Ray Hill, a Houston icon and civil rights activist, dead at 77
Ray Hill was in the cross hairs, and if the Louisiana hitmen actually showed up in Houston to rub him out, he wanted the media to be wise to what had happened. Hill breathlessly related the menace, obviously delighted that he could be the target of such a delicious conspiracy. Every UPS deliveryman, every knock on the door might be a summons to eternity. He’d hunker down in his apartment until we talked again — if we talked again.
Hill exuded drama like some people sweat. Whether he was telling tales of his career as an East Texas teenage evangelist or his escapades as a jewel thief, Hill kept an eye peeled for the best presentation. And as one of the city’s most visible advocates for gay, lesbian and inmate causes, he rarely failed to sharpen his talent to entertain into a formidable weapon.
Hill, who late in life eschewed leadership roles in activist circles to hone a career as a monologuist — a dramatic undertaking that gained him appreciative audiences in New York, Pennsylvania and New England — died of heart failure in hospice care Saturday. He was 78.
A legend in his own right — and in his own mind — Hill’s business card described his profession as “citizen provocateur,” a proudly worn label he received from a Supreme Court justice after a long-ago legal battle with the cops.
“I was born to rub the cat hair the wrong direction,” he once said.
A rabblerouser, a social gadfly with a sting, Hill made the issues that mattered to him matter to everyone — or at least to those in power. He launched his activist career in 1975 after returning to Houston from a four-year stint in prison for burglary and larceny.
Ever willing to fight the man, at one point Hill bested the City of Houston in the highest court in the land when he got the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an ordinance that made it illegal to interrupt police officers.
In June 1977, he played a pivotal role in a mass demonstration at the downtown hotel where stridently anti-gay singer Anita Bryant was performing.
“We were angry,” Hill said. “For the first time in our lives we were out of the closet.”
It was “a spiritual moment,” he added. “But we didn’t have any institutions to sustain the community. All we had were bars, and those bars were different from the taverns of American independence. They were very, very different bars — dark, and made for cruising, not discourse. We needed institutions desperately, and in 1978 we called Town Meeting 1.”
Out of that forum came groups such as the Montrose Counseling Center, the Montrose Activity Center, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard and the Montrose Clinic.
More than two decades later, he was still on the scene to join in as an organizer of the Conference for the Futures of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexed, Questioning and Allied Residents of the Houston Metropolitan Area, a so-called “Town Hall 2” in which sexual minority leaders formulated social and political strategies for the 21st century.
He hobnobbed with hoodlums and rubbed shoulders with celebrities. He planned a march with prominent gay activist Harvey Milk, and three-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Edward Albee once hailed him as “an important scourge.” Tennessee Williams took him for a spin as late-night arm candy in New Orleans in the early 1960s — or so the tale goes.
But through it all, Hill’s four years as an inmate stayed with him. Soon after his release, he helped start a radio show about gay issues at Pacifica’s peace-and-justice radio station KPFT-FM. A few years later he became station manager and added “The Prison Show,” an endeavor he helped oversee for a little more than 30 years.
The show includes a call-in segment where inmates’ loved ones can phone with updates on their lives, cases and personal news, a free and instant line of communication to the insular world behind bars.
“He was a solidifying voice for the families of inmates,” said Houston parole attorney Bill Habern. “He has probably done more to keep the public abreast of the realities of what goes on in the Texas prisons, not only as an ex-offender but as a public advocate.”
And while Hill’s calming words carried into prisons, his battle cries brought him to the capital, to the streets, and to the TV cameras.
“We’ve been at the legislature together, we’ve spoken at seminars together,” Habern said. “Ray and I have been down some dark alleys together and I will miss him profusely.”
The son of a small-time local politician and a union organizer mother, Hill made his public debut as a teenage preacher on the Piney Woods evangelical circle. His ministry was plagued by spontaneous healings among its adherents — developments that didn’t jibe with his theology — and by Hill’s growing recognition that he was gay.
His parents may have recognized it, too; when he came out to his mother, she said the news was “a relief,” Hill once said. Mom and Dad already had noticed he had a knack for dressing well, and they’d feared he might “grow up to be a Republican and embarrass the the family.”
After graduating from Galena Park High School, he attended a variety of colleges without obtaining a degree — though he sometimes concocted fake ones, when the occasion called for it. Working as a shoe and car salesman, he gradually slipped into crime. In 1970, he was arrested in San Diego and extradited to Texas.
“People do things wrong,” he said. “Yes, they should be identified and they should pay what society expects them to pay for that. But society has an obligation to forget, forgive and help restore. Otherwise, we keep repeating the same tragedy.”
Though sometimes his own tales were dark, he was a never-ending fount of improbable adventures that turned out to be mostly true: a Coors boycott, a trip to Cuba to join the revolution, a boozy NOLA gathering with Truman Capote, and memories of quiet nights spent methodically organizing the entire prison library according to the Dewey decimal system.
Hill was crucial to the LGBT movement in Houston because of his ease with himself, said Sue Lovell, a former city councilwoman who got involved with the movement in the late 1970s. A lot of people were still in the closet at work or with their families, but Ray was out — all the way out, and therefore didn’t have any constraints, she said. “There was a freedom to him.”
“He was willing to push the community out of its comfort zone, get in the streets,” Lovell said. “He was willing to take the brunt of the criticism, and he certainly was willing to take the credit, too.”
Hill retired from gay activism in June 2005, saying he wanted to devote time to developing his stage career and prison advocacy.
“I meant to do this a long time ago,” he said. “I raised a generation to take my place and they all died of AIDS. Now, there’s another generation ready to step in.”
Toward the end of his life, Hill was troubled by declining health and nosediving finances. He lived his final years in poverty, beloved as a local icon - but sometimes panhandling to make ends meet, he told friends. In 1998, the effusive speaker, lost his teeth; then, a foot and later some toes were amputated because of diabetes. Occasionally, his spirits would droop, and with increasing frequency he would ponder aloud his coming demise.
“It’s good to hear from you,” he told callers toward the end. “But I’m dying right now.”
Never afraid of a little self-promotion — even at the last minute — Hill was predictably thrilled to receive a phone call in summer 2018 inquiring whether he wanted to weigh in on his own obituary.
He did. But, he said, did the reporter know that the Chronicle already had a running obituary on him?
The TV playing in the background made it hard to hear his rasping voice, weakened by his lung problems. But he offered input on who he believed wrote the obituary — and offered to interview again. Not the following day, though, as his biographer would be paying him a visit.
Apparently on his deathbed and barely able to speak, Hill was still booking back-to-back interviews about his favorite subject: himself.
St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.