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Friday, December 23, 2016

Brownsville, Texas • Borderline

Written by  David Placher
Clouds gather over Brownsville, downtown Clouds gather over Brownsville, downtown

Brownsville is located at the southern tip of Texas and it borders Matamoros, Mexico. It’s also close to South Padre Island, a major spring break destination in Texas. Traveling to Brownsville from Baltimore can be expensive and complicated because few airlines fly there and there’s inevitably a layover – no direct flights. Brownsville is a conservative city with a lot of potential. Although its downtown is filled with payday lenders and cheap knick-knack shops, its historical architecture is evidence of a once thriving area. There is potential for revitalization, if the right person with vision arrived.

But the right person, may not be the right person for that area because it has a long way to go to attract LGBT people. Texas in general is not LGBT-friendly. Texas state law does not protect persons from housing or public accommodations discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. There’s no statewide law banning anti-LGBT discrimination, only local ordinances.

Brownsville’s LGBT protection is limited to city employees, though many private businesses also have supportive policies.

With Brownville’s potential seeming so close, yet so far, does it make sense to continue policies that do not protect a diversified population and that may discourage people from relocating or visiting there?

Brownsville, with a population around 200,000, has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and the same holds for the surrounding county. It has a reputation for being pro-business and has a low cost of living. Brownsville’s and its surrounding areas’ economies are mainly based on international trade with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). (President-elect Trump wants to scrap the NAFTA.)

Brownsville has one gay club, Studio 69. It is owned and operated by a Johns Hopkins alumnus. It’s a large dance club that offers drag shows and cheap drinks. The LGBT population is small, so it is only open Thursdays through Saturdays. The demographics of the crowd are mixed, and it is packed by midnight.

Downtown Brownsville has a small bridge to Matamoros, Mexico. Crossing the border is easy: there is a toll of four quarters to walk to Mexico and one quarter to return.

Although you do not need your passport to leave, you need it to return. Matamoros has a population of over 760,000. It is one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico and home to automobile manufacturing plants that include General Motors, BMW, and Ford. It is also a historical site to many major battles: the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican American War, and the French Intervention. Unfortunately, there are no gay bars or gay venues that I could find.

South Padre Island is just a short drive away from Brownsville. The Upper Deck Hotel & Bar (Upperdeckhotelandbar.com) is the only place in South Padre Island that is specifically a gay venue, which sports a communal, clothing-optional jacuzzi). Off season, the place is very quiet, but during peak season, it’s packed. The staff is friendly and accommodating and the owner plays an active role in managing it.

With Brownsville being close to the beach and next to Mexico, it is located in an interesting area of the country. The potential to turn its downtown from an economically depressed area, to an area where there are coffeeshops, more restaurants, and higher end stores is within reach. But the first step, maybe, is for Brownsville to expand protections to the LGBT community and encourage the LGBT folks to visit and live there.

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