Queer Girl City Guide: Houston

This guide is written by an Autostraddle community member! The Queer Girl City Guides are compiled and written by volunteer community members who are excited to share their favorite places and experiences with you. They cannot be independently verified by Autostraddle. We also recognize that cities change and venues close. Due to team restrictions, these guides may not always be up-to-date as time goes on. Feel free to share your own info about these locations in the comments!


Like many native Houstonians, I didn’t appreciate Houston when I was growing up here. To me, Houston was just a huge, humid, hot city with too many highways and not enough culture. I wanted to go out of state for college and never return.

That obviously didn’t happen.

Two things happened when I first left Houston: First, Houston became an actual cool city known for more than just the oil and gas industry, NASA and football. (Or maybe it was cool all along and just became recognized as cool). Second, I realized that I actually really love being from and living in Houston! Houston is an easy city to live in. Living here means having the amenities of living in a big city without (most) of the drawbacks. Our food is amazing! There’s always something to do! We have good jobs here! The people are friendly! The cost of living is low! The weather is nice most of the time! (That is, when we don’t get hit by devastating hurricanes.) You never have to spend an hour digging your car out of several feet of snow, only to realize that your car doors are frozen shut!

Most importantly, Houston may be in the South, but we’re a big city and most of the people who live here are open-minded. You can be a queer person in Houston and live a happy, fulfilling life.


Welcome to the Gayborhood

Montrose and The Heights

Montrose has always been the center of LGBTQ life in Houston. It’s a cute, quiet neighborhood with plenty of things to do, and cafes, gay bars, great restaurants and places to get brunch. It also houses The Montrose Center, Houston’s LGBTQ resource center. The Montrose Center offers counseling and health services, as well as being a space for Houston’s LGBT groups and organizations to meet. The center is currently raising money to build the country’s second-largest affordable LGBTQ senior housing center.

The Heights is sort of a baby gayborhood — just north of Montrose, it’s an artsy neighborhood with some nice biking and walking trails, great restaurants, and cute, local shops (especially along 19th Street).

The queer community is pretty small here, but all letters of the queer alphabet seem to get along. Even in a city of four million people, it feels like all the queers somehow know each other.

Queer-friendliness Around Houston
Austin gets the rep for being the blue oasis in the red sea that is Texas, but Houston should have its share in that rep, too. After all, we elected a lesbian mayor! I’ve never had anyone in Houston blink an eye when I tell them I’m gay, though I also work at a very queer-friendly magazine and I mostly socialize with left-leaning or liberal millennials. In my experience, that the further you get from the Inner Loop in Houston, the more conservative you’ll find the people. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Houstonians have a reputation for being friendly, and it’s pretty true! I didn’t realize that I’d taken my city’s friendliness for granted until I lived away. When I returned, I remembered how wonderful it is to wave at strangers while you’re driving or walking down the street. I’ve heard recent transplants tell me stories about how weird it is that everyone smiles at you all the time and how strange it is that people will strike up a conversation with you when you’re in line at the grocery store or in an elevator.

Pride

I’d never attended a Houston Pride event until this year. And y’all, Houston’s Pride — while hot, and sweaty, and held right when Houstonians don’t want to leave the air-conditioned indoors — is incredibly fun! There’s a Pride festival held during the day and the parade is held at night — all the more reason to break out the glowsticks and glitter! What’s better than celebrating without also having to bake in the sun?

The rest of Pride Week is rounded out with plenty of gay events, including an annual queer lady party at Pearl Bar. The only unfortunate thing about Pride in Houston is that a few years ago the parade was moved from the gayborhood, Montrose, to downtown. But that hasn’t dampened Houstonians’ Pride spirit, as hundreds of thousands of people continue to flock every year.

Diversity
Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the United States. The city has a long history of welcoming newcomers and immigrants. Over the past few decades has experienced a population explosion, which has contributed to the city majority people of color. Although Latinx, African American, Asian American, and multi-racia folks are well-represented in Houston, the city is still pretty segregated. We’re working on it. Houston’s diversity is part of what makes living here great, and knowing that any visitor or “Newstonian” can find their community here makes it even better.

