Even if the police can’t call it a hate crime, the fire that destroyed a Denton bar is having the same chilling effect
Word spread quickly about the arson fire last week that destroyed Denton’s only gay bar.
Within a day, it seemed as if every member of Denton’s LGBT community knew the 27-year-old club had been torched. That’s the way news travels in small towns rapidly and in great detail through telephone and e-mail exchanges.
Foremost in everyone’s mind during that 24-hour period was one troubling question. Was it a hate crime?
Fire officials rejected the notion of the arson being a hate crime because there was no anti-gay graffiti left behind and there had not been any threats made to the bar’s owner. They were correct. To classify criminal conduct as a hate crime, there must be evidence showing someone was motivated by bias against a minority group.
But Chris McKee is convinced the fire was a hate crime, regardless of whether there was evidence of it left behind. The timing of the fire less than two weeks after a man was acquitted in a highly publicized hate crime trial of assaulting him could not be dismissed as a mere coincidence. His perception is colored by the memory of being called a faggot while two bullies were beating him on a busy Denton street.
“They can’t label it a hate crime, but we’re all convinced it was a hate crime rather than a random arson,” McKee said.
McKee said that he and other gay and lesbian people living in Denton believe his hate crime trial brought attention to their community and attracted resentment from some residents who dreaded the bad publicity.
“I think it brought such a cloud over Denton that it probably made a lot of people angry,” McKee said.
McKee said he believes it is possible that someone may have wanted to teach the LGBT community a painful lesson and burned the bar with that in mind. Mable Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair on busy East University Drive was well known for what it was, he said.
“Like, “‘This is what we’re going to do if you make yourself known,’” McKee said. “It was the only haven we had to go to if we didn’t want to drive to Dallas, and it’s gone. Everyone I know in Denton who is gay has been to it at least once. Everybody is sick about it.”
That’s the effect and the intent of hate crimes. A hate crime has a chilling effect on an entire community of people, rather than just the victim of an assault, arson or a murder. It’s how the Ku Klux Klan used whippings and lynchings in an unsuccessful attempt to keep a whole race of people subdued.
So whether McKee is correct about the origin of the fire or not, the fire has had the effect of a hate crime.
Some gay people in Denton are feeling a little intimidated and others are feeling a little riled up.
Despite his fears, McKee wants to organize a rally in Denton to bring attention to the need for more tolerance and sensitivity especially among public officials.
“I just feel Denton County is in denial about the possibility of hate crimes happening right under their noses,” McKee said.
And there may be more support for the idea of such a rally in the wake of an unsuccessful hate crime trial and an arson fire at a gay bar than some people might think.
The owner of the bar, Kelly Sanders, said she is beginning to recover from the shock of the fire.
Messages of support have helped enormously, she said.
“I’ve had a lot of phone calls from a lot of people, and not only from our community but the straight community, too,” Sanders said. “People calling to give their support and express their concern. It’s been amazingly great that everyone has been so supportive. It makes me feel good.”
Sanders said she had one call from a friend in Dallas who has offered to help organize a fundraiser for her if she wants to re-open the bar.
Her landlord, who lives in Florida, has advised her that he plans to have the building restored with his insurance proceeds, she said.
“I haven’t decided what to do,” Sanders said. “It’s a possibility. It’s all going to work out.”
It is all going to work out, and I suspect Denton’s LGBT people are going to grow stronger from this experience especially if they get the chance to see their bar rebuilt and running again.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 30, 2007