Gay Panic in Cowtown

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

The 2,000-member church sidestepped publishing the photos early this year, but the matter revealed that openly gay members were serving on church committees. As a result, in June, the Southern Baptist Convention broke its 127-year-old ties to the church, declaring its stand on homosexuality to be too lenient.

Broadway Baptist's most famous congregant, 75-year-old concert pianist Van Cliburn, has been attending services for years with male partners, members say. Conforming to mores that persist among the city's moneyed set, he has never discussed his sexuality in the media. He was outed in 1996, however, when his partner, a mortician, filed a palimony suit saying they had been intimate for 17 years.

For most church positions, and in the webs of nonprofits that spread from them, "I would suggest you not be open if you want the job," says Sprinkle, the divinity school's first openly gay, tenured professor, whose duties include placing students in local churches and church organizations. In a city so steeped in fundamentalist Christianity — home to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Episcopal diocese that split from the national organization last year as a protest against acceptance of same-sex unions and the ordination of women — Sprinkle believes religious antigay biases infect other aspects of life in the city. "Let's not candy-coat it," he says. "We're in the Bible Belt. This isn't San Francisco. There is a lot of denial that goes on in the LGBT community here and a lot of places, Houston and Dallas included."

Benjamin Guttery spoke up when the officers came into the bar.
Mark Graham
Benjamin Guttery spoke up when the officers came into the bar.
Anyone who made eye contact with the cops at the Rainbow Lounge the night of June 28 was likely to find himself cuffed and arrested, says Chuck Potter, one of the men dancing at the bar when the raid began. Instead, Potter began snapping photos with his cell phone.
Mark Graham
Anyone who made eye contact with the cops at the Rainbow Lounge the night of June 28 was likely to find himself cuffed and arrested, says Chuck Potter, one of the men dancing at the bar when the raid began. Instead, Potter began snapping photos with his cell phone.

If there is a statistical measure to back up Sprinkle's conclusion about attitudes, it might be the November 2005 vote on a Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In Tarrant County, the ban passed by an overwhelming 76 percent, compared to 66 percent in Dallas County and 72 percent in Harris County. Travis County — Austin, again — was the only jurisdiction in the state to reject the amendment, with just 41 percent voting in favor of it.

Against that backdrop, there are things about the newly opened Rainbow Lounge that, in Cowtown parlance, might have spooked the livestock. Unlike the city's existing gay bars, the Rainbow Lounge featured dancers, "6 boys, 5 ladies and one diva," as the June 19 opening-night poster put it. The flyer shows half a dozen muscle-rippling men in bikini briefs and come-hither looks, plus a zaftig drag queen named Whitney Paige.

The entertainers dance on platforms and collect tips in their skivvies. Several attracted the attention of TABC Agent Aller, who was outside the bar two nights before the raid, according to his account in a TABC internal investigative report released two weeks ago.

Peeking through a fence, Aller said, he spotted "two males dressed only in thong-like underwear or bikini bottoms sitting on some picnic tables. As [Aller] continued to view the area, he noticed the male subject who earlier identified himself as the owner entered the patio area and quickly made his way to one of the individuals in the underwear and whispered in his ear. Aller said the male subject got up and ran inside." He "believed the subject's actions were odd and could indicate the possibility of drug activity or lewd conduct."

He could have easily reached a more innocuous conclusion — say, the boss told the dancer, "Break's over, get to work!" Only he didn't; he was law enforcement and his suspicions were aroused.

Aller is the same agent who, during the bar "inspection" two nights later, claimed Gibson "slapped" him in the groin in a hallway near the bathroom, which he said prompted what turned into a struggle over his arrest. One sober witness at the bar that night who scribbled down several pages of notes immediately after the incident says that is just fiction. Tom Anable, a CPA who was waiting for the bar to close that night to go over its books, says Aller "walked straight through the bar near where I was standing and tapped Chad Gibson on the shoulder. At that point Mr. Gibson turned. I was about 12 feet away...I could not hear him, but I could see him mouthing the word, 'Why.' They were in perfect profile to me where I was standing. There was at least 18 inches of space between them. I can tell you Chad Gibson never groped that officer."

Anable then saw Aller "grab Chad's hand, twist, turn him around, grab his collar and drag him off that step...There was no resistance from Mr. Gibson. After he had him pinned to the wall, he called for assistance. He stepped back, turned and threw him very hard on the floor."
_____________________

Getting the job of truth-seeking beyond the hands of the Fort Worth Police Department and an internal TABC review quickly became the chief goal of Fairness Fort Worth and Queer LiberAction, the most visible organizations giving sustained attention to the raid. But the difference in style and tactics between the homegrown group and the Dallas rights organization could not have been starker.

"We see all these events in the past month as part of our civil rights movement, our struggle," says Blake Wilkinson, who founded Queer LiberAction last November. "Fairness Fort Worth sees it differently. The message in Fort Worth is 'tone it down, let's calm down'...It isn't time to tone it down. It's time to make as much noise around this as possible."

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