Unfortunately, Houston’s diversity doesn’t extend much to sexual orientation. A Gallup poll from 2015 found that Houston has a smaller percentage of LGBT adults than other large cities at 3.3 percent (Austin beats us with 5.3 percent).

Laws/Regulations Affecting Queers
Although Houstonians elected a lesbian mayor three times in a row, and Harris County has turned blue in recent elections, Houston has been stubbornly antiquated when it comes to LGBTQ rights. In 2015, Houstonians voted against an anti-discrimination ordinance known as HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), which would’ve protected anyone who lives or works in Houston from discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy. Houston is now one of the only major cities in Texas, and the largest city in the United States, without an equal rights ordinance on the books.

Even more bad news: The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees aren’t guaranteed the actual benefits of marriage such as health, dental or life insurance. At the time of writing, this case was working its way up the federal courts.


College Scene

Image via University of Houston

Houston is chock-full of colleges and universities. The University of Houston is an outstanding research university with a great LGBT Resource Center. The school also has a minor in LGBT studies. The University of St.Thomas is a well-regarded, small Catholic liberal arts school that’s located right in the middle of the gayborhood. Rice University is a private university in the Museum District that’s often called the “Ivy of the South.” Rice has an active (and wealthy) gay alumni association. Texas Southern University is an historically black university and one of the largest HBCUs in the country, although it doesn’t have a formal LGBTQ student group at the time of writing.

Medical schools are also abound in Houston — naturally, as the city has the largest medical center in the world, the Texas Medical Center. The Baylor College of Medicine has an active BCM Pride group. The graduate school at the University of Texas Health Science Center (known as UTHealth) also has an LGBT Student Alliance.


Sports

Image via Houston Dash

If you’re a sports fan, you’ll love Houston. Our major league teams include the Texans (although plenty of Dallas Cowboys fans live here, too), the Astros (who recently won their first World Series!), the Rockets, the Dynamo, and the Dash (queer ladies especially love going to Houston Dash games)! Sugar Land has its own minor league team, too, aptly named the Sugar Land Skeeters. The only team we don’t have here is a hockey team.

For those who want to play sports in a recreational league, I’ve really enjoyed playing kickball with the Houston Sports and Social Club, which offers a ton of sports to play on weeknights and weekends. Still, the HSSC can get a little too straight and bro-y sometimes. If you’re into softball, the LGBTQ Montrose Softball League Association might be more your jam.


Getting Artsy

Houston Museum of Fine Arts (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Houston is chock-full of fine and performing arts venues. It’s one of the few cities in the U.S. with professional companies in all major performing arts disciplines: opera (Houston Grand Opera), ballet (Houston Ballet), music (Houston Symphony Orchestra), and theater (The Alley Theatre and Theatre Under the Stars). These are a few more:

Museum of Fine Arts
1001 Bissonnet St.

With over 60,000 works of art in its collection, the MFAH is one of the largest art museums in the country. It’s a wonderful place for art nerds and newbies alike to spend a day wandering around the exhibits.

The Heights Theater
339 W 19th St.

This restored early 1900s movie theater recently re-opened as a space for concerts, stand-up comedy, and other performances. It’s located smack-dab in the middle of the Heights, so you can catch a show and then wander along 19th Street, where there are a ton of bars, restaurants, and cute local businesses.

The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross St.

The Menil is a true Houston treasure. Filled with unique, fantastic art for the art-minded and regular folk alike, the collection features interesting modern pieces mixed with some centuries-old African carvings. The admission is always free. When you visit, be sure to pack a picnic or bring a soccer ball as the Menil is smack-dab in the middle of a gorgeous green neighborhood park surrounded by cool, vintage bungalows and beautiful trees.

River Oaks Theatre
2009 West Gray

The River Oaks Theatre is one of a kind. With a beautiful art deco design inside, you can see the authenticity of the circa-1939 theatre in all its glory whether viewing a foreign film, indie flick, or attending the interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show (it’s the third Saturday of every month at midnight! Queers, queens, and movie nerds unite in a fantastic, freaky, ‘Frank N. Furter’ way!).


