In Montgomery, Alabama, a ‘Stonewall’ Rebellion That Didn’t Make LGBT Headlines
As Stonewall 50 is celebrated, the story of Hojons in Montgomery, Alabama, spotlights America's ‘other’ Stonewalls, when LGBT people and venues fought back against harassment.
Ted Nobles isn’t an easy man to get in touch with.
In the early 1980s, Nobles served as the co-owner of Hojons, a two-story bar he operated with his then-boyfriend, Rick Camp, in Montgomery, Ala. The bar was named after the couple’s dog, a Lhasa Apso with wispy hair. Camp died of complications related to HIV/AIDS in 2001, weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Nobles is recovering from throat cancer and recently had 60 percent of his tongue removed.
At first, Nobles didn’t seem likely to talk. Multiple Facebook messages and emails went unanswered. Friends couldn’t reach him. The most recent phone number for his address was out of service.
But the day he spoke over the phone, Nobles had just received a letter in his mail slot from The Daily Beast requesting an interview about the police raids at Hojons throughout the 1980s, which some compared to the events that led to the Stonewall uprising in 1969. While the story of queer resistance against police brutality is heavily associated with New York City, Hojons challenges the singularity of that narrative.
Unlike Stonewall, nobody rioted at Hojons. Instead the gay bar fought back by claiming the space over and over again, no matter how many times authorities tried to shut it down. To survive in Montgomery, Hojons won two court victories and successfully fought the city’s mayor to enforce those rulings.
When asked to put a word to his feelings about the bar, Nobles is silent for a moment. He will be headed to speech therapy later in the week, but for now, he has to choose his words wisely. He thinks he has found the right one.
“It was phenomenal,” Nobles tells The Daily Beast.
Hojons: A Place of Disco Respite
Hojons was Montgomery’s answer to Studio 54: a Southern fried take on the opulent excess of the disco era. The bar was housed in a renovated warehouse with ceilings 20 feet high, a giant bulb mirror behind the bar, and a DJ booth overlooking the dance floor. Hojons was the kind of place regulars went to hang out with friends and listen to their favorite Sylvester song.
Not everything about its homegrown charm was idyllic, however. Interestingly, its new owners chose to keep intact an old scale used to weigh cotton during the Civil War, a legacy of a past less distant than many would have liked. Alabama schools had only been forced to desegregate 17 years earlier.
In February 1982, the Alabama Forum—an LGBTQ monthly published from 1981 to 2002—reported the bar had been targeted by local police in a series of “Gestapo-style” raids. Cops would enter the bar without warning, flip on the lights, and conduct random searches of patrons’ IDs.
Clubgoers were rarely arrested. These tactics were instead designed to make anybody who went to Hojons aware they were being watched.
Darryl Barkley, who served as head bartender at the club, says patrolmen would often harass him as he walked home at the end of his shift. While Downtown Montgomery has undergone a successful revitalization effort in recent years, the only people who went downtown during the 1980s were heading out to the gay bar.
On one occasion, a policeman approached him in the parking lot and mistook his lighter for a weapon.
“I just happened to be sitting on a cigarette lighter,” Barkley tells The Daily Beast. “Part of the lighter was extended from under my thigh. The policeman out of nowhere drew a gun on me.”
According to the Forum, Nobles was himself arrested during one visit from the local police force. When a fight broke out in September 1980 between a black employee of Hojons and a white patron of the bar, he stepped in to broker peace. After he went outside, Nobles is quoted as saying he was “slammed against a wall, breaking two of [his] ribs.”
“Nobles was arrested along with his employee and charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with an arrest,” the paper claims.
Even 39 years later, Nobles remembers that day well.
“The white cop in the backseat pulled my hair,” he says. “I had long, beautiful hair—he pulled my hair back and beat me with a billy club in the chest. I made the awful mistake when we got to the police station of saying, ‘Excuse me, officer in the front, I thought you knew what it was like to be a minority in Montgomery,’ because he was a black officer. He pulled his billy club out and swung it at my face.”
