What I'd like to talk about is three experiences I had which I place under the heading: “I swear, you just can’t make this stuff up.”
It was December of 1988, and there was an occasion that I was drawn to like a moth to a flame, even though my knees were shaking. It was a protest in combination with a candlelight vigil, held at City Hall in downtown Dallas, and it was put together by an organization called at that time the Dallas Gay Alliance.
How that pivotal night happened for me was this. I had not been out for very long. I moved to Dallas in 1984, and at that time I was out to some good friends … specifically three wonderful women who had all gone to Northwestern University with me. We were all journalism majors, and it just turned out that each of us started our careers here in Dallas journalism market. One of those friends was a tall, beautiful woman named Lori Montgomery who had become a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald. It was December 16, 1988, and I had opened up the paper that afternoon, and the headline said: “Why Judge Was Easy on Gays’ Killer.” I still have a copy of that article today.
The background to that story was that two gay men were murdered in Dallas’s Reverchon Park – three bullets each. Their names were Tommy Lee Trimble and John Lloyd Griffin. The second bullet to strike Mr. Griffin was as he was crawling away after being wounded by the first bullet to his body. And they were killed by some young men, not that much older than my own son is today – young men from Mesquite, Texas, who had come into the Oak Lawn area of town to cause some trouble and give some heck to the gays. And that’s what they did by killing two men.
Judge Jack Hampton was a state criminal district court judge here in Dallas, and after the conviction for murder, sentencing the defendants was totally up to him. The convicted shooter was an 18-year old named Bednarski. The maximum sentence could have been life imprisonment, and the minimum was five years. So Judge Hampton gave him a 30-year sentence, which was unusually light for this kind of crime ... first degree murder of two innocent people in cold blood. When this light sentence was handed down, the judge admitted to reporters that he had given a light sentence because the victims were gay, the sort of people he equated with prostitutes. Well, the gay community of Dallas erupted in protest.
So I was reading this story in the paper that my friend Lori Montgomery wrote, and I decided to call her and check in with her and talk about this tragedy. And there was something in her voice, and I’m sure something in my voice. I was deeply moved by the story, and afraid because I didn’t know what that meant for me as a young gay person who hadn’t been out very long. But I knew it meant something, and I would have to figure that out later. And the trembling I heard in Lori’s voice was that she was afraid she might lose all of her news sources at the courthouse over this story. That was her beat. The story had been written. She knew it had to be written, but what would that mean for her. Would all of her sources dry up? And would she ever be assigned to cover the courthouse again? She had great integrity, so it was not a question of whether or not to write the story – only what the consequences would be thereafter.
And that brings me back to the vigil and protest at City Hall. I was a commercial photographer at that time. I also wrote, but my income was from photography. So I decided to attend that night at City Hall. I didn’t know that many people in the community. I had my camera around my neck, and I think that served as a kind of security blanket. I didn’t interact with that many people, but I sure did pay attention, and I took a lot of pictures that night. The vigil part of this gathering was to memorialize all of the people who had died of AIDS in Dallas in that year of 1988. Some people were holding candles for those fallen due to AIDS, while other people were drawing over a hundred chalk outlines of fallen human bodies on the pavement of that plaza in front of City Hall to symbolize all of the deaths. Other people had signs protesting Jack Hampton’s ruling in the murder case and the injustice of that.
I used up two rolls of black and white film, which wasn’t perfect for nighttime photography. So it was quite awhile before I developed them, but they are developed and printed now, and I have some of them in my office at the Resource Center for anyone to see, because I never want to forget the story of that night.
That night was unforgettable. The gay community spoke up and they showed up. It was impossible to pass through that space without being incredibly moved, and it was a true catalyst for me. It wasn’t the first time I was engaged with the gay community, but this was certainly the most significant time. Nothing was really the same for me after that night, and I want to express my gratitude to the leaders of the Dallas Gay Alliance at that time, which included William Waybourn, Bruce Monroe and Deb Elder. It changed my life, and it moved me forward.
