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DEADLINES PAST | Dante ‘Tex’ Gill: A study in organized crime, sex-for-sale and gender identity

By Elizabeth Perry

In the 1970s and 80s Dante “Tex” Gill was infamous in McKees Rocks for being involved in organized crime and prostitution, but Gill’s persona overshadowed those criminal enterprises. In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s 2003 obituary of Gill was headlined, “Dante Gill: Sexually-ambivalent rub parlor owner,” wherein Gill is described as short, dumpy, and a “bizarre fixture in the red-light world of Pittsburgh’s massage parlor district along Liberty Avenue.”

The dismissal and mockery stem from two touchy subjects in which Gill was inextricably linked: sex and gender identity.

Gill was born biologically female, but preferred to be known as a man. In the obituary, Gill’s cousin said he identified with the transgender community. Some contemporary reporters managed to describe that detail with a minimum of fuss, while others seemed to take special pleasure in mocking Gill for his identity. Though often described as a lesbian who dressed as a man, the more current way of identifying Gill would be to accept his self-identification and use male pronouns–which is what we’ll do throughout.

Gill took over leadership of what the Post-Gazette called a “prostitution massage parlor empire” after the murder of George Lee in February 1976 and was owner of the Spartacus rub parlor on lower Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks.

Rivalry continues

Soon thereafter, Gill, Nick DeLucia and Mel Cummings were embroiled in a court battle over control of Stage 966 Liberty Avenue, a “go-go” club.

Cummings was the object of an assassination attempt in August 1977 when a sniper took a shot at him. That same year, Anthony “Bobby” Pugh, 33, was shot six times in the head inside his apartment on Dec. 16. Two weeks later, on Dec. 23, 1977, a bomb wrapped up in a white Christmas package addressed to JoAnne “Sasha” Scott exploded at the Gemini Spa on Liberty Avenue, killing the 21-year-old woman.

Her husband, Glenn Scott, had been murdered in 1975, and that murder was still unsolved at the time of her violent death, according to the Pittsburgh Press.

In 1983, the Scotts’ killings were linked with bank robber and self-proclaimed mob murderer Richard Henkel, who police said participated in an insurance scheme with “Sasha” to benefit from her husband’s death. She was later killed by Henkel to keep her quiet.

In response to the bombing, then-Mayor Richard Caliguiri closed four Downtown “rub” parlors according to the Press. “Fear of more gangland-style executions apparently has closed most other sex-for-sale operations in surrounding suburbs.”

In a June 19, 1979 edition of the Press, an article stated, “Gill is reportedly a rival of vice kingpin Nick DeLucia in a struggle for the area’s prostitution business.” DeLucia ran the Gemini Spa.

By the 1980s, Gill seemed to have won the battle, operating “rub” parlors in downtown as well as McKees Rocks. He married Texan Cynthia Bruno Gill in Hawaii, though technically same-sex unions weren’t legal then.

Gill was never charged with murder, but in 1984 he, his wife and business associate were tried for tax evasion. According to the Post-Gazette, many people who testified against Gill said they were threatened. The key witness against him, Bonnie Jones, told the paper she got a phone call with someone saying, “You shot your big mouth off and now we are going to kill you.” Jones indicated she would be seeking witness protection.

Gill was convicted, served seven years and was paroled in 1987. He died Jan. 8, 2003. Barry Paris, who was described in Gill’s obituary as his cousin, was quoted as saying Gill made a “nice corrupt life” in a “nice corrupt American city.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Films in the United States have long valorized the gangster, either openly or with a dash of comeuppance at the end of the movie to absolve the audience for enjoying the lawless excess of the previous hour and a half. Gill was set to get the movie treatment in 2018, when actor Scarlett Johanssen of “Black Widow” fame signed on to play him in a movie called “Rub & Tug.”

The backlash from trans advocates, who said it was hard enough to get any part without a straight (cisgender) actor taking the one part ideal for a trans actor, ended with Johannsen leaving the project.

Currently, the story is still being developed by New Regency Television, according to Shefali Parmar, but there are no immediate plans to bring the show based on Gill’s life, called “Rub & Tug,” into production.

Gill was a complex, interesting person; a former blacksmith who worked at Schenley stables according to his obituary, and owned several legitimate businesses, including a baby furniture store. That being said, Gill was also a pimp, and was a player in a violent game where many people ended up dead. There’s no reason to valorize those things just because the person doing them was unconventional.

The prospect of a fictionalized version of his life has me worried about the tone of the proposed television series. Is it going to be self-congratulatory for acknowledging that Gill existed and for doing the bare minimum when it comes to casting? Will the story examine the flaws of the main character or is it going to be like almost every biopic of a beloved figure that tries to lay the blame for an artist’s personal failings on external factors? Will it take a light, derisive tone that characterized the press descriptions of Gill’s life, but minimized the often brutal nature of his illegal work?

Regardless, if Gill’s life is fictionalized, then it will add more to the cultural discussion of who we talk about, and why.


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