Nobles was eventually found not guilty on all charges, although the Forum did not report when the case was heard. His attorney, Vanzetta MacPherson, remembers that he requested the case be tried before a jury instead of a bench trial, where the judge would rule directly on evidence presented by both parties. She advised him against it.
“I thought that was a bad idea,” she told The Daily Beast. “It was more likely that in my mind that a judge would restrain himself on bigotry against gays than 12 people, but it turned out that he made the wiser choice.”
What helped his case, Nobles recalls, was that the police officers who assaulted him barely remembered the incident. In contrast, at least “two or three” witnesses who were present at Hojons during the brawl testified on his behalf, saying he was going over to check on a man who was lying injured on the ground. Nobles just wanted to call the man’s mother, whom he “knew very well.”
Due to a lack of evidence against him, Nobles says the trial “only lasted about a week.”
MacPherson, a civil rights attorney who practiced law for 16 years, added that there was “a lot of hoopla” in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. She compares it “in a small way” to the pandemonium outside the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015, when thousands roared with red equals sign flags in hand as the bench voted 5 to 4 in favor of marriage equality.
“They stood and they clapped as though they were at a football game,” she said. “People jumped up, they cheered, and they gave high fives. They were happy that at last there was some vindication. It was affirmation of humanity, and an affirmation of humanity under those circumstances is priceless.”
A Brief History of America’s Other Stonewalls
One of the reasons Stonewall is canonized as the birthplace of a movement is that its story was written down. The six-day standoff between local law enforcement and patrons of the West Village gay bar became national news, after a group of plainclothes patrolmen stormed into the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 and announced, “Police! We're taking the place!”
One year earlier, the LGBTQ community in Los Angeles engaged in a similar act of resistance following a police raid at the Black Cat Tavern. As patrons rang New Year’s Eve in with a kiss on Jan. 1, 1968, undercover officers who had infiltrated the bar began savagely beating customers. At least a dozen patrons of the Black Cat Tavern were arrested, with two forced to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Although the resulting protests are often referred to as a “riot,” they were not. On Feb. 11, activists planned a series of simultaneous actions across the city. These followed on the heels of Cooper’s Donuts in L.A, and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, two of the earliest-known demonstrations by the LGBTQ community against police violence.
“I mean, we were everywhere, but we weren’t written about; we weren’t talked about,” John Rechy, who was present for the Cooper’s Donuts riots, recently told Los Angeles magazine. “Everything could happen, and it seemed like nothing had happened.”
In 1966, three years before Stonewall and also in Greenwich Village, gay activists held a “Sip-In” at Julius (now New York City's longest-standing gay bar) to protest regulations that stated bars should not serve gay people.
Many cities can lay claim to their own Stonewall. In August 1961, four straight servicemen were arrested after they started a brawl at Milwaukee’s Black Nite, then one of the city’s most popular gay bars. Although police came to the aid of the bar’s patrons in a rare showing of solidarity with the LGBTQ community, the fight caused $3,000 in damages. One patron suffered a concussion and was in critical condition for weeks.
In Toronto, there were the raids on four gay bathhouses in February 1981, which resulted in what was at the time the largest mass arrest in Canada’s history. More than 300 men were charged with operating or being found in a “bawdy house,” also known as a brothel. A day later, an estimated 3,000 people took to the streets in protest.
These accounts, while lesser-known, have begun to be documented in recent years. But the raids at Hojons appear not to have been reported, aside from one news bulletin in the Forum 37 years ago.
Its story is part of what historian Joshua Burford calls the “invisible histories” of LGBTQ life in the South. His project of the same name collects photographs and letters illustrating that queer and trans people have always existed in states like Alabama. His archives include 1970s gay bar guides of the South and a logo of the University of Alabama’s first LGBTQ student group in 1984.
“We’ve always been here,” Burford tells The Daily Beast. “Our lens is solidly fixed on New York, L.A., Chicago, and San Francisco. But at the same time Stonewall was happening, you had queer people organizing in Birmingham.”
