Gay Panic in Cowtown

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

Fort Worth had been given "a big black eye," Camp says. As someone whose film festival brings people in from around the country, he says gay interests, including his, may end up suffering most. "We were just starting to get somewhere," Camp says. "Now Fort Worth is the place where they beat up queers and drag them out of bars."
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Low-key, coupled-up, confined to no one neighborhood but not so bold as to head into Billy Bob's honky-tonk holding hands, Fort Worth gays live somewhat cautiously. There is an annual gay rodeo and a gay pride parade with floats one participant called pathetically middle-school. Locals like to say Fort Worth people will look past most anything "as long as you don't do it in the street and scare the horses," but hard-edged attitudes are easy to find.

"I get called 'faggot' at least once a week," says Bruce Wood, 49, whose life in Fort Worth has taken him into the two sides of the city it promotes most heavily: cowboys and culture. For ten years, until 2006, he ran the Bruce Wood Dance Company, a modern dance outfit that performed in the city's best venues. He grew up in small-town Jacksboro, where he learned to rope and ride "when I wasn't getting beat up." Today he works in a high-end Western wear shop downtown.

Todd Camp organized protests after the raid and set up a Facebook page that became a focal point for organizers protesting police actions at the Rainbow Lounge.
Mark Graham
Todd Camp organized protests after the raid and set up a Facebook page that became a focal point for organizers protesting police actions at the Rainbow Lounge.
Queer LiberAction activist Blake Wilkinson speaks at the July 12 protest. Supporters from Dallas and other communities quickly rose in support of their Fort Worth neighbors, though not everyone in the city's gay community was exactly happy with the attacks on their city's reputation.
BrandonThibodeaux
Queer LiberAction activist Blake Wilkinson speaks at the July 12 protest. Supporters from Dallas and other communities quickly rose in support of their Fort Worth neighbors, though not everyone in the city's gay community was exactly happy with the attacks on their city's reputation.

Raising money for an arts organization is never easy, but doing it as an openly gay man in Fort Worth is harder still, Wood says. "One donor asked me over and she said, 'Of course it isn't me, but my friends think you act too gay in public' and that I really needed to fire all the gay men who worked for me," he recalls. "I said no, and it cost us $25,000. Of course, there are some gracious, wonderful people, but there are a lot of homophobes who want nothing to do with you at all."

Frank Provasek, a coin dealer who has been involved with Tarrant County Lesbian & Gay Alliance since it was formed in 1980, says that in the '70s and earlier, gay bars were randomly subjected to raids "with police putting everyone in paddy wagons and taking them off not only on public intoxication charges but for same-sex dancing, holding hands, or maybe there was a lady who had hair too short, wearing pants, and she had to prove she wasn't a cross-dresser."

In the 1980s, he says, police moved on to placing fake personal ads in gay magazines to entrap homosexuals on sodomy charges. The police chief at the time, Thomas Windham, put an end to that tactic "and relations with the police have been good for at least 20 years," he says.

The Lesbian & Gay Alliance was instrumental in getting Fort Worth in 2000 to amend its antidiscrimination ordinance and prohibit discrimination against gays in employment, housing and places of public accommodation. It became the second city in the state to pass a gay protection measure, 25 years behind Austin.

Dallas followed suit in 2002. The Texas Legislature, dominated for more than a decade by social conservatives, has not joined in, and neither has Houston, although an executive order by the mayor prohibits discrimination against gays, but only those in municipal jobs and services (see "Gay Panic in Cowtown: Houston Pride").

Life in the city means confronting "the occasional redneck," "one asshole neighbor" or "some of the old folks down at the beauty parlor who are prejudiced against gays, blacks, everybody," a smattering of interviews reveals. Mostly, though, it's a place where people politely hold their tongues, making it difficult to tell what they think.

In some of the unlikeliest places, such as the conservative, ultraconventional suburbs northeast of the city, you can also find gay couples such as Robert Curle, a 41-year-old flight attendant, and Gary Agee, a 48-year-old horse trainer, who have been together for 19 years. They were surprised to find five other gay couples living in their neighborhood in suburban North Richland Hills. Several work for Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which solidified its gay-friendly reputation when it stood up to some of the nation's top antigay crusaders a decade ago.

In 1998, the Southern Baptists, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, Gary Bauer's Family Research Council and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America threatened American Airlines, Fort Worth's largest company, with boycotts if it continued the practice of marketing to gays and lesbians and sponsoring gay, lesbian and AIDS-related organizations. The policies, the groups said, imperiled the sanctity of the family. Not only did American stand fast, in 2000 it became the first major airline to begin offering the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners as it does to married spouses.
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The closer one gets to Sunday morning in the city, the bigger an issue being gay becomes. Dust-ups rooted in the culture war that religious conservatives continue to wage against homosexuality often flare in the city.

There is a smattering of LGBT churches, but as Stephen Sprinkle, a professor at Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School, points out, many gays in the city grew up in West Texas and remain tied to the Southern Baptist tradition. "But two guys living together, not the most open people but who love each other, show up as a couple on picture day at the Broadway Baptist Church, and all hell breaks loose," Sprinkle says.

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