Historically, law enforcement has been not just unreceptive, but downright injurious toward the gay community. This is especially true in the traditionally conservative areas of Southern America. The city of Fort Worth, Texas, is no exception. A incident at a bar in 2009 led to the usually reclusive members of the Fort Worth Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, and Transgendered community standing up with a newly founded voice. This voice came from the group Fairness Fort Worththat formed in response to an episode that took place one evening between local and state law enforcement and patrons at a new gay bar, and has helped to provide positive changes for many gays and lesbians in North Texas.
Shortly after midnight in the early morning hours of June 28, 2009 what should have been a routine inspection by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC) at The Rainbow Lounge, took a turn for the worse that would eventually prove to be a catalyst for change in the gay community of North Texas. Two TABC officers were working with six Fort Worth Police Department Officers to conduct an inspection of this newly opened bar. In the dark of the bar, the officers claimed that they were threatened and sexually provoked by drunken patrons and began removing and arresting the offenders. By the end of the debacle, twenty one patrons had been arrested (and eventually released), and one unfortunate individual, Chad Gibson, was hospitalized. To add insult to injury to the gay community, this incident occurred exactly forty years from the date of a similar raid on a similar bar, The Stonewall Inn in New York City. That raid led to three days of riots and is credited with spurring the current gay rights movement. In response to the raid on the Rainbow Lounge, the gay community once again banded together, but instead of riots they formed the activist group Fairness Fort Worth. This new group would insist upon equal treatment for gays and lesbians from government officials and law enforcement specifically in Forth Worth Texas and the surrounding areas.
Immediately, a media campaign was started with over 3000 emails describing the incident and abuses of the previous night. By two o’clock that afternoon, according to Tom Anable, the emails and information had “gone viral.” They arranged a candle-light vigil that evening at the bar, two protest marches, set up a Facebook page to deliver information, and caught the attention of openly gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns. The following Tuesday June 30, 2009, Fairness Fort Worth was born in the back room of a local church in Fort Worth Texas when Tom Anable, a local CPA with a successful accounting firm and the bar’s accountant, met with Todd Camp, a leader with QCinema (a local gay themed media and movie outlet), Reverend Carol West and nine others at Celebration Community Church.
Once some organization was determined, work began to right the wrongs that happened the night of the raid. The leaders of Fairness Fort Worth insisted on major case investigation by both the FWPD and TABC into the events of June 28, 2009 at the Rainbow Lounge. A witness clinic was arranged with eighteen pro-bono attorneys who were available at Celebration Community Church for anyone who was a patron at the bar that night. According to Mr. Anable, finding all of the attorneys was easy compared to the process of finding all of the witnesses. Twenty three of the thirty eight witnesses identified used this free service. The immediate outcomes of the investigations led to the termination of three TABC Officers, official reprimand of two TABC Officers, the suspension of three FWPD Officers, and the appointment of FWPD Officer Sara Straten to act as Liaison between the LGBT community and the police department.
Officer Straten worked closely with Fairness Fort Worth, and many individuals in the LGBT community to ensure the establishment of an open route of communication. She attended and held several meetings, and worked closely with Reverend West at Celebration Community Church. In these meetings Officer Straten worked to assure members of the LGBT community of the commitment of the Chief of Police, Jeffery Halstead and the entire Fort Worth Police Department to support the LGBT community. She also provided an integral part of the city’s transition into an open and inclusive community only months after the incident at the Rainbow Lounge.
According to Officer Straten the challenges to this culture change were extreme. She provided some examples of what she learned in the diversity training classes she facilitated. An anonymous survey was handed out at the start of each class with questions about personal knowledge and beliefs that each individual held regarding gays and lesbians. One question asked class participants what would be their reaction if they could predict the sexuality of their unborn child. In each class at least one response to that question was to “abort the pregnancy” (Straten). While this was not a common response, it is an example of the obstacles that gays and lesbians have faced in their efforts to be included in American society for years, and the difficulties faced by everyone involved with Fairness Fort Worth when trying to promote the acceptance of gays and lesbians.
The short term goals of Fairness Fort Worth had been accomplished in that these officers were held accountable for their improper behavior the night of the raid and Chief Jeffery Halstead of Fort Worth Police Department committed to open communication and cooperation with the LGBT community of Fort Worth. Mr. Anable, who sold his private accounting business to lead Fairness Fort Worth, began working in partnership with many established LGBT groups in Texas. The Dallas Resource Center, Equality Texas, and the Human Rights Campaign were, and continue to be, close allies of Fairness Fort Worth.
Fairness Fort Worth worked side by side with City Councilman Burns, Officer Straten, several other LGBT groups, and the local community. Some local LBGT activist groups took a more confrontational approach. During one specific city council meeting the members of Dallas-based Queer Liber-action caused quite a scene in protest of what happened at the Rainbow Lounge. After they were removed, members of Fairness Fort Worth stood up to calmly introduce their requests. Each group however did play a part in beginning the process of building an open working relationship with the city of Fort Worth to ensure equal treatment for the LGBT community.
Within a year of formation Fairness Fort Worth, with the help of Councilman Burns, had encouraged the city of Fort Worth, the police department, and Forth Worth School District to pass ordinances and enact policies that are today some of the most liberal and progressive of many large US cities. The creation of a Diversity Task Force led by City Manager Dale Fiseler helped in the training and implementation of many of these new policies, including mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for all FWPD Officers, and a letter given to all new police recruits from Chief Halstead about the importance of acceptance. All Fort Worth city employees, without regard to sexual orientation, would now be included in the benefit program, and the city tourism board began advertising gay-themed and gay-owned business. In cooperation with the Resource Center Dallas, Fairness Fort Worth also gained domestic partner benefits for the employees of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The Fort Worth Gay Pride parade, which for years was a small affair held on the outskirts of the city, was invited to the downtown area for 2011 and Mayor Betsy Price served as Grand Marshall (Nash).
All of these accomplishments in the span of just over one year brought national attention to the North Texas LGBT community and Fairness Fort Worth. The Human Rights Campaign recognized the efforts and cooperation of Fairness Fort Worth and the city of Fort Worth along with Fort Worth Police Department for their successful undertakings of turning the city of Fort Worth into a shining example of gay rights. On November 8, 2011 the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Texas at Arlington held a conference attended by the US Justice Department, Equality Texas, and Fairness Fort Worth to establish a model for Law Enforcement Agencies when dealing with LGBT matters focusing on the Matthew Sheperd and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The incident at the Rainbow Lounge and the establishment of Fairness Fort Worth was covered extensively by local media and was noted by media nationwide. Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran stories in July of 2009 describing the incident and formation of Fairness Fort Worth. A full-length documentary about the Rainbow Lounge incident was produced.
Fairness Fort Worth will continue to be the voice of the LGBT community in Fort Worth Texas and surrounding areas. Funded only by donations, sights are set to promote equality and cooperation for LGBT communities with law enforcement agencies across North Texas.