These accounts, however, can be extremely difficult to verify. Historical records of LGBTQ life, such as love letters or journals, were often destroyed out of fear they would be discovered; other times they were discarded by family members upon the individual’s death. Queer people have long relied on oral histories via person-to-person storytelling to ensure their legacies and memories survive.
Tellingly, Burford first learned about the raids at Hojons not in a history book but from a stranger at an LGBTQ Pride event in Alabama.
“Queer history as an entire field is wildly understudied,” he says. “You have fewer people doing queer history than any other discipline. There’s 10 Shakespeare professors for every one queer historian in this country.”
Nonetheless, a handful of LGBTQ historians are working to address the erasure of queer lives in the South by telling forgotten stories of the community’s struggle to persist. This year, the HistoryMiami Museum unveiled Queer Miami, an exhibition showcasing the city as a “site of refuge, a leisure destination, and a metaphorical playground” for LGBTQ people after it was formally incorporated in 1896.
While conducting that research, historian Julio Capo, Jr. came across the little-known story of La Paloma, a Miami gay bar that was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan in 1937.
On the evening of Nov. 15, more than 200 members of the local Klan chapter stormed the nightclub and ordered La Paloma be permanently shut down. They reportedly assaulted staff members and patrons of the bar, many of whom were queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming. While the club wasn’t explicitly gay, it prominently featured drag shows and burlesque performances.
“One man recalled that La Paloma’s ‘low-ceilinged main room presented shows filthy beyond words,’” Capo writes in Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Life in Miami Before 1940, a 2017 book detailing the raids. “There you could find ‘homosexuals in evening gowns, trousered lesbians, and prostitutes.’”
What the attack on La Paloma shares in common with Stonewall and Hojons is that the KKK often acted as an official arm of the police in 1930s Miami. Capo says its members wrote to the cops and said, “If you don't shut this place down, we’ll do it for you.”
“The KKK represent a vigilante group,” he tells The Daily Beast, “but they were doing some of the work that the state itself condoned.”
But while patrons of La Paloma didn’t throw their drinks at Klan members like at Cooper’s Donuts or picket like customers of Compton’s Cafeteria, they engaged in what Capo, Jr. calls “cultural resistance.” The drag queens who performed at La Paloma began to incorporate KKK insignia into their shows, wearing white hoods as a way to mock their oppressors.
“They subvert that message and turn it into something queer, taking away the violence and really taking away the power,” he says. “They're shifting the balance in a way that really tells the story of queer resilience, not unlike the very impetus for Stonewall.”
How Hojons Fought Back
What makes the case of Hojons different from La Paloma is that its legacy wasn’t just lost to time. Many documents surrounding the raids appear to have been completely redacted from the public record.
After the case against Nobles was dismissed, he filed a lawsuit against the City of Montgomery claiming he was falsely arrested and persecuted because of his sexual orientation. When his attorney asked what he wanted out of the case, he told MacPherson his demands to police were simple: “Stay away from us.”
“I didn't want anything except the promise of no police interference with this bar ever again,” he says. “I didn't want anything monetary, nothing.”
Although MacPherson says many of the details surrounding Nobles’ case are difficult to remember after nearly 40 years, she confirms that Nobles did not seek financial damages in his suit. Instead Nobles requested a declaration from the city that he had no way “interfered with police authority.”
“It’s the same as when some people say, ‘I don't want my job back, but I do want you to apologize for the way you mistreated me,’” MacPherson says. “For some people, that's enough.”
But while MacPherson and Nobles say the City of Montgomery agreed to stop the intimidation campaign against Hojons, there is no documentation verifying either the lawsuit or Nobles’ initial arrest.
The Daily Beast contacted the Supreme Court of Alabama, Montgomery City Hall, Montgomery Police Department, and the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit of Montgomery County. None had a record of the case on file.
