were on the couch opposite me, and Mark Rogers said: “Act casual; say nothing.” Well, my shirt was off, and John started to kick everyone out and said “this party’s over.” So I grabbed my shirt and started leaving, and John grabbed me by the collar and said, “Not you … you’re staying.” He then pulled out the folding bed in the living room, which I gladly shared with the pilot that night. That was my first Black Tie Dinner.
The GUTS leaders, Bill Hunt, Gary Bellamy, Dan Perry, me and others … had originally wanted to use the nationally-recognized name ACT UP for our band of volunteers, but we had been denied that name use by the national organization, and so we at first called ourselves “Gay Unban Terrorist." William Waybourn convinced us that Gay Urban Truth Squad would be a better name.
Another major undertaking was the creation of “Dallas Potters Field” in a huge vacant lot on Lemmon Avenue at the intersection with Cole Avenue. In that location there was a building that was being built in the 1980s, and the developer went bankrupt after they had already excavated a large hole for the building’s underground parking requirement. The construction site stood abandoned for years, filled with stagnant water. It was reported that the city spent $500,000 filling the excavation back up to street level for safety reasons, while at the same time they had only spent $55,000 on HIV education. So, once the hole was filled and started growing grass again, we constructed and erected, in that newly created field, over 500 white crosses to represent the number of HIV cases in Dallas at the time. By this time, Terry Tebedo had died, and we placed his name on one of the crosses. It was very effective symbolism and drew a great deal of attention from all sectors.
Ironically, four or five years later, when William Waybourn stepped down as president of DGA, my old friend Bill Hunt and I both ran for president. I won by a single vote. I missed out on my claim to fame, though, because by that time the true leadership of the gay community of Dallas had shifted from the president of DGA to the executive director of the Foundation, John Thomas.
One controversial evolution of the organization happened not long after I became president. I had been told shortly after the election by longtime members of your organization that it would probably be best not to bring up a name change for the organization, and that I should do everything possible to prevent that from happening. It was almost like getting a message from the Mafia. Years earlier, when Don Baker was president of the organization, a public debate and vote was held the question of whether to change the name of the organization from the Dallas Gay Alliance to the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. That earlier motion to change the name failed, and there were a lot of hurt feelings. A lot of people quit the organization. So one day I went to a meeting of the DGA board and found that my old friend Bill Hunt had placed on the agenda the same question regarding a name change for the organization. At first, I got upset and told the board why it had not worked before and that, if we were going to do it, which I was supportive of, we had to take time in do a campaign over several months to educate our members why it was now time to include the word lesbian in the name. So, over those following months we focused on all the good things that the lesbian community was doing in Dallas and nationwide. At the meeting when we were going to take a vote, I asked Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to come and speak on it. When the vote was taken, the decision was unanimous, in the name got changed to the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. I had served on the board of NGLTF and was the “swing vote” in the decision to hire her as the new executive director. I served on that board for about a year, and when I was elected president of DGA, I resigned, because I felt I could not do both.
It was during my tenure as president of DGLA that the Foundation finally raised sufficient funds to pay off the note for the purchase of the old MCC church facility on Regan and Brown streets, largely through a bequest in the will of DGA board secretary Joe Desmond.
Joe had an interesting approach to being secretary of the DGLA, as well as of the Foundation, during those years. He kept two sets of minutes. One for internal use, and one for official minutes. The official minutes were very terse. He was say something like "action: the board voted to buy a new building. Much discussion ensued. It passed." And those were our official minutes. But he also kept notes with all the dirt in them, not for publication. I remember that it one time we got subpoenaed by Wadley Blood Bank because they had been sued by someone who had become HIV-positive through a transfusion. DGLA had a long-standing policy recommending that gay men not donate blood until there was an effective, reliable test for HIV status. When Wadley subpoenaed our minutes, the lack of detail meant that they were of no real use in that litigation. Joe Desmond had always told us not to worry about paying off the mortgage on the building, and that funds would be found. Upon his death we discovered that he left his entire estate and insurance proceeds to the Foundation for the purpose of paying off the note. The Foundation now owned that building “free and clear,” and today that property is worth about three time what the Foundation bought it for.