Some years later Lori and I were together at the wedding of one of our other friends, Lisa Pope, who wrote for the Times Herald also, and Lori told me something that day that has always stayed with me. She said that looking back on the day she was writing the story on Judge Hampton and the Reverchon Park murders, she remembered that one question she was constantly asking herself was “I have to write this story but what about Cece … what about Cece.” I was completely floored when she told me that. The story was not about me, and the motivation was not about me, but what I saw it meant to her was that when she said things she was saying them about real people, with real lives, who have friends and people who care about them. Again, it was a reminder about the power of our stories – that we have to share them, and we have to be out – because that’s the way we really effect change.
Now the final piece of this story came about twenty years later. I went to work for the Resource Center in 2007, and it was in the first month of my being there … I was in the office of my boss Mike McKay, and a volunteer from the front desk came back and said, “Hey, Karen Estes is here.” Karen was a former co-executive director of the Resource Center, and she had come in with a box of archives that she wanted to donate to our library. I went out and greeted her and got the box of documents and carried it back to Mike’s office. I opened the lid and, really excited to see what kinds of things were in it, pulled out the first piece of paper. Well, I'll never forget the physical feeling that washed over me when I saw what I was holding. It was an invoice addressed to G.U.T.S (“Gay Urban Truth Squad”), which was a program of the Dallas Gay Alliance, and they had been billed $81 for the electrician's fee and $100 for a power washing to clean up all the chalk outlines on the plaza in front of City Hall on the day after that protest of December 16, 1988. I just thought, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” So I made an extra copy of that invoice, and it’s hanging in my office at the Resource Center, today. We need to remember.
Dubbed as “The Gay and Lesbian U.S.O. Show,” spearheaded by Gary Bellomy, who was a good old-fashioned street activist, and under the auspices of what was named the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance at the time, a group of us took a trip through Beautiful East Texas. This was in October 1994 and it was a kind of “Freedom Ride” in conjunction with the National Coming Out Day.
In the preceding 18 months, there had been a series of hate crimes in Texas, including the murders of eight gay people ... eight that we knew of. Some of them happened in East Texas including the murder of Nicholas Ray West in Tyler – who was kidnapped from a public park, taken to another location, made to strip, and shot at least nine times. We had received numerous calls at the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, many callers were people in East Texas who felt powerless and wanted help and a reassuring voice.
Gary and the rest of the board all decided that we should charter a bus and head out into East Texas on a tour. Just listen to the towns we went to (real centers of enlightenment): Commerce, Sulphur Springs, Mount Pleasant, Gilmer, Tyler, Athens and Gun Barrel City.
In Sulphur Springs we were met by one of our riders’ mom, Danny Alan Scott’s mom Judy, who had said to the Dallas Morning News that she would meet us with doughnuts and milk, because, after all, Sulphur Springs was the dairy capital of the region. And, sure enough, she did, and it was great. She was also quoted as saying that she didn’t understand homosexuality, and she didn’t know that she ever would, but that she loved her son, and she knew that for sure.
Gary had lined up a “host” in every city. He had sent media out into the various local markets in those cities in the hope that there would be coverage and that we would be met by friendly LGBT folks and allies. In some cities we were, and in some we weren’t.
And then we hit Gilmer, Texas. Well, if you’ve traveled around Texas you know how pretty the county courthouses are, and Gilmer is the county seat of Upshur County. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the Upshur County courthouse, because as soon as we stepped off the bus we were surrounded by twice as many of them as there were of us – and they were pretty scary. Some of them claimed to be from what they called “The Apostolic Church” – “Apoplectic” might have been more appropriate. Some of our favorite signs were: “Repent – Jesus doesn’t love you!” “Queers Burn in Hell” and my favorite: “Man + Woman: Do it God’s Way!”
One slogan yelled at us was “Clinton Lover,” which was a reaction to Cathy Massy’s hair style – Cathy being the PFLAG mom from Denton, Texas, who was traveling with us along with Pat Stone. And here hair was the best critique they could come up with – she was amazing. One of their most impressive chants was: “J-E-S-U-S-C-H-R-I-S-T” … which, you have to admit, was eleven letters, so pretty impressive that they could remember them all. And then, of course, “Faggots!” It was scary. They were in our faces and would even grab American flags out of our hands. By the time we got back on the bus, we were shaken, but we had been coached not to engage and not to react if that kind of thing happened.
