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‘Out in Oak Lawn’: UNT students are launching a podcast about Dallas’ ‘gayborhood’

University of North Texas students in professor Wesley Phelps' Texas LGBTQ History pose in front of Oak Lawn's only historical marker. In September, the class took a trip to the "gayborhood" for their podcast "Out in Oak Lawn: A Queer History of Dallas."
Robert Emery
University of North Texas students in professor Wesley Phelps' Texas LGBTQ History pose in front of Oak Lawn's only historical marker. In September, the class took a trip to the "gayborhood" for their podcast "Out in Oak Lawn: A Queer History of Dallas."

Oak Lawn is known for its rainbow crosswalks and thriving LGBTQ businesses like Sue Ellen’s, the Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall and the Rose Room. But just how culturally significant this neighborhood is in Dallas history isn’t widely recognized.

“I was surprised that there was only one historical marker in all of Oak Lawn,” Rachel Matthews, a senior and history education major at the University of North Texas, said. “There’s so many historical events that happened, how could there only be one historical marker?”

A new podcast aims to change that. Matthews is one of 17 students enrolled in Texas LGBTQ History, a UNT class offered this semester for the first time. Led by professor Wesley Phelps, the class put together a six-episode podcast focused on the queer history of Oak Lawn as a group project.

“Out in Oak Lawn: A Queer History of Dallas'' aims to show how vital Oak Lawn was for the LGBTQ community in Dallas. It also hopes to start conversations about preserving the “gayborhood.” Oak Lawn’s history has been under-documented compared to other gay neighborhoods across the country, such as Chicago’s Boystown and San Francisco’s Castro District.

“Oak Lawn was a refuge for people who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else, for people who had been shut out of other places, for people who had literally been denied housing and denied jobs,” Phelps said. “I think it’s great that we have acceptance, but with that acceptance has come a loss of memory, a loss of history of these kinds of places.”

The class split into six groups of three or two, with each group tackling one episode of the podcast. Students took on different roles such as researcher, script writer or audio editor. Each podcast episode focuses on a specific topic important to Oak Lawn’s history. Some of the topics include drag shows, police raids and gay cowboy culture.

The first episode of the podcast focuses on how Oak Lawn became a queer community. Brett Bredin, a senior and psychology major, is on the team that produced this episode. Bredin said they used interviews, historical documents and a tour with Robert Emery to understand Oak Lawn’s history. Emery is the founder of The Dallas Way, an LGBTQ history project.

“[Emery] gave some really good insight into the history of what some of the police violence was like in Oak Lawn,” Bredin said. “We used documents, like a gay literary journal in the ’70s, and then we also used documentaries that we found on The Portal to Texas History.”

Students also got to visit UNT’s LGBTQ Archive, a special collection through UNT Libraries that covers the history and culture of LGBTQ communities in the South and Southwest.

“The archivist had pulled out boxes for us, where we could start looking through material, and that was great because students don’t go into archives a whole lot these days,” Phelps said. “It was nice to have them actually get their hands dirty.”

Matthews’ team researched queerness in cowboy and country western culture for their podcast episode. Matthews said the group did so much research prior to visiting the Round-Up, a gay country-western dance hall in Oak Lawn, she practically had the website memorized. Her team got to interview the saloon’s owners and manager for their episode.

“This was such a great opportunity before I go to grad school,” Matthews said. “To have the opportunity to sit down and be like, ‘This is how you write a proper research paper. This is how you use sources. This is how you use podcasting audio, which you would have never thought you would learn in a history class.’ ”

All episodes of the podcast will be available Dec. 11 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and the class website. The class is throwing a launch party to celebrate their work and an icon in Dallas history getting recognition.

“I really hope that audiences will understand just how important a queer neighborhood has been to the development of queer identity, queer community and the rights of gay and lesbian individuals,” Phelps said.

The launch party will take place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the UNT History Department Library inside Wooten Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, The University of Texas at Dallas, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.