When The Daily Beast asked the city clerk’s office how it’s possible that not a single government or local office appears to have a file on Hojons, a representative for the City of Montgomery says they lost many of their records from the early 1980s in a series of “fires and floods.”
The Montgomery Police Department also cited floods and water damage but couldn’t pinpoint the exact year the records would have been destroyed.
MacPherson believes that explanation is unsatisfactory. Having lived in Montgomery since 1975, Nobles’ attorney claims it has “never had a fire or a flood that required expungement of any city records.” She recalls one “tornadic windstorm,” but nothing of the magnitude that would have destroyed all documents regarding the case.
“I'm not surprised at the destruction of those records because of the outcome [of the case],” MacPherson says. “But it does surprise me that they are either not on microfilm, which was the state of the art at that time, or they are not preserved in the cloud.”
MacPherson, however, says it was common for local government offices to keep the records they wanted to keep and discard the rest. She points to a class action lawsuit filed by black patrolmen against the Montgomery Police Department in the 1980s. According to MacPherson, plaintiffs reported they were “disciplined more harshly than white officers” when reprimanded for misconduct.
According to MacPherson, a federal court sided with black members of Montgomery’s police force, ordering the department to purge disciplinary records in cases found to be motivated by discriminatory bias.
But in complying with the order, MacPherson says Mayor Emory Folmar ordered that all officers’ disciplinary records be expunged.
“Our mayor was a reactionary, conservative person, but also a person who was on many levels unable to control his expressed bigotry,” she says. “Our police department at the time was almost like a personal corps, rather than an independently acting agency that responded to law enforcement standards and the chief's direction. Our mayor functioned as the police chief.”
Although the Alabama Forum did not report on Nobles’ lawsuit against the city, it says the police department under Folmar was emboldened by the passage of the Red Light Abatement Act in 1975 to target adult-themed businesses in Montgomery.
These included stores like Jimmy’s News Agency and Forum Books, which opened “erotic booths for the showing of erotic films” in 1976. After Folmar took office in 1977, the newspaper reports the businesses were “hit with nightly raids by the police,” who confiscated pornographic movies and arrested patrons.
But what allegedly incensed Folmar’s administration about Hojons was that the bar, which the Forum called a “refreshing alternative” to the segregation of Alabama’s nightclub scene, catered to everyone. The crowd, which topped 500 people a night until the HIV/AIDS crisis hit Alabama, included a “diverse mixture of gay and straight, black and white, male and female patrons.”
In contrast to the handful of clubs operating in Montgomery, neighboring Birmingham had a dozen gay bars in the 1970s. They targeted specific niches of the community, however. There was a leather bar, a cowboy bar, a dance bar, and a twink bar.
Folmar wanted what was happening at Hojons stopped, and Nobles says the mayor told him so.
“I met him at the Taste of Montgomery,” he remembers. “He said, ‘Oh, you're the guy who wants to open that bar downtown.’ Emory Folmar told me that I could never have a bar here that had whites, blacks, straights, and gays.”
Folmar, who served as mayor for 22 years, was not available to answer questions for this story. He died in 2011 at the age of 81.
Everything We Don’t Know (We May Never Know)
A number of questions surrounding the Hojons raids remain unanswered. Because very little documentation was preserved, they may never be fully resolved.
Nobles claims the City of Montgomery agreed to stop raiding Hojons as a result of his lawsuit. He quit the bar “sometime in 1982” before eventually becoming a successful chef in the city. But the timeline doesn’t quite add up. The article in the Alabama Forum reporting the raids was published in January 1982, shortly before Nobles resigned from the bar, and doesn’t mention any court agreement to halt the harassment.
Neither Nobles nor his attorney remembered the exact date of his court case, but the former owner believes it had to have taken place in 1980 or 1981.
When The Daily Beast asked those familiar with the relationship between Hojons and the mayor’s office why such a pivotal lawsuit wouldn’t have been more thoroughly reported in the local LGBTQ press, they say it’s likely the case would have been resolved quietly in order to keep it from being widely publicized.
