Portrait of a Protestor: Dr. Charles Law (1951-1993)

Brian Riedel, CSWGS Associate Director

If you never heard of Dr. Charles Law, you are not alone.  A Black gay man who died far too young, he did much for his communities in Houston and beyond.  His life also models a deep lesson for our era of urgent protest and social introspection: protest also happens through our daily lives and through organizing.

I first learned of Law around 2010 while researching 1970s gay communities in Houston.  He is best known today for his speech at the 1979 National Lesbian and Gay March on Washington, DC.  In a nearly ten-minute address from the main stage, he passionately linked the work of Harvey Milk and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He also shared his fears about who stood to benefit from the burgeoning lesbian and gay movement:

“I am afraid that we will find that those gay people who do not come across as being offensively gay, as militantly gay, obviously gay, adamantly gay, or admittedly gay will be the ones to reap the benefits…and the real sissies and the butch women of this country will still have to live in gay ghettos and not have achieved the true import of this movement.”

Law warned us then about the lure of assimilation, from a national stage in the company of figures like Audre Lorde, Leonard Matlovich, and Kate Millett.

Despite that national profile, Charles Law seemed remarkably absent from queer public memory in Houston when I first learned of him.  Few in 2010 seemed to know who he was, even among Black queer activists.

a multicolored banner shows a black and white picture of Charles Law speaking at a microphone. The poster reads 1979, Charles Law speaks. I am afraid that we will find that those gay people who do not come across as being offensively gay, as military gay, obviously gay, adamantly gay, or admittedly gay will be the ones to reap the benefits...and the real sissies and the butch women of this country will still have to live in gay ghettoes and not have achieeved the true import of this movement."Today, his name is much more visible.  In 2014, he was represented in the Banner Project that premiered at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Houston.  A new generation learned about him through his image on that banner (pictured) and its excerpt from his 1979 speech.  Since then, Houston-based writers Ian Haddock and Crimson Jordan have written short articles referencing Law.  Artists Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin used his speech in their installation for the 2019 Stonewall 50 exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston.  The Montrose Center named its new Third Ward Senior Living Center in part after Law.  The Mahogany Project honors his memory in the Dr. Walter Charles Law Community Advocacy Program.  Gatekeepers also began The Charles Law Archive at the Gregory School of African-American History, a wing of the Houston Public Library.

This increased attention to his legacy makes it vital to remember his life more fully.  He was not just a protestor.  He was an organizer who lived all of himself in every part of his life.

Walter Charles Law was a native Houstonian, born on March 26, 1951.  His parents – Bishop Wilkie G. and Dr. Eloise W. Law – married on October 6, 1945 in Beaumont, Texas, and relocated to Houston, where they raised Charles and three other children – Wilkie G., Argelena E., and Rudy Don.  Charles completed his undergraduate degree at Texas Southern University (TSU), and then began a PhD in Education at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Even before he completed that final degree, TSU had hired him to be their University Archivist, in 1977.  His graduate work offers a hint as to why: under the direction of Dr. Loren B. Jung, he completed a dissertation in 1978 titled “Allocation Decision-Making in Public and Private Developing Institutions Faced with Title III Underfunding” – Title III of the 1965 Higher Education Act specifically addresses Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like TSU.

But well before TSU hired him, he had also already gotten his start in organizing Black gay community.  In his early 20s, Charles was instrumental in bringing together the Houston Committee, one of many city-specific networks of Black gay men across the nation.  His gay organizing efforts were not limited to Black community, either.  Law was visible in the mainstream press and primarily white gay media.  The Houston Chronicle carried a picture of him organizing for the 1978 Town Hall Meeting I, a conference from which emerged many key lesbian and gay community organizations.  He debated conservative pastors on KPFT’s gay-focused “Wilde ‘n’ Stein” radio show in 1979.  All of that was before the famous speech in Washington.

In the early 1980s, however, his community work expanded beyond gay circles.  Though he continued his involvement with the Houston Committee, he became more focused on music.  He was the Music Director at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church.  He also played piano for any number of events, including a 1985 staging of a play about Lorraine Hansberry called “Young, Gifted and Black, ”as well as a 1986 musical concert at the Mt. Horem Baptist Church.  He also focused his energies into the Houston Area Urban League, for which he became the Director of Community Service and Employment.

Through all of these shifts, he continued to work at TSU as the Director of Planning, Management, and Evaluation.  He developed the proposal for the university’s archives in 1979.  He was responsible for compiling the data for TSU’s contribution to the 1983 HBCU Fact Book under Reagan’s Department of Health and Human Services.  Unsurprisingly, he was also TSU’s point person for all Title III efforts.  Beyond his job, he was especially public in his defense of the university’s marching band Ocean of Soul when a shoplifting scandal spurred TSU to disband it in 1992.  That defense was among his last public acts.  At the time of his death, he was 42 years old.

For all the public record retains of Charles Law’s life, far more remains unknown.  Two truths shine through, however.  He believed in the power of organizing and institution building.  He also made the various parts of his life visible to one another.

To judge only by his obituary in This Week in Texas, the family’s memorial service for Law did not mention his work in gay community.  However, the archival record suggests Law himself maintained no such firewall.  He allowed his picture to be published in the Houston Chronicle as he and other activists prepared for a lesbian and gay political event.  He allowed his work colleagues and gay circles to mingle.  The program for the 1982 Houston Committee event shows that he personally introduced Wayne Carle – then Director of Development for TSU – as the keynote speaker for a Black gay men’s banquet.  That same program also suggests he was willing to bring Black gay friends to his church, Good Hope Missionary Baptist.

These decisions reflect a man who embraced all parts of himself no matter the organizational setting.  That consistent embrace is a radical form of protest that does not need a stage of any kind, national or otherwise.

What would it look like for us all to be our full selves in every part of our lives?  What kinds of organizing would it take to get there?

Were Law alive to give a speech today, I imagine he might reprise his call that our movements for social justice include all of us – in our full, militant, obvious, and adamant splendor.  I also imagine that he would urge us to keep protesting, but also to get organized.