Hair/Body Mod/Tattoos

Sacred Heart Studio
327 Westheimer Road

Clean, kind, quality, but with crappy parking. That’s all there is to know about this very professional tattoo studio operating out of a cool little house in Montrose. The place is exceptionally sterile, the staff is very easygoing and all are talented artists and good piercers. Every piece I’ve seen done here is great! Seriously though, the parking is horrific. However, if you’ve saved up the money and time to ink a piece of art that’s going to be on your body forevermore, you can suck it up and walk a block or two.

Bird’s Barbershop
420 E. 20th St.

I go to Bird’s to get my alternative lifestyle haircut trimmed, and I love it. The staff is friendly, they offer you free beer when you walk in, and the prices are reasonable. (They don’t charge you extra for your short haircut just because you’re a lady!) I’ve never had to wait long for a haircut when I’ve just walked in (probably because they’re still relatively new in Houston), and I’m always happy with the results.

The Electric Chair Tattoo & Piercing
8722 Richmond Ave.

My friends who have tattoos and piercings tell me that the Electric Chair is the place to be. It’s a classy, eclectic tattoo shop that looks and smells clean. It’s very queer-friendly.


Books on Books on Books

Houston doesn’t have LGBT or feminism-focused bookstores, exactly, but our independent bookstores are still awesome.

Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St.

Brazos Bookstore is Houston’s oldest and much-beloved independent bookstore. The bookstore has a huge selection and is always hosting visiting authors, events and partnering with other literary organizations in Houston.  During Pride 2017, they even hosted a drag queen story hour.

Murder by the Book
2342 Bissonnet St.

Mystery and crime fiction enthusiasts need to check out Murder by the Book. The store is one of the nation’s largest and oldest mystery specialty bookstores, and they have a calendar chock-full of events and author visits.

Kaboom Books
3116 Houston Ave.

I felt at home at Kaboom the moment I first walked in — everywhere you look, there are stacks upon stacks of used books (the bookstore boasts 100,000) in a surprisingly large space, and it’s easy to spend an hour or two wandering around the store.

River Oaks Bookstore
3270 Westheimer Road

River Oaks Bookstore is a small, cute, well-organized neighborhood bookstore with a friendly staff. Although they focus on local authors, their books span a vast number of titles and genres for children and adults. They also offer complimentary cookies and coffee for visitors.

Blue Willow Bookshop
14532 Memorial Dr.

Blue Willow says they’re a “merry band of booksellers with opinionated advice” and they’re right. The bookstore has plenty of books and events for adults, but where they really shine is their storytimes for kids and their book clubs (they even have one for middle school girls!).


Nightlife

Image via Pearl Bar

Pearl Bar
4216 Washington Ave.

Yes, Houston’s lesbian bar is called Pearl, a fact that never fails to make me laugh. Pearl has something for everyone. It’s a great place to go if you want to get your dance and drink on, if you just want to hang out on the patio, play giant billiards games, or see a local DJ spin. It’s so nice to have a queer lady-centric bar in Houston. I hope it stays around for years to come.

South Beach
810 Pacific St.

South Beach is the biggest laser light-filled LGBT club in town, hands down. The clientele is often more gay men, but it’s always got great house music, strong – if a tad pricey – drink options. It’s the place to go if you want to dance. On really hot, crowded nights, they will blast everyone with super cool laser nitrogen jets, which feels amazing. It’s a little piece of Miami right in the middle of Houston.

JR’s Bar & Grill
808 Pacific St.

Good ole JR’s has been around for years and is still going strong. The drinks are consistently good, there’s no cover, the staff is always friendly, and you’re almost guaranteed to be chatted up and to meet a new friend or two. This is a great location for Sunday Funday and karaoke.

Poison Girl
1641 Westheimer Road

Poison Girl is a low-key, dive-y hipster bar in the heart of Montrose with a solid, inexpensive beer selection and a decidedly chill atmosphere. The back patio is the place to be and you can impress your friends or girlfriend with your rad gaming skills on their pinball machines.

Lola’s Depot
2327 Grant

Lola’s is a dive in every sense of the word. The bright purple facade and jammed parking lot is the only indication you’ll know you’ve arrived because there is no sign on this beloved neighborhood bar. The drinks are super cheap (I’m talking under $2 during happy hour) and super strong. Every time I’ve gone the women have outnumbered the guys at least two to one.


Eat Here Now!

