Partygoers who descended on Montrose-area clubs Friday night were decked out in eye-catching Halloween costumes. But it was the group of people in bright pink T-shirts carrying flashlights and portable chargers that grabbed the most attention.
The shirts read “Q Patrol” and excited some who hadn’t heard the name in nearly 20 years. The younger generation didn’t know who they were as the group handed out business cards and gave their elevator pitch: “We’re Q Patrol, we’re a community awareness program, making sure we’re safe.”
“I appreciate that, thank you,” one man said as he grabbed a card. “I love that. They’re out patrolling the neighborhood,” the man said to a friend.
The modern-day group patrolled the streets for the first time in decades since the original Q-Patrol, spelled with a hyphen, reigned in the 1990s after the brutal, notorious murders of two gay men in Montrose.
In addition to initiatives like self-defense classes, the revival of the community-led group is another way that Houston’s LGBTQ+ community is taking matters into its own hands to protect themselves in Texas, a state that introduced the most anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-transgender bills in legislation this year, and at a time when anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is on the rise.
Given the political climate, organizers said it felt like the perfect time to “resurrect” the work of the group.
“We know that our community has been attacked over the years, and we know that as laws and legislation updates and evolves and changes again, it just gives us a little subconscious fear of knowing what’s to come,” said Mark Meave, who founded the nonprofit Affinity Coalition To Overcome Unethical Theories HTX , with his husband, Sal Meave.
Sal, 44, used to work at some of the clubs and recalls what it was like after the murders.
“Montrose became very afraid and very reactive,” he said in an interview with the Houston Landing.
As a gay man who didn’t have support from family or friends, “seeing Q-Patrol or knowing that they were around was incredible,” he said.
Now that he’s older, he wants to return that same feeling of safety to those who may have a similar story.
“Being visible is the biggest part of Q-Patrol,” said Sal.
“Yes, it’s a deterrent for crime, but it’s that emotional support system for those who desperately need it.”
That, he added, could be something as simple as walking someone to the club or back to their car if it’s parked blocks away on a dimly lit street, or having portable chargers available so someone who is intoxicated or low on phone battery can call an Uber.
“We do not want to be reactive, because once the shooting happens — the meme, the flower, the candle — that’s too late. It’s too late. Being proactive is a preventative measure so that we don’t have to be sorry, so we don’t have to cry, so that we don’t have a memorial service. We can celebrate our life.”
A bittersweet return
The original founders of Q-Patrol, Stephen Tompkins and husband Mark Gartner who are enjoying retirement, were excited to hear that it was returning and being passed down to the next generation.
“Well, it’s bittersweet, actually,” Tompkins said. “The fact that it may be needed, again, is unfortunate. But the fact that there are dedicated young people that want to get it going again, is very encouraging.”
The group of volunteer citizens organized Q-Patrol shortly after the murders of Paul Broussard and Phillip Smith, two gay men who were killed outside a gay nightclub in Montrose. Houston Police arrested 10 young men from the Woodlands who all pleaded guilty in connection with Broussard’s death, news reports show, and Smith’s murderer was charged with aggravated robbery.
At the time, young teenagers coming to Montrose targeting gay people was common, Gartner said.
“These kids came from neighborhoods all around Houston. They came from Sugar Land, Kingwood, Clear Lake and it was a really very common thing every weekend,” he said. “And they were usually in pickup trucks. It was like a pastime — go down to Montrose and beat up queers. It was a fun thing.”
Their brutal deaths sparked civil unrest locally, led to national discussions and prompted the Houston Police Department to launch an undercover initiative, dubbed Operation Vice Versa, where officers masqueraded as gay men. Officers were attacked in multiple incidents and many people were arrested within two weeks, according to the website Houston LGBTQ History and ABC13.
“The officers were on the street for maybe 10 minutes and they got accosted by a group with sticks and bats trying to beat them up,” said Gartner. “Those two officers went back to the substation and told their superiors that ‘Oh, there’s a bad problem out here. We weren’t on the streets for 10 minutes before we were attacked.’”
Gartner said they initially took it upon themselves to establish a relationship with neighborhood police officers, getting to know one another by name, often bringing them doughnuts. In return, HPD loaned them office space at a former Montrose storefront station to hold meetings.
But their bond deepened, he said, once the officers experienced the violence firsthand.
“They felt a closeness and a bond was formed, and from that point on it was an immediate change,” he said. “Every officer up there at that storefront and any officer that we encountered that was out on patrol and saw us with a big Q on the side of our car, they were our friends. They were like ‘Hey, what have y’all seen tonight? Where did you see it? Who did you see? What did they look like?’ That was a turning point in the relationship.”
Anthony Demaris, a Houston police officer assigned to the Montrose station, commended the group for the difference the volunteers made in the community’s safety and reducing the level of harassment. Demaris later died in 2013.
“A lot of lesbians and gay males have been intimidated by people who come in and want to create a problem,” Demaris told the Houston Chronicle in 2000. “Once it got around that Q-Patrol was out there and police were watching, it slacked off.”
The original Q-Patrol had roughly 15 volunteers that patrolled nightly on the weekends, starting around 10:30 p.m. until sometimes almost 3 a.m. Tompkins said, and carried handheld radios and clipboards to take notes and document observations to report to police.
Although they started with a small group of five, they hope to soon add more members and have rotating shifts so they can patrol the streets longer. And with advancements in technology, Mark is confident that they now have more resources to take Q Patrol to a new level.
“We are now able to communicate, live stream, document at the flip of a coin,” he said.
Q-Patrol originally worked in tandem with the police, but the new group is abandoning that approach.
“That’s not really what we’re trying to do,” Ethan Michelle Ganz, a trans nonbinary activist and community organizer under Montrose Residents’ Coalition, previously told the Landing. “A lot of our people do not feel safe around the police,” he added.
Newspaper archives show Q-Patrol dissolved in 2002 due to financial woes. Tompkins said although the need was still there, they couldn’t recruit enough volunteers to keep it going.
Knowing firsthand how time-consuming the volunteer work can be, Gartner said it excites him that people are still concerned about public safety and willing to protect the LGBTQ+ community.
“We saved some lives,” Gartner said. “There’s no way of knowing how many lives we saved, but I know that we saved lives. And I know that this group will do the same.”