But multiple sources confirmed that Hojons continued to be a magnet for police activity throughout the 1980s, even despite the lawsuit. After Nobles left, Camp was now the sole owner of the bar.
His younger sister, Carolyn Hostick, says her brother filed a complaint to get the City of Montgomery to comply with the court agreement after a particularly rough evening in which the authorities “knocked in the bathroom doors trying to find drug paraphernalia or something illegal.” The next morning Camp’s parents got him a lawyer and they all went down to City Hall together.
“Whenever I was there, the police would ride by all night,” she told The Daily Beast. “They would harass the people standing outside and tell them they couldn’t be hanging around, that they were loitering.”
Although Hostick was just a teenager when Hojons was in its heyday, she says her parents were heavily involved in its operations. They even loaned Camp the money to open the bar. While she recognizes this may be “hard to believe” given that Alabama isn’t exactly known as the most LGBTQ-friendly of states, she says her parents “never flinched” after her brother came out to them.
“Everybody just wants to be loved, wants to be accepted, and wants to live without being afraid of being who they are,” Hostick said.
Hostick credits her parents’ embrace of her brother’s sexual orientation in part to Camp himself. She calls him the “most charismatic person you’d ever met,” a one-time Mr. Gay America pageant winner who others interviewed for this story described as the kind of person who could talk anyone into anything.
When Camp took his little sister out to dinner, Hostick says the other customers in the restaurant “blatantly” stared at him. She remembers teasing him, “What do they see in you? Seriously, you're not even that good-looking.”
After meeting with Folmar, Hostick says the mayor finally agreed to heed the pledge to leave Hojons alone. There’s no record of that meeting at Montgomery City Hall, where a representative says the clerk’s office is only required to keep its records for 10 years. But Hostick claims that whenever the police had an issue with the bar, local law enforcement “had to notify [her] brother and [her] parents before they did anything.”
Hostick’s elderly mother, who sat next to her as she spoke over the phone, confirmed that characterization of events. But they say the harassment never really stopped.
“They harassed him in different other ways,” Hostick recalls. “He would have health inspectors come in there constantly. They would look for things to write him up for, any reason whatsoever to give them a hard time.”
It wasn’t just the police, however, that continued to cause trouble for Hojons. For as long as the bar continued to operate, it often received fake bomb threats from anonymous callers. John T. Meyers, a regular at Hojons during that time, remembers at least eight such occasions.
But these scares became so frequent that Camp began to announce them over the loudspeakers, like an optional fire drill. “We have a bomb threat,” Camp would inform bargoers. “You can leave now or you can remain and stay.”
“Most of us were so drunk we’d just stay,” Meyers told The Daily Beast.
But despite Folmar’s warning that he would never allow a desegregated bar in Montgomery, Hojons persisted. According to Camp’s sister, the bar briefly closed during the mid-1980s but reopened during the 1990s. Hostick said her brother eventually gave up the bar for good “when he started getting sick and couldn’t handle the work and the stress of it anymore.”
Camp moved back home with his parents in Pensacola, Fla. until he passed away in July 2001. It was a Tuesday. Nobles says his ex-partner was one of 38 friends that he had lost since Hojons opened its doors, just months before the New York Times reported a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.”
“That's a sad thing, a very sad thing,” Nobles says of the loved ones gone. “I buried my best friend and my first love.”
No one seems to remember when precisely Hojons closed for the final time.
The life cycle of Montgomery gay bars is that they come, they stay open for awhile, they close, and then sometimes they reopen again to start the cycle over. Hostick thinks Hojons settled up tabs in 1994, but if so, the news doesn’t seem to have made it into the Forum. If everyone expected the bar would reemerge triumphant in a few months, its closure likely wasn’t considered notable.
The once-iconic warehouse on North Court Street is now home to loft-style luxury apartments. An illustrative symbol of Hojons’ struggle for recognition, a 2014 story about the building in the Montgomery Advertiser misspells the bar’s name.