It turns out that there was a reporter there, Eddie Dryer; she was a reporter for the Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA. She had grown up in Tyler, and Gilmer was where she managed to catch up with us along our tour of cities. She witnessed all of that going down, and she covered it for WFAA. By the time we got back to Dallas, the 10:00 o’clock news came on and it all spoke for itself. It was obvious what was going on, and all the vitriol that was directed at us. And the most telling quote from the news segment that night, which revealed so much about that mentality, was one guy yelling “God’ll burn this town down if it’s full of gays!”
So the following day, my partner Lisa Means and I went to the Texas State Fair, it being October in Dallas, after all, and I was really looking forward to my Fletcher’s Cory Dog – and just as I was putting mustard on my corny dog, a voice there at the condiment stand said: “Hey, weren’t you on the news last night?” And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me … I’ve made it safely back to Dallas and now I’m not going to be allowed to eat my Fletcher’s Corny Dog?” But it was actually a voice of support, and they said that they had seen the WFAA coverage and were shocked by it and hoped that we would carry on the work and make a difference. Again, we’ve got to speak up.
You might have heard of a little incident that happened to our friends down the way in Fort Worth called “The Rainbow Lounge Raid.” It was a bummer. June 28, 2009, just happened to be the 40thAnniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York … a great time for a 1950s-style throw-em’up-against-the-wall, Gestapo-styled bar raid, but that’s what happened. I was working at the Resource Center at the time, and we were doing a lot of education and advocacy. We reached out to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, which was the state-wide agency that was involved in the bar raid, and we asked them if they might not need some cultural competency training as to the LGBT community. They thought that was a good idea, so we entered into a contract with them. Maybe there’s a pattern here to my life, but we ended up going across Texas to nine cities, including Waco, Amarillo, Grand Prairie, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Houston, Mesquite, Midland, Austin and San Antonio – some more enlightened areas than others.
But to his credit, the director of TABC, Alan Steen, mandated that every single employee of TABC be trained by us, and we did train every single TABC employee in the state, whether they worked in an office and kept timesheets, or whether they were inspectors in the field. By definition, TABC inspectors, who come into our gay bars, are in our community.
There were some interesting things that happened along the way during those trainings. In Amarillo we were in a two-story building that housed the Potter County Sheriff’s Department. The TABC employees were coming into Amarillo as a central location, traveling from their own towns and cities to take the training. And we climbed up the stairs to the second floor where the training would take place and we found ourselves in a huge open area that served as a hanger for their sheriff’s department‘s helicopter, and in another section of the floor was where they kept their horses. So we thought, well, we are in Amarillo after all, so let’s just go ahead and start the training.
In the back of the audience there was one big guy wearing a cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, with arms folded across his chest, and leaning way back in his seat. He eventually wanted to speak, and he said that he worked in that office in Fort Worth where two good TABC employees were fired over the Rainbow Lounge raid, and that we’d better not say anything bad about them.
Well, a good number of the people in the audience were carrying heat during the training, so it was a bit intimidating at times, but the important thing was that we were talking for the first time. Every time, it was real conversations with people that maybe for the first time saw that we, too, were real people with real lives and real families. That’s what everybody wants. It turned out that for every anxious, reluctant participant, leaning back in their chair on the back row with their arms crossed, there was another participant who had a gay son or a gay brother or a gay cousin or a lesbian aunt. They wanted to learn, and they asked questions. I knew at the end of that series of trainings we had made a real impact, because we had had real conversations; we had looked people in the eye, and we helped to create a better situation than the horrible one that had existed on the night of the Rainbow Lounge Raid.
The theme of these stories is how much I have benefitted from the pattern of having other people before me … when I think back to that candle light vigil … people who had the courage to show up, knowing that our voices had to be heard. And I have tried my best to carry that on. That’s what has resonated with me, and I feel so blessed to be a part of this community. And I also want to give my gratitude to The Dallas Way, because I think the opportunity that it is providing for people to tell their stories is immeasurably valuable, and it’s not only important today, but important also for the people who will come up behind us in the future.
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From a presentation at The Dallas Way's oral history night of September 25, 2014.