Opening night of Brokeback Mountain in Austin, Texas, felt a bit like a gay pride parade. Crammed into the theater were leather queens and rocker dykes, posses of baby-faced University of Texas boys, middle-aged suburban couples, suit-clad professionals who'd come from the office, and a handful of square-jawed men in cowboy hats. But when the film let out, spilling a sadder, quieter group into the parking lot, it became clear that this was no more a celebration than it was a mere night at the movies. It was a homecoming. This was, after all, Austin—the queer calm in the straight storm of Texas.
"Growing up, I would drive by Austin and think, I want to live there so bad," recalls Damian DeLeon, 29, as he left the theater. He came out at 17 and was ridiculed for it in his tiny hometown in the Texas Pan-handle. "I'd always heard about how open it was and living here was one of my goals."
University of Texas student Trevor Doak, 19, was also reminded of home. "I'm from Amarillo, which was horrifying," he says. "Is Austin better? Hell, yes." Finally, there was Thom Sloan, 51, a judge with the International Gay Rodeo Association who hails from El Paso. "I grew up on a farm and was in serious denial there. But Austin," he says, "is an island."
Welcome, then, to the island—a freeing destination not only for the many Texans who flock here but for the more than 7 million visitors who make a beeline to the groovy state capital each year, fascinated by the fact that such a hip oasis can thrive in Dubya's home territory.
"We love to say, 'When you leave Austin, you enter Texas,'" says Maggie Olmstead, a tour guide with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau who, when I mentioned The Out Traveler, smiled widely and declared, "Oh, are you a lesbian? Great!" It's true that people are for-real friendly here. Others told me that Austin is "like its own country" or that it's "a pink spot in a big red state." And nobody passed up the chance to elaborate on the fact that Austin's Travis County was one of the few in Texas to vote for John Kerry and the only one to vote against the newly passed ballot proposition barring same-sex marriage.
It's these strong convictions along with pulsating music, food, film, vintage fashion, and nearby nature scenes (such as the clothing-optional Hippie Hollow out in the Hill Country, just one of many luscious swimming holes) that make Austin one feisty and irresistible city. And March, it just so happens, is when the place is most magnetic. It's when the dazzling Town Lake, edged with winding paths for runners and cyclists, bursts with cherry, plum, and peach blossoms. It's also the start of bat season—when the city's 1.5 million free-tailed bats return from Mexico to their strange home under the city's Congress Avenue Bridge, wowing crowds with a nightly mass emergence into the sunset.
The complete article appears in the Spring 2006 issue of The Out Traveler.
San Jose Hotel (1316 S. Congress Ave., 512-444-7322, $90–$315) has been restored from a roadside motel to a sleek boutique hotel with minimalist rooms, sexy lighting, and a lively courtyard with a small swimming pool and a popular lounge-bar. It’s lesbian-owned, as is the homey Brava House (1108 Blanco St., 512-478-5034, $99–$250), a serene B&B on a quiet West End residential street, with rooms decorated in keeping with themes like the Garbo Suite. Downtown is the opulent The Driskill (604 Brazos St., 512-474-5911, $240–$500), built in 1886 and featuring an elegant marble-floored lobby, roomy quarters with original artwork and antiques, a fitness studio, and a lauded restaurant. Four Seasons Hotel Austin (98 San Jacinto Blvd., 512-478-4500, $300–$850), overlooking Town Lake, has a grand lobby bar, spa, gym, pool, and typically majestic style. The recently renovated rooms at the Radisson Hotel (111 E. Cesar Chavez St., 512-478-9611, $139–$199), located in the downtown business district near famous Sixth Street, offer great views of Town Lake.
Get a Mexican breakfast at Las Manitas Avenue Café (211 Congress Ave., 512-472-9357). El Sol y La Luna (1224 S. Congress Ave., 512-444-7770) is a lesbian-owned Mexican café serving treats from migas to posole, with occasional live music. Stubbs Bar-B-Q (801 Red River St., 512-480-8341) offers Sunday gospel brunches and a popular live-music stage. Salt Lick BBQ (18001 Farm 1826, 512-894-3117) is what many say is the region’s best barbecue. Uchi (801 S. Lamar Blvd., 512-916-4808) has adventurous sushi and a hip atmosphere. The lesbian-owned Eastside Café (2113 Manor Rd., 512-476-5858) is a grand ol’ house serving classy organic fare. The stylish, eclectic South Congress Café (1600 S. Congress Ave., 512-447-3905) is always abuzz, as is the elegant Italian hot spot, Vespaio (1610 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-6100). Chuy's (1728 Barton Springs Rd., 512-474-4452), one of the first restaurants in Texas to call itself “Tex-Mex,” is where Jenna and Barbara Bush were infamously caught having some underage fun involving the restaurant's popular margaritas. For perfect tamales, head to Rosie’s Tamale House (13436 W. Hwy. 71, 512-263-5245).
The four locations of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas (512-476-1320) show indie films and serve dinner and drinks. Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-2444) is a classic venue for live rock, country, and blues; so is Threadgill’s World Headquarters (301 W. Riverside Dr., 512-472-9304), an outpost of the original where Janis Joplin got her start. Oil Can Harry’s (211 W. Fourth St., 512-320-8823) is a classic gay watering hole. Rain (217-B W. Fourth St., 512-494-1150) is a megapopular gay nightclub. Fabric (101 W. Fifth St., 512-322-9333) draws a gay college crowd. The gay Rainbow Cattle Company (303 W. Fifth St., 512-472-5288) offers two-step lessons, Latin nights, and lesbian Thursdays; cowboys and cowgirls pack in on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s no lesbian venue, but for roving events check with Book Woman (918 W. 12th St., 512-472-2785), Guerrilla Queer Bar (www.smokingbanana.com), or “The Gay Place” in the weekly Austin Chronicle.
The Texas State Capitol (East 12th Street and Congress Avenue, 512-463-0063), completed in 1888, is a stunning red granite landmark with a grand rotunda. Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Ave., 512-936-4639, admission $5.50) tells the story of Texas through multimedia exhibits. Town Lake, which divides South Austin from downtown, has great trails for running, biking, and strolling; you can kayak in the water too. Zilker Park (Barton Springs Road, 512-478-0905) is a massive green space with hiking trails, botanical gardens, and a nature center. Congress Avenue Bridge is the place to be at sunset, when 1.5 million bats emerge to hunt for insects.
American Airlines (800-433-7300) offers non-stop flights to Austin Bergstrom International Airport from Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Houston, and St. Louis. Visit their new gay microsite, AAVacations.com/rainbow, to book vacation packages to Austin and other gay-welcoming destinations.