Gay Panic in Cowtown

The police raid on the Rainbow Lounge rocked the calm world of Fort Worth gays.

A moment later, Potter eased his cell phone camera from his pocket and snapped a photo that within days was being carried by news sites and blogs around the world. It was the grainy eyewitness evidence of Fort Worth police and state agents roughing up Chad Gibson, a 26-year-old computer technician who was hospitalized for a week with serious head injuries inflicted during the raid. The photo shows TABC Agent Christopher Aller crouching over Gibson, who is face-down on a hallway floor.

"When I left the bar and got home, I was so mad. I just couldn't believe what had happened," says Potter, who works in AIDS/HIV education and for 25 years has considered Fort Worth his welcoming home. "At three in the morning I started texting everyone I know, maybe a couple hundred people," he says. "I went to sleep but got up early because so many people were calling." Everyone, he says, expressed the same initial reaction: stunned disbelief.

At the same time, Todd Camp, a former journalist and founder of QCinema, Fort Worth's Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, was creating a Facebook page dedicated to publicizing the raid and sharing his own sober account of what he saw at the bar that evening. "It was so random, so aggressive, I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he later says, referring to the police conduct. "They were agitated, rude, shoving people. It wasn't, 'Excuse me, sir, I think you've had too much to drink.'" By the afternoon following the raid, Camp and others had contacted local newspapers and TV stations and organized a protest that evening on the steps of the historic Tarrant County Courthouse.

Chuck Potter's photo of TABC agents arresting Chad Gibson made news sites around the globe, helping to fuel international outrage over the raid, which took place on the anniversary of the birth of the gay rights movement in the United States.
Courtesy Chuck Potter
Chuck Potter's photo of TABC agents arresting Chad Gibson made news sites around the globe, helping to fuel international outrage over the raid, which took place on the anniversary of the birth of the gay rights movement in the United States.
Chad Gibson, a 26-year-old computer technician, sits surrounded by vomit at the Rainbow Lounge the night Fort Worth police and TABC agents raided the gay bar. Gibson suffered head injuries at the hands of officers that left him hospitalized for a week.
Courtesy Chuck Potter
Chad Gibson, a 26-year-old computer technician, sits surrounded by vomit at the Rainbow Lounge the night Fort Worth police and TABC agents raided the gay bar. Gibson suffered head injuries at the hands of officers that left him hospitalized for a week.

Fueling the situation was the fact that the raid had taken place almost to the hour on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, an event considered the birth of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered rights movement when patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar fought back against a police raid. So it flew instantly onto the radar of gay groups and individuals who were marking the day with parades and other events around the country.

Just as incendiary was a police press release issued on the day of the raid that defended the police conduct by claiming that two intoxicated patrons made "sexually explicit movements" toward an officer, and a third patron, who turned out to be Gibson, "assaulted the TABC agent by grabbing the TABC agent's groin." Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead, elaborating on the point, told reporters the next day, "You're touched and advanced in certain ways by people inside the bar, that's offensive." He was quoted further as saying, "I'm happy with the restraint used when they were contacted like that." A department spokesman said later that the remark was taken out of context.

To many, that sounded like the "gay panic" defense bigots have summoned when trying to legally justify a bashing. Gibson has denied touching Aller, and numerous witnesses at the bar say the suggestion that anyone touched or threatened the heavy-handed cops was pure fiction.

Nearly as irksome to gays in Fort Worth was the six-day silence of Mayor Mike Moncrief, a businessman and oil heir whom gays and lesbians have generally supported with votes and campaign money during his three terms in office. When he finally spoke publicly, he expressed confidence that the chief was leading a thorough internal investigation, one he had asked U.S. Attorney James Jacks to review when it was finished.

Fort Worth City Council's one openly gay member, Joel Burns, had the support of only one other colleague on the nine-member council in his call for more: an independent investigation free of the inherent questions of bias that would come with police and the TABC investigating themselves.

A new group calling itself Fairness Fort Worth, led by lawyer Jon Nelson, formed around the goal of conducting an independent inquiry. At the same time the group moved to pressure city officials, it also hoped to tone down the media's rhetoric. As Warren Buffett has said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Gay Fort Worth, as much as any segment of the community, was horrified by the city's newly minted reputation as a homophobic backwater. And yet as angry as they were at the place where they lived, they found themselves coming, in some ways, to its defense.

"I had an L.A. Times reporter call me and say, 'It must be tough to be you, to be gay and live in Fort Worth, Texas,'" says Burns, who works in real estate and moved to the city from Lubbock. "I told him I chose this city. We looked at Portland and Seattle and Austin and Washington before we moved here. It's a wonderful place."

Camp, whom some have begun calling the mayor of gay Fort Worth because he is so plugged into the arts community, says, "It didn't take long for this anti-Fort Worth sentiment to build on the blogs. It was, 'Fort Worth sucks. We should boycott the city.' It wasn't fair or accurate to blame the entire city or the police. This was not typical of the police."

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