The raid on the Fort Worth nightclub on the anniversary of Stonewall outraged LGBT citizens and set off a new wave of activism in Fort Worth.
The Rainbow Lounge Raid: On June 28, 1969, New York police raided The Stonewall Inn, a small bar in Greenwich Village that catered to gays and lesbians, and in doing so helped launch the modern gay rights movement.
On June 28 this year — 40 years later almost to the minute — seven Fort Worth police officers and two agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided The Rainbow Lounge, a newly-opened gay bar on Jennings Street in Fort Worth, setting off a swell of outrage nationwide and a new wave of activism in Cowtown.
Although the uproar seemed at first to threaten to tear the city apart, many of those involved — including activists and officials in city government, the police department and TABC — quickly stepped forward to insist that what started off as a "tragic incident" could evolve into a shining opportunity to address issues and make improvements that would benefit the LGBT community and the city as a whole.
Six months later, the Fort Worth police department has an improved policy on handling bar inspections, an LGBT liaison, expanded diversity sensitivity training and a chief with a greatly improved understanding of LGBT history and the special issues the community faces.
TABC also has an LGBT liaison and a significantly expanded diversity training program. And the city itself has expanded diversity training and an expanded non-discrimination policy offering protections to transgenders, with a possible domestic partners benefits policy and more on the horizon.
Witnesses in the bar at the time said the officers and TABC agents stormed into the bar around 1 a.m., coming in with aggressive attitudes and pocketfuls of plastic handcuffs, and a "paddy wagon" waiting outside, ready to carry people off to jail.
They said the officers arrested people at random, declaring individuals to be intoxicated without any real cause.
One young man, later identified as Chad Gibson, was thrown to the floor and his hands cuffed behind his back before he was taken outside. Police reports indicated that Gibson then began throwing up and fell onto the concrete sidewalk.
Gibson was later transported by ambulance to JPS Hospital where doctors discovered that he had bleeding in his brain. He was hospitalized in intensive care for a week.
Witnesses had said Gibson was hurt when officers threw him to the floor and handcuffed him inside the club. But officers insisted he was hurt outside when he began throwing up, lost his balance and fell forward onto the concrete.
An early statement released by Fort Worth police said the Rainbow Lounge was the third bar police and TABC agents visited that night. They said nine people were arrested at the first two, Hispanic bars on Rosedale, and that seven people were arrested at the Rainbow Lounge sometime later, those reports were revised to show that five people were arrested at Rainbow Lounge on charges of public intoxication. Two others were arrested for assault on a police officer, but those charges were later dropped.
Q Cinema founder Todd Camp was in the bar that night, celebrating his birthday. He and his friends were outraged by what they saw, and determined not to let the raid go unchallenged.
By 8 a.m., phone calls and e-mails were going out, as were notices on Facebook and other social media sites. Camp and others were spreading the word that on the anniversary of Stonewall, a gay bar had been raided in Fort Worth.
They quickly organized not one, but two protests for that same day: One at 5 p.m. outside the Rainbow Lounge, a second at 7 p.m. outside the Tarrant County Courthouse in Downtown Fort Worth. Openly gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns told the crowd assembled on the courthouse steps that he had already spoken with Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead and was expecting a full report on the incident soon.
He added that he had already been in contact with City Councilmember Kathleen Hicks, representative of the district in which Rainbow Lounge is located, as well as Mayor Mike Moncrief, Halstead, the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission and state legislators from the area to get "a complete and accurate accounting of what occurred."
"Unlike 40 years ago [at Stonewall] though, the people of this community have elected representation that will make sure our government is accountable and that the rights of all its citizens are protected," Burns promised.
But Halstead, less than a year into his tenure with the Fort Worth police department, had already told one reporter that the situation that morning had escalated only after patrons made "sexually suggestive movements" toward officers who had been conducting a routine bar inspection.
It was a comment that those at the protest rally didn’t appreciate in the least. Rainbow Lounge owner J.R. Schrock said the allegations were lies.
"The groping of a police officer — really? We’re gay but we’re not dumb," Schrock said. "That is a lie, and I am appalled by it."
Two days later, Halstead and several officers on his command staff attended a previously-scheduled community forum in East Fort Worth, and a small group of LGBT activists were there to have their say. Daniel Cates of Queer LiberAction demanded answers and an independent investigation.
It was then that Halstead began what was to become an intensive outreach to the LGBT community in Fort Worth. He promised a complete investigation into the incident — he still objected to characterizations of it as a raid — and announced plans to institute an LGBT liaison and institute sensitivity training.
