What follows is my recollection of an event which I recorded on 28 June 2009.
I just witnessed history repeating itself, 21st century Texas style —and that’s not a good thing. Forgive me if the rest of this message rambles and such, but I wanted to get all this down while it was fresh. Here’s what I witnessed:
This weekend, as many of you know, marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and the beginning of the modern Gay Liberation movement. Today was the “Million Gay March,” which was meant to be held, not just in Washington D.C., but also in every major U.S. city at the same time. The theme was not just to remember Stonewall, but to call out the President, for first going back on his promise to advance GLBT equality, then throwing us an insulting scrap from his table: An executive order that expires the second he leaves office and gives *some* equal recognition in *some* matters to federal employees. Um, thanks?
John and I intended to participate in the Dallas march, and John was going to speak at the rally after that, but from the moment people started to gather at the starting point for the march, the event was overshadowed by a rumor churning through the crowd: at the opposite end of the metroplex in Fort Worth, police had raided a Gay bar and hauled people away around 1 a.m.-ish this very morning. I know, how surreal. This being the iPhone/Blackberry era, many people were trying to get some actual facts. This also being the era of blogs, the local Gay newspaper started up a blog thread to collect relevant information. A flash-mob action was already in the works by the time our march in Dallas began and solidified by the time the rally started: Gather at the Fort Worth bar that had been raided, then get to the front steps of the main downtown courthouse, demanding answers from the mayor and chief of police.
Fast-forward to this evening, when I arrived at the Rainbow Lounge (gotta love that retro name) after following a map I’d made by googling what little I knew of the bar. A cowboy in a sleeveless western shirt with rainbow-flagged shoulders was addressing a growing crowd outside the front door while the local media filmed us. Then we moved out of the 100-degree day to hear from the bar owner and several patrons who where there last night / this morning. While the bar’s TV was playing police statements on the local news, the people who were there were correcting the official story. To whit:
- The Fort Worth PD claimed that this started as a normal liquor-license violation check and that this was the first time they had ever been to the bar. Several patrons were able to confirm that the police arrived with a paddy wagon all ready, and had plenty of plastic handcuffs already on hand when they entered. In addition, one patron said that he had seen the police casing the bar from the parking lot the night before.
- The FWPD claimed that they only arrested those who were staggering drunk, in violation of the local public intoxication laws –Say what? No getting drunk in a bar? Welcome to Texas. Anyway, one patron who was just out of custody said he had never moved from his seat until he was cuffed –no opportunity to stagger. About 15 people were arrested.
- The FWPD claimed that one patron “groped” an officer. The consensus from all witnesses was “Eeew! I don’t think so.”
- The FWPD claimed to have Rainbow Lounge employees in custody. The bar staff did a head count and all were accounted for. I know, minor stuff, but I hope this helps illustrate the gulf between what was being seen by the public at large on TV, and what had been witnessed by the people who were there.
- Not mentioned, at least not in the news segment we saw, was the fact that one of the patrons was in a hospital in the ICU, in bad shape.
- Not mentioned was the fact that the bar manager / DJ said that in all his years of working in Fort Worth bars, he had never seen the police behave in this way at any other bar, in any other “violation check.”
The contradictions continued, then JR (don’t snicker, that’s a mighty fine name down here) the bar owner told of how he was given grief at every turn when he first tried to get this bar started, from the construction to the liquor and dance licenses. The Rainbow Lounge had not been open one week before it was raided. He thanked everyone who had given phone calls of support, and had organized this impromptu action on behalf of the Fort Worth GLBT community. He also promised that they were still open for business, and asked everyone to come back tonight when their drag queen in residence was still hell-bent on putting on her show.
As statements of support and press releases from local Gay leaders were read off of iPhones, young kids had cleared the pool tables to make protest signs, someone walked in with a crate of bottled water, and everyone with reception was calling, blogging, texting, and twittering to get more people to meet us at the courthouse. The last press release someone read off some news site stated that the Fort Worth chief of police intended to make an apology of some sort –too little, too late. We left for downtown.
When the time came, I made my own way there, and showed up just before the local media left, which means they only counted those who had made it to the courthouse early, not the whole crowd that eventually filled the front steps. Queer Liberaction, with their enthusiasm and megaphone, MC’ed as different well-dressed, well-spoken people –Fort Worth Gay leaders, I assumed– talked in measured tones about how we needed to have an investigation into the whole matter, and that if a violation of police procedure had occurred, the officers should be punished and/or suspended. The first openly Gay elected official in the county spoke, then the FW “human rights officer” (?) spoke, then another bar patron. This gentleman tried to stay as calm and objective as possible as he tried to logically lay out why the police behavior betrayed a targeted, discriminatory attack on the community. Unfortunately, just as he was making his case, one of the Radical Faeries had had enough with all the politeness, and started yelling over him, insisting that the police shouldn’t be suspended, but prosecuted. Another person called for blood. Half the crowd turned ugly while the other half tried to “shush” them. Eventually, one of the Queer Liberation people offered the Radical Faerie a turn with the megaphone, and he and the crowd calmed down. Later, he changed his mind about addressing us. The penultimate speaker was the rainbow-shirted cowboy, who reported that the patron in ICU had regained consciousness long enough to hear about what was happening and thank everyone for their support, prior to taking a turn for the worse.
Queer Liberaction wrapped up by asking us to come back next week, same time, same place, with everyone we knew, to keep the pressure up on the mayor; another QL member suggested meeting at the convention center and filling the streets of downtown as we marched back to the courthouse. QL’s URL was given out were we could check the finalized details for next week, and the mayor’s phone number was given out. As people added the mayor’s number to their cell phones, people called out for his direct line, cell number, and MySpace account.
I called it a night. Curiously, during my entire time in Fort Worth, I hadn’t seen a single police officer, except for one bike-cop near the party district on my way out. He was taking a complaint from an older, white, well-to-do, apparently heterosexual couple who were complaining about all the Gay people at the courthouse. I resisted the urge to do something that would get me arrested.
So forty years to the day when police raided a Gay bar and lit the fire that started our modern movement, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back at square one. To be continued, I hope.
“I ask you men…what are you so afraid of?
If I am equal to you in power, does that diminish you?”
—Rita Mae Brown
In the years since I wrote this, the overall situation of Fort Worth’s LGBT community has greatly improved. Last I’d heard when I asked, the cowboy who’d been hospitalized had lived, and was mostly himself again. The Rainbow Lounge is still open for business, and when I find myself in Fort Worth, I try to stop in.