Houston’s diversity has always lent itself to a delicious food scene — there’s Tex-Mex, BBQ, and food from several immigrant populations. You’ll get some amazing dishes and restaurants. In the last 10 years or so, Houston’s restaurant scene has really exploded. It seems like every day there’s a hot new restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall that everyone is talking about.

Antidote
729 Studewood Street

Antidote is everything I want in a coffee shop. It’s cute, relatively quiet, and has good drinks. There’s comfortable chairs and plenty of places to sit. It’s a great place to catch up with friends, read a book, get work done, or bring first dates.

Antone’s Po’ Boys
Multiple locations

Houston isn’t known for being much of a sandwich city, but Antone’s makes the case that it is one. I would come here just for the fresh-baked bread made locally, but their traditional and fried po’boys are also amazing.

Asia Market Thai Lao Food
1010 W Cavalcade St.

This restaurant/store located in a strip mall so it’s easy to overlook, but its authentic Thai food definitely stands out. The menu is huge and varied (it’s so hard to choose a dish!). I’ve also come here before just for the lemongrass chicken nuggets. When they say a dish is spicy, they’re not kidding. You’ve been warned.

Cafeza
1720 Houston Ave.

This artsy Latin American café and bar also doubles as a space for jazz and open mic nights. You can grab a coffee and a few churros, or a glass of wine and tacos. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the live music.

Les Givral’s
Multiple locations

The Les Givral’s on Milam Street always has a line out the door, and for good reason: they serve some of the best banh mi in the city.

Pi Pizza
181 Heights Blvd.

Star Pizza, Pink’s Pizza and Pi Pizza vye for the title of Houston’s best pizza restaurant. In my humble opinion, Pi Pizza wins. Their pizzas are creative, but still comfortable (you might think blackberries would be strange on a pizza, but they work!). If you’re not in the mood for pizza, their apps and salads are also stellar.

Pinkerton’s Barbecue
1504 Airline Drive

Like most Texans, I’m pretty picky about my barbecue. Pinkerton’s has stolen my heart and my stomach (and filled it with smoked meat). The chopped brisket sandwich (served in a jalapeno bun) is the best in the city. The ribs, whether glazed or dry, are fall-off-the-bone juicy and delicious. This is the place to take your out-of-town friends who want to experience good Texas barbecue. Pinkerton’s has a full bar, too, which is a plus.

Presidio
911 W. 11th St.

Almost every dish at Presidio was made with ingredients grown in either their own garden or from a local farm —making everything served here incredibly fresh. You’ll want to share their small plates with some friends. If it’s not ridiculously hot outside, grab a drink on their patio.

Teotihuacan
Multiple locations

You need Teotihuacan’s migas and chilaquiles in your life—or anything they offer, really. They’re the holy trinity of good Mexican food in Houston: they serve one of the best Mexican breakfasts in Houston, their food is super cheap, and their servers are friendly. What more could you want?

Weights + Measures
2808 Caroline St.

An excellent place to get your pizza and pasta fix. I would eat Weights + Measures’ roasted carrot pizza every single day if I could. Not only that, their pastas are made from scratch every day, and you can definitely taste the difference.


Living Here Long Term

Cost of Living
Your dollar can stretch a lot in Houston. Texas doesn’t have a state income tax, and while its sales tax (8.25%) and property taxes are a little high (the average property tax rate for Harris County is 2.290%), rent and other necessities are cheap. Although rents are rising as more people move to Houston. According to RentCafe, the average rent for an apartment in Houston is $974. Studio apartments in Houston rent for $753 a month, while 1-bedroom apartments are on average $890 a month; the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,088. (Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, living on a journalist’s salary, and my roommate and I were able to rent a nice three-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex in the Heights for $1550 a month.)

Safety
I’ve rarely felt unsafe while living in Houston, but I also grew up in a safe neighborhood in a suburb, and I currently live in a similar neighborhood inside Houston’s Inner Loop. The only times I don’t feel safe are when I’m at a gas station late at night with no one around, or while walking around downtown Houston (which, unlike other cities’ downtown areas, is almost always dead at night). That said, it’s not unlike other major cities that sometimes struggle with crime. Be aware of your surroundings when traveling to areas you don’t  know.


We Houstonians are a social, friendly bunch, and I love the city even more because of it. Come on, join us for a bit!

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