The next day, TABC Administrator Alan Steen released a statement acknowledging that Gibson had been injured while in TABC custody, but said that his agency would be conducting an internal investigation to determine how and why Gibson’s injury occurred. Steen also noted that the two agents involved in the raid had been reassigned to desk duty until the investigation was complete.
State Sen. Wendy Davis and State Rep. Lon Burnham, both of whose districts encompass the area where the Rainbow Lounge is located, also noted Wednesday that they had met with TABC officials and had serious concerns over the string of events that led up to the raid, as well as the raid itself. They joined the call for an independent investigation into the raid, as did Mayor Moncrief.
The formation of Fairness Fort Worth was announced in a July 8 press conference. The group’s first goal, according to spokesman Jon Nelson, a gay Fort Worth attorney, was to help police and TABC officials gather witnesses’ testimony. But the group’s long-term goal, Nelson added, was to bring together a broad-based coalition of community, civic and government leaders to facilitate communication and cooperation between the different segments of the city to keep such incidents from happening again.
On July 14, the Fort Worth City Council held its first meeting at which the raid was addressed, and LGBT citizens from across North Texas and beyond crowded the chamber to have their say. Queer LiberAction founder Blake Wilkinson and five others were ejected from the council chambers when, despite repeated warnings from the mayor, they continued to interrupt the proceedings by demanding that the council rearrange its agenda to hear comments on Rainbow Lounge first. Others urged Wilkinson to let the council follow its original agenda, and one even left after telling Wilkinson he was embarrassing the community.
The next day, TABC’s Steen contacted Dallas Voice and in an exclusive interview acknowledged, even though TABC’s own internal investigation was still ongoing, that his agents had committed multiple "clear violations" of policy in conducting the raid. He also said he would consider appointing a liaison to the LGBT community and that he would consider having the agency’s diversity training curriculum evaluated by experts to make sure it was adequate.
Four days later, on July 20, Halstead announced the appointment of openly lesbian Fort Worth police Officer Sara Straten as interim liaison to the LGBT community.
And in its July 21 meeting, the Fort Worth City Council approved the formation of the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force, a group of city staff and LGBT community leaders tasked with the mission of finding ways to address LGBT issues and improve the way city government responded to those issues.
At that same meeting, the council called on the U.S. Attorney’s Office to conduct a "complete and independent investigation" into the Rainbow Lounge raid, in addition to TABC’s internal investigation and the two separate internal investigation underway in the Fort Worth PD.
Steen released a statement on Aug. 6 saying that the two agents involved in the raid and their supervising sergeant had committed a total of 19 policy violations in connection with the raid, according to the results of an internal investigation. All three were later fired.
Steen also announced the appointment of TABC spokeswoman Carolyn Beck as the agency’s liaison to the LGBT community, and expanded diversity training, to be conducted by representatives of Resource Center Dallas, at TABC offices around the state. Steen said his agency was conducting a separate investigation into the agents’ use of force and whether they were culpable in Gibson’s injuries.
In its final report summarizing the results of its internal investigations, issued in early November, said that TABC agents had not been responsible for Gibson’s injuries.
Fort Worth’s Chief Halstead gave the City Council a preliminary report on the findings of his department’s investigation on Aug. 18, saying that the problems resulted, at least in part, from "flawed policies within the police department." He outlined a very specific new policy on how the department would conduct any bar inspections in the future and apologized for his comments immediately after the raid that had angered many.
After several delays, Halstead released the findings of his department’s internal investigations on Nov. 5. Two officers, including the sergeant in charge the night of the raid, were given one-day suspensions for policy violations, and a third officer was suspended for three days. The investigation showed that the officers had not used excessive force, Halstead said.
His announcement brought angry protests from activists, including Fairness Fort Worth spokesman Nelson, who said the disciplinary actions fell "far short" of what he felt was appropriate. Nelson then renewed his call for an independent investigation, but later said he was pleased to know that Halstead had delivered the report to federal officials who had agreed to review the reports and investigate if necessary.
As the police department and TABC continued their investigations, the new City Manager’s Diversity Task Force was moving forward with its own agenda, as was the Human Relations Commission. Both panels recommended that the city offer benefits to the domestic partners of its LGBT employees, and that the city expand its non-discrimination ordinance — which already protected lesbians and gays — to include protections for transgender people.
The benefits proposal was sent to committee for further study on how it would affect the city budget, but the council adopted the change to the non-discrimination ordinance following a lengthy debate during a Nov. 10 council meeting.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 1, 2010.