Initially DGLA had controlled a majority of the board members of the Foundation, but with the advice of Hedy Helsell from the Center for Non-Profit Management, it was decided that the Foundation’s fund-raising freedom and effectiveness would be greatly enhanced it it was not controlled by a non-tax-exempt political organization like DGA. So the Foundation’s board became more independent after that, and I shifted over to become president of the Foundation’s board, being replaced at DGLA by Deb Elder as the new president.
The Foundation was a purely “charitable” organization with a number of branches designed to support person with AIDS: the food bank, the health clinic, the resale shop for clothing, numerous educational programs, etc., all managed at that time by John Thomas as executive director.
The creation of the health clinic, now widely known as the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic, happened during this period. At first, I was very much against the idea and felt that we did not have sufficient intelligence on the board to be running a medical clinic. Technically, a doctor cannot be supervised by a nonmedical person or group, and it was important to respect the law publicly. We had already started doing “guerrilla clinics,” that posed a risk if discovered. Back then, one of the only working treatments for pneumocystis pneumonia, or “PCP,” was aerosolized pentamidine “mist.” It was working in Los Angeles and New York City, but no doctor or hospital would do it in Dallas, and AIDS patients couldn't receive the drug, even in a private setting. So, through Drs. Steven Pounders and Robert Hulse, and nurses Penny Pickle and Pam Clayton, we would administer and supervise the drug at the center if patients would purchase it. We basically provided the space and equipment so the drug could be administered through inhalation. On Wednesday nights, people lined the hallways breathing it in. We treated about 100 people a week. It was through this experience that the idea of opening a clinic began to be batted around. My opposition was based on our not having a doctor to supervise it, but Bill Nelson pulled me aside it took me to lunch, which, back then, meant you were in trouble. He told me about Terry having to go once a week to Houston to get acyclovir injections in his eyes so he wouldn't go blind … like Howie Daire had to do, as well. I had no idea Terry was going to Houston once a week. When Bill told me that, he said that the goal was to provide services that were available in other cities, and to shame the medical community of Dallas into going faster in developing effective treatments. So I agreed to vote in favor of creating the clinic.
The next question was how to go about setting up the clinic. We had been advising people with AIDS that their best hope after being diagnosed was to move to the East Coast or West Coast and get the most current treatments. So we decided to go after grant money, research money, and do clinical trials. And that's how we would fund it. Later we asked Dr. Stephen Pounders to be in charge of the review board for all drug studies.
To make a statement and maybe to set an example, I was the first person to get HIV tested at the new clinic. Even getting tested was controversial in those days. If you knew you were HIV-positive, you could not afford to be honest on your application for anything like insurance or employment. Because there were no protections against that kind of discrimination, we recommended that people not get tested until complete anonymity could be insured and effective medical treatments were available. I knew I was negative at the time, and we were going to open the clinic with a testing program. They needed a body, so I volunteered.
After I stepped down as president of the Foundation, I moved to Washington, D.C., and accepted a position associate director of membership of the United States Holocaust Museum. The museum was just one year old at that time, and the membership database was in dire need of attention due to the overwhelming success of the museum’s first year. Donors would sometimes go unacknowledged for nine months. They were very far behind. So about two weeks after I arrived, my boss at the museum stepped down, and he told me he had hired me so I could run it all, which I ended up doing. With the help of the right consultants, we started getting thank-you correspondence out the door in 24 hours. We also were experiencing donors showing up to visit the museum and being unable to purchase tickets due to crowding. Even local donors in Washington would often avoid visiting the museum because of the difficulty of getting entry tickets, so I proposed offering tickets to be included in all membership renewals. Donors with tickets went to the front of the line. They were so happy after that.