It’s unclear if there are any gay nightclubs left in Montgomery. The last full-time gay bar, Club 322, shut down in May after opening in 2006. Some say a new club, Starlight Bar, has taken its place, but others report the opening was pushed back as its owners work to fundraise for the remodel. The establishment, which locals described as having a dinner theater vibe, is housed in an old Hooters.
But for the 13 years Club 322 remained in business, owner Jerry Cook says the bar had no problems with Montgomery police. It was a stark contrast to the Hojons era, when he witnessed gay bashers lining up outside bars downtown and throwing bottles at men as they were leaving. Police turned a blind eye.
“I saw people getting beer bottles smashed against their heads because they were gay, and cops wouldn't do anything about it back then,” Cook, who is straight, told The Daily Beast.
Madison Faile, a local artist and community leader who sometimes consulted on the interior design at Club 322, credits the support for the bar to the change in mayoral administration.
Folmar was defeated in 1999 by Bobby Bright, a Democrat who served in office for three terms. Todd Strange, the former chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, has since held the office for 10 years.
After the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub, in which 49 people were killed at an Orlando gay bar, Strange delivered a speech at a vigil held in front of Montgomery’s famed Civil Rights Memorial. Designed by Maya Lin, the monument honors 41 people killed during the movement for racial justice between the years of 1954 and 1968.
The address was the first of its kind by a mayor of the city. “You are safe in Montgomery,” Strange told LGBTQ community members.
“Mayors here in Montgomery don’t have to give a party affiliation,” Faile tells The Daily Beast. “Our mayoral municipal elections are nonpartisan. I think Strange would probably identify as a Republican. But he was there and he spoke and I thought, ‘Wow, we went from Emory Folmar to this.’ It made me swell with pride a little bit.”
Locals say the relationship between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement has gradually improved since the days when the police force was referred to as “Emory’s Army” and Folmar would personally ride around in the squad cars with patrolmen. Two years ago, Montgomery hired its first LGBTQ liaison officer. That position is currently held by two individuals: Devin Douglas and Bianka Ruiz.
While the Montgomery Police Department has invited community groups in recent years to perform LGBTQ competency trainings with its staff, problems continue.
When the body of Dana Martin, the first trans person killed in 2019, was discovered on Jan. 8, she was initially misgendered by local press. That information was based off the police report about her murder, which remains unsolved six months later.
“Here we are 50 years after Stonewall and many of the same issues that we were dealing with back then are still happening to us,” Meta Ellis, cofounder of the Bayard Rustin Community Center, tells The Daily Beast. “I’m very disappointed in how far we have not come, and it lays very heavy on my heart.”
Montgomery Police Chief Ernest N. Finley was unable to speak for this story, as his office said he was out for a funeral. The Daily Beast asked to interview other officials in the department, but that request was not granted.
As progress lurches forward in Montgomery, the legacy of Hojons and other bars like it has been kept alive in the same way that queer lives have preserved for centuries: through the power of collective memory.
Former patrons of Hojons have created Facebook groups to swap stories and share old pictures of the club, although photos of its early days are hard to come by.
“People talk about HoJohns in a very reverent tone,” said Burford, who has only recently begun to collect these myriad reminiscences at Invisible Histories. “It was a very transformative space for people, potentially one of the first places they were ever able to be out.”
While Hojons is a story of survival at a time when many queer people didn’t believe they could survive, its impacts were unique and individual. The bar meant something different to each person who called it a second home.
Hostick remembers Hojons as a fixture of her childhood, as well as a testament to her family’s unwavering love for her late brother.
For Barkley, bartending at Hojons was a way to support himself and earn a living while he found his place in the world as a black gay man in early 1980s Alabama. And for those who hung out there every night, Meyers says it was a rare opportunity to be fully yourself, without judgment.
But according to Nobles, the bar was life itself.
“Hojons saved my life,” its former owner said. “The friendships that were made are still ongoing. That’s part of what helps keep me going.”