Arts Let them eat cake

Artist Gene Elder tries to save the future and the past with 'amusing little e-mails' and a gay liberation front

Gene Elder's unblinking amber gaze is unsettling, news that's probably of little surprise to recipients of his frequent e-mails. "The Scent of Cake: Gotta Have It," and "The Former Supreme Court; New Gay Disco," are two recent subject lines. An Elder missive is unmistakable: He free-associates, often with hilarious results, on topics ranging from his campaign to tag San Antonio as the Big Tomato to the Two-Headed Lesbian Award (inspired by a tabloid cover), and, of late, the proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. `See "They've only just begun, June 23-29, 2005.`

Gene Elder stands in front of the Borglum Studio in Brackenridge Park, a featured location in his book Murder by Collage with Found Objects. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The proposed Texas marriage amendment is Elder's latest cause celebre, but he is not new to the gay community or San Antonio. Elder has been practicing his brand of art - which includes collage, found-art assemblage, and an unpublished manuscript, Murder by Collage with Found Objects, a Cubist-inspired masterpiece about San Antonio's art history - in the Alamo City since the early '70s. In 1972, he helped real-estate developer and restaurateur Arthur "Hap" Veltman open The San Antonio Country, the beloved gay bar that became the Bonham a decade later. Born on the Fourth of July, Elder wrote his own declaration of independence on the occasion of conservative activist Anita Bryant's visit to the city in 1978. "'Remember the Alamo' is not only our call to arms, but a constant reminder that our forefathers fought for freedom from opposite sides of the church walls. The blood runs deep into our soil on both sides and we are slowly learning how to live in peace, and to love each other once again. Forgive us for not taking up your sword against our gay brothers and sisters," he wrote on the flyer he distributed at the Municipal Auditorium until security personnel escorted him from the building.

History matters a great deal to Elder, in no small part because he lived through the AIDS crisis of the '80s and lost many dear friends, Veltman included. In addition to his ongoing art-gadfly activities, he serves as the director of the HAPPY Foundation archives, currently a modestly sized room stuffed to the rafters with 'zines, newspaper clippings, videos, and photographs documenting the last three decades of San Antonio's gay community.

Sitting under the grand arches of the Bonham's second-floor ballroom, Elder discussed his latest pet idea, the Wedding Cake Liberation Front, and the impetus behind the HAPPY Foundation. For the full interview, visit

Do you feel optimistic that the gay and lesbian community will get fired up over the proposed marriage amendment to the Texas constitution and the Wedding Cake Liberation Front and vote in November?

I think the community probably is aware of it and I think there's a lot going on in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. San Antonio, politically, is kind of a different bag of worms. I'm not sure whether people vote, either in the art community, and even a lot of people in the gay community. Maybe this thing will get them out. I think that's the big question.

I just do what I can as an activist artist to kind of raise the consciousness and get people aware that they're gonna have to vote in November.

Do you feel things are better now for the gay community in San Antonio than they were in the '70s?

The '70s was a very encouraging period - that was before AIDS; that really didn't register until I think, like, '83, even though there was GRIDS, gay-related cancer, discussed in New York and San Francisco. Hap `Arthur Veltman` and I opened up The San Antonio Country in '73, over there on St. Mary's and McCullough, right down the street from Channel 4, and Channel 5 was still downtown. It was kind of an interesting situation because we felt we weren't hiding because we were right in the middle of town. It wasn't a trashy atmosphere, so the hairstylists would bring their women friends, and their women friends would bring their boyfriends, and it was a pretty good assortment of people, and I felt there was a lot of progress being made. And then that just changed overnight with AIDS. All of a sudden everybody got freaked out, and I mean everybody. I'm not so sure San Antonio in the '70s wasn't actually a better atmosphere. `There` was kind of a naivete and a lightheartedness. Now everyone has to be politically active, with a whole new set of battles.

Do you think the religious right's attacks on the gay community have caused people to be more low-profile again or has it galvanized the community?

I think it's galvanized people. It's a whole new generation of people that's coming up and they're more educated. And you've got all the stuff on TV, positive role models, and it's different that way.

The prejudice is being neutralized every year. Just even getting the Express-News to write stuff. I remember we went to the Express-News years ago, saying, Why are you writing all these negative - because they would only write negative things about the gay community - and they thought they were reporting the news. And we'd go over there and say, Why don't you write something about somebody in the gay community that's doing something positive? And `they were` like, We'd be condoning it. And so it took a while to even change the newspapers. I bet they still wouldn't publish a gay couple in their wedding announcements.

Why is the marriage issue, and this proposed constitutional amendment in particular, important to the gay community?

That's not what the constitution is there for. It's there to guarantee people's freedoms, not to instill bigotry. It's still illegal to get married. Now, as far as getting `same-sex` marriage legalized, it's dealing with owning property together, owning a house together, hospitals, all those kind of things the gay community has suffered from that people don't really recognize. A lot of this came out because one partner would die of AIDS and the other partner would be living in the home, and the family of the person who died would come in and get the rights to the house and car, and the other person had no right to anything they had collected over the years.

What do the HAPPY Foundation archives consist of at this point and what is your ultimate goal for the archives?

Well, the HAPPY Foundation started in 1988 when Arthur "Happy" Veltman died. He had expressed in his will that he would want all his resources, after his boyfriend - which is Kenneth Garrett `who is alive and well` - died, to go into this foundation. And he didn't really define it; he just left it up to me to create a resource, and he wanted it to be a resource for the gay community. And I had come to the realization at that point that all our history was just being thrown out the door, because either it's in newspapers or magazines and it gets thrown out. And I witnessed more and more, when someone died of AIDS, their family would come in and take the VCR and all the valuable things, and all their pictures of their campy birthday parties, all that got thrown in the trash. Anything about their family member being gay would get thrown in the trash because most of the time they were embarrassed.

I realized we were not saving our history, and if I wanted to go back to some event there was no record to refer to. So I approached Wade Stroud, who was one of Hap's boyfriends `Stroud has since passed away`, and said, let's just start this archive. We can't wait 'til we're 80 years old, we have to start collecting now. I started aggressively collecting books, magazines, and newspapers and started vertical files, because just about every month a new topic comes up, with the inclination that I would at one point build a facility so that when this generation of the community dies, the next generation would be able to come back and research and find out something about these issues and the people that lived here and what they did.

By Elaine Wolff

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