My life in Washington was a new experience in many ways. I wasn’t doing any volunteer work, so I could just go out and drink and have fun and be irresponsible. But I noticed that the local organizations were having a hard time because they were so over-shadowed by the large national organizations everywhere in Washington. I decided to get involved with their version of an AIDS food bank, called “Food and Friends.” I served on their fund-raising committee.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that I discovered that I had become HIV-positive, which lead to the realization that my health insurance at the museum was not good. In fact it had no disability coverage at all. So that wasn’t a great employer to be with if you were HIV-positive. I was offered a job at the National Park Foundation, which raises money from the public for national parks. I helped them start a vibrant membership program and worked on the marketing of a new program they called the “national park pass.” The programs we launched then are still doing well to this day.
I was at the National Park Foundation for about two years when I discovered that I had cancer … non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Fortunately the NPF had a triple-A health insurance program. I began treatments and successfully beat the disease. The side effects from the chemo, however, made my immune system weaker, so I was getting several so-called opportunistic infections. My doctor recommended that I go onto disability because, in his words, the job was killing me. My perfectionism at work was taking its toll on me. That’s when I decided to accept disability coverage, depart from the NPF, and move back to Dallas.
Back in Dallas, my health became my biggest challenge. I was sick for about two years, but then became much better and started doing art for Kevin Collins and Don Taylor. I guess I was good at it, because I decided to apply to graduate school and got four offers of full scholarship in art studies. I entered Brookhaven College here in Farmers Branch, just north of Dallas.
My preferred medium at that stage was silk-screening. I took every course they had in art studies at Brookhaven, 136 course hours. I decided not to stop at that point, but rather to seek a Masters in Fine Arts. I filed applications to ten different universities, got two rejections, three acceptances with no scholarship money, and four acceptances with full tuition scholarships. All I would have to pay was my own personal living expenses, which was fine. I accepted the offer of the University of South Florida in Tampa, because there was a well-known silkscreen artist teaching there named Bradley Chance, and I wanted him as my mentor. I became a teaching assistant there for a year, and then became a regular instructor for two years.
Once again, my new life in Tampa had its own little challenges. I was older than everyone, including my professors, so that was new. I remember wanting to quit during my first semester there, but I soon got over it and thrived. Teaching was definitely my favorite part. And working with artists of other disciplines, learning from them. But going to Paris was the best part of all. It was a 30-day study-abroad program … Paris in the month of June.
We studied art history, and I got to do a project on my own with artist David Wojnarowicz, a professor at the university who taught the Paris course. It happened that one day Professor Wojnarowicz showed us his mask art as part of a “Silence = Death” display. So I took that image and silkscreened masks, using different pictures of me wearing a mask like his in various recognizable locations throughout Paris. Then I wrote on some of the photos and put my signature on them with my address and hid them in books around Paris. There were 15 photos and I got seven back. I did the project as an homage to David Wojnarowicz, because he got his start doing a mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and he wore those masks around New York City. So it was an homage to that amazing project of his. It was called a “faith-based project,” with the audience interacting with the artist by mailing it back to him. Sort of the artistic version of putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean.
The Gay Pride Parade experience in Paris was unforgettable. It was so big – and it wend down the street in front of my dorm, so I joined with a group and marched in the parade, all the way down the Blvd. Saint Michel to the Bastille, where the ACT UP group staged a “die-in,” everybody dropping to the ground as if we were dead. I even wore my mask, but I got no photos, unfortunately, because I had no one with me at the time.
I did befriend a guy there named Keith Thomas, a young boy from school who called himself “post-gay.” So I took him out to all the gay bars and made him meet some gay queens. I told him all about Stonewall and why we owe everything to them in modern gay history. It turned out that he decided to join me in that Gay Pride Parade, and he loved it because he had never been in a parade before. Ironically, he’s now enjoying gay life in San Francisco, always popping up in parades and street festivals in gay San Francisco.
