30 years ago, Dallas’ LGBT community fought back in the courts after police raided a popular gay dance club and arrested 12 patrons
Thirty years ago this weekend — on Oct. 25, 1979 — a team of vice officers from the Dallas Police Department went into the Village Station, a gay bar on Cedar Springs Road, and arrested 12 patrons on charges of public lewdness for doing the “bunny hop” on the dance floor.
Such harassment of gay bars by police was hardly uncommon at the time, but on this occasion, the LGBT community’s response would be different.
Gay male defendants in public lewdness cases had almost always pleaded guilty to avoid the publicity associated with trials — typically agreeing to pay a substantial fine and complete probation — but four victims of the October 1979 Village Station raid opted instead to fight the charges.
The community rallied around the men, who became known as “the Village Station Four,” and the oft-since-forgotten case evolved into what some consider Dallas’ version of the Stonewall Rebellion, which had taken place 10 years before in New York City.
“It was a turning point, a key turning point — the idea of standing up to the police and their system of arresting us,” said Campbell Read, a retired SMU statistics professor who then served as vice president of the Dallas Gay Alliance.
“That was the beginning of a decline in the homophobic practices of the police department. They began to respect us,” Read said. “Word went around in the police department that the gay community wasn’t going to stand for this, so you’d better quit.”
Read said that for him, this summer’s raid on the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth — which occurred on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion — brought back memories of the 1979 Dallas incident.
“Fort Worth had not really been through this process that we went through in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said.
October is also Gay History Month, and the community is getting ready to gather for one of its largest celebrations of the year — the Halloween block party on Cedar Springs. With a new era of LGBT activism dawning — Stonewall 2.0, some have called it — Read said he hopes the Village Station raid will be remembered.
“I think young people in Dallas are blissfully unaware of the struggle we had to go through to get to where we are today,” he said.
According to Read and others, after two of the Village Station Four were found not guilty by one of the few fair-minded criminal judges in Dallas, District Attorney Henry Wade dropped charges against the other two and refiled them in another court, one presided over by a homophobic judge.
This was an example of “forum-shopping” on the part of Wade, which is considered unethical, and DGA filed a complaint against him with the State Bar Association.
Although the ethics complaint was ultimately dismissed, the episode served to embarrass the District Attorney’s Office, Read said.
Meanwhile, DGA also took to publishing in its newsletter the names of DPD vice officers who routinely arrested people in gay bars. The names of undercover cops generally aren’t available to the public, but Read said, “I had a source and I still don’t give that out. We called him ‘Deep Throat.’
“We found a pattern emerging of officers who seemed overzealous in doing that,” Read said. “The police did not like the publicity they were getting.”
Peter Brooks, who then served as chairman of DGA’s Social Justice Committee and is now a judge in Austin, said it was a “pretty ugly period of time.”
“We weren’t talking about things like being free from discrimination in employment or marriage rights,” Brooks recalled. “We were just talking about being safe in a place where you went to socialize. It was one thing to be arrested for having sex in a public place. It was another thing to be arrested for lewd conduct if you were just dancing with someone or talking with someone. … You may have been dirty dancing, but it wasn’t lewd behavior. Not only did they interpret things as lewd that weren’t lewd, but they also misrepresented things that never happened.”
Brooks said Oak Lawn — and specifically the intersection of Cedar Springs and Throckmorton — represented the only place in Dallas outside of downtown where police wrote tickets for jaywalking. He also said gay men arrested for public lewdness in parks would sometimes face bogus additional charges — like assaulting a police officer, a felony.
But the gay liberation movement was picking up steam in Dallas and across the country, Brooks added. Openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated one year before the Village Station raid, the first gay rights march on Washington was held only a few weeks before, and the case of Baker v. Wade, which sought to overturn the state’s sodomy statute, was filed the same year.
“It was one example of a coming of age in the gay and lesbian community in Dallas, and an awakening, that we weren’t going to take things standing still anymore,” Brooks said of the raid and its aftermath. “The whole thing was just to fight, to file complaints, not take it laying down. We were going to fight, and we were going to do it politically, we were going to do it legally, we were going to do it in education. We were going to do it in every venue we could find.”
Don Maison, who now serves as executive director of AIDS Services of Dallas, was then an attorney in private practice who represented some of the Village Station defendants.
Maison can still rattle off the names of the police officers and judges involved.
He said one of the Village Station managers testified that based on the physical layout of the bar, it was impossible for the officers’ accounts to be accurate.
After anti-gay citizens began attending the trials, Maison said he contacted the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Dallas, and gay and lesbian supporters started showing up, too.
During the trials, Maison said, activists also spray-painted the brick outer wall of the Village Station, which occupied what is now Zini’s Pizzeria, with the words, “Stop Police Harassment!”
“That, to my knowledge, was the end of the big gay bar raids in Dallas,” Maison said. “After that, the dialogue between the police department and the gay community began.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2009.