My experience with Keith Thomas made me realize for the first time how little is known about our history, among young gay people. I’ve always wished that a gay coming out would include something like a Passover Dinner where a bunch of supportive people get together and recite our rich history for the young people. And you could have a “seder-like” dinner for learning our history on National Coming Out Day.
Back in Tampa, I did a solo show called “I Thought You Were Dead” with my paper swirls and my "David" project, and I unveiled it on World AIDS Day. It was well received. My thesis sculpture at the University of South Florida was selected by a group of judges to be shown in Washington at the Kennedy Center as part of a project centered on disabled artists. That was the premise of the show. The theme of my piece was “Life After Disability.” It’s hard to describe, but it was the life-sized sculpture of a man, riddled with holes, which represents an immune system, so damaged, but still standing tall. It was a wonderful experience to travel to Washington with some of my best friends and see the entire show, with my piece as a part.
When I finally left Tampa, I moved back to Dallas again and got involved with the 500X Gallery and participated in the founding of The Dallas Way. It was in that organization that I was able to use some of my past experience at the Holocaust Museum where we had a project called Power of Our Oral History. It was there that I got selected to be part of a filmed project created by Nicole Stewart called “Oral Fixation,” which focused on personal story-telling. The story I decided to deliver in Oral Fixation was the one regarding a flight to Austin with John Rogers and five other people. I had bought a big blond wig, and I wanted a particular shape around the head, so I put it on the floor and brushed it out and sprayed it with hairspray, and when I picked up the wig, it was big, round, and flat on the back. So I called Mark Rogers and I asked if he thought I could wear it. He gave a resounding "yes." So I put it on with a terrible outfit which I bought at the store on Elm Street… "I paradise"… Which had been "wake Paradise" but the "W" and the "G" fell off. Mark Rogers and John Rogers took me there. Because we had two parties to attend that Halloween night, one here in Dallas and one in Austin, we decided that the only way we could attend both would be to fly down two Austin fully dressed in drag. While we were in the air, a man had his newspaper and he was hiding behind it. But when the no smoking light went off he dropped the paper and started to light his cigarette. But I told him jokingly, "I wouldn't do that if our you"… And pointed to the hair… And I said "10 cans of hairspray – LONE survivor recalls fireball streaking down the aisles." He started laughing so much that the gentleman sitting next to him joined in the laughter, and I made them finish gluing my nails on. One of them said that this would be a story he would one day tell his grandchildren. At some point the pilot came on the speaker and said "we are so honored today to have the finalists in the Miss Oklahoma beauty pageant with us on this flight." So then we had a runway show down the aisle. My God, so much fun. On the flight back, David Ennis gave me a pizza box to put my hair in.
So my experience in telling that story for the Oral Fixation project lead me to the idea of a Dallas project we would call “Outrageous Oral.” Oral Fixation had a highly structured program where used submitted your story in advance, and the director would edit it and check it for timing. And then we had a dress rehearsal, where she timed it again and made us make cuts if needed to keep it on time. I knew we would never get a bunch of queens to do all of that, much less rehearse first, so I suggested to the board of the Dallas way that we be a little more "free-form." And when I proposed it, I remember being told we would never pull it off. Well, those are fighting words for me. And so we did it, and now look at it. We've done such a great job. I'm so proud of the Dallas way for taking it up as a major project.
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Editor's Note: The Dallas Way videotaped the oral history of Bruce Monroe in the fall of 2015, with Bruce's close friends Ron Allen and John Rogers serving as interviewers. The video recording of that interview has been donated to the University of North Texas for inclusion in its LGBT Collection and for on-line publishing on its Portal to Texas History. Mike Anglin transcribed the interview in 2016, and in 2017, using the words of Bruce Monroe in that 30-page transcription, pieced together Bruce's spoken words into a chronological narrative story of his life of service and of art. William Waybourn assisted in the editing of the final document.