Building the community that helped build her

Posted on 12 Feb 2016 at 6:45am

Dallas LGBT icon Betty Neal reflects on her Arkansas childhood, her years in the Dallas bar scene, and her role now

Neal-and-Lupe

Betty Neal, left, with Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. (Courtest Betty Neal)

 

JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Betty Neal was working another shift at the local gay bar when a disgruntled former customer showed up on the property, drunk and looking for a fight.

The man was barred from the property “because he was an ass,” Neal said.

He was not supposed to be there, but clearly hadn’t learned his lesson after being thrown out multiple times then later banned completely.

“I was told he was outside. So I went outside and we got into a fistfight. I got him bad,” Neal said. “He then told me he’d shoot me. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you shoot me now?’”

He answered by shooting Neal in the leg.

Some people don’t learn their lessons. This guy was one of them.

But Neal already knew firsthand what happens when you don’t listen to authority. She was raised by her grandparents in an all-black neighborhood in Fayetteville, Ark., in the northwest area of the state. Her grandmother was a maid for a family in town.

Her grandfather fished Monday through Thursday. But blue laws banning the sale of liquor and other items on the weekend were common in midcentury America. So Friday through Sunday, Neal’s grandfather was a bootlegger and loan shark.

“He was a nice guy but people were scared of him,” Neal said. “He was known as a ‘little gansta.’”

Neal-Betty-(rap)He was also a double amputee, a fact he reminded authorities during court appearances following occasional raids of the family business.

“He’d take off his legs and roll into court,” Neal said. “Who would punish a double amputee?”

Neal said she respected her grandparents, who raised her from age 2, and diligently worked for the family business. She’d prepare meals, but she’d also deliver bootleg alcohol and visit people who owed her grandfather money. Neal was sometimes tasked, along with her brothers, with going to pay friendly visits to customers needing to pay back their debts.

“Most would meet him [after the youngsters visited them],”  Neal said. Not all would, however. That’s when there would be trouble.

Neal’s grandparents didn’t just rely on spankings to get their messages across. Some lessons were subtler.

One time she spray-painted her car with all black; it looked “bad,” Neal said. Her grandfather did not yell or scream, but one day, the car just disappeared.

“I just knew [what happened],” Neal said.

Another time, she wanted to meet some friends, but had to first wrap raw chicken breasts for the weekend.

After she hastily wrapped the chicken breasts and tossed them into the freezer, her grandfather noticed her sloppy work. Without saying a word, he whacked her on the side of her head with a raw chicken.

She blacked out, woke up and without hesitation went back to wrapping the chicken. This time she was slower and more deliberate.

“He didn’t have to say anything. I knew what I did wrong,” Neal said.

But sometimes her grandparents didn’t need to intervene. In one case, she figures another force taught her a lesson.

In the summer of July 1970, Neal defied her grandparents’ wishes and joined other kids at the local swimming pool. It was hot outside and the cool water felt nice — until the chlorine pipes exploded. Along with other screaming kids, she was rushed to the hospital for multiple burns and wounds.

But for Neal, growing up wasn’t all risks and hard lessons. It was also a lot of fun.

She said she can’t recall much racial tension even though Fayetteville schools integrated when she was in the third grade.

“I had so many white friends. We never had racial problems,” Neal said.

Neal — athletic and popular at Fayetteville High School — was chosen to be part of an elite group of students known as the 26 Club. Students walked into classrooms and presented honorees with flowers. She was well liked, she said, and wanted to use that status to bring people together.

Even her high school group, Promotion of Black Students, or PBS, was not a “militant” group. Instead, she said, “We were best known for our annual fundraiser for prom. It was a soul food dinner, with chicken, ribs, cornbread and beans. The high school was packed.”

Aside from two high school friends, though, her friends were straight. It wasn’t until she took a job at a bar called 42nd Street that Neal finally met other LGBT people.

She also saw her first drag show at 42nd Street, and was entranced by the art of female impersonation and how the performers were clearly dedicated to their craft.

Neal quickly became not just a participant in the club scene, but a fixture, first at 42nd Street then at R.D.’s Disco, where she worked the door and was a DJ.

“I never missed a weekend,” Neal said.

But as her brother became increasingly involved with drugs and crime, Arkansas took its toll on Neal.

When two friends asked her to join them in Dallas, she jumped at the opportunity. With her girlfriend and a glowing recommendation from her boss in tow, she headed south to Texas.

After settling in, Neal started job hunting. She walked into the door of Sassy’s on McKinney asking for employment, and she walked out with a job.

Neal said she liked the club business. “You party all night and sleep all day. You meet so many people too,” she said. “A stranger would become your friend.”

From Sassy’s, she went to the Conference Room, The Landing, High Country, the Delman, the Unicorn, Upper Level, Traxx, Meischas, Jugs, Raps, The Wave and, finally, The Brick.

At each bar she brought with her that quintessential personality that has made her famous. She was warm and friendly — and she was tough.

Neal said she liked the club business, yeah, but the hard drugs and liquor and late nights and bar fights were taking their toll. She found herself faced with a choice, and with her faith as her guide, decided to leave the club scene.

“After thinking and prayer, I chose to no longer hang out with some people,” Neal said.

Don’t get her wrong, she said; she’s not a sober evangelist for Alcoholics Anonymous. “I love happy hour,” Neal said.

But moving on from the bar scene required making other major changes. In 2006, Neal joined Wal Mart, working in asset protection, a managerial role where she makes sure no one robs the place.

Moving on from the bar scene also didn’t mean she relinquished her role as a board member of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, which she has served on since 1993. Her efforts diversified the board. She made sure more African-Americans were involved.

“Volunteering is a way of giving back to the community that gave to me,” Neal said.

The community’s not forgotten her either. She’s received five LGBT awards for her community service. Last October during Dallas Southern Pride — Dallas’ black Pride celebration, which Neal first help organize in the 1990s — awarded her the Ball/House and Pageant Tommie Ross Pioneer Award in recognition of her “longstanding presence, her grace, her poise and her many accomplishments within both the pageant and the house/ball communities.”

The award may recognize her, but she said she received it in part because of a community that welcomed her in 1980 as a black lesbian.

“If you don’t mind giving back, if you give a helping hand, I’ll help you out,” Neal said. “But don’t get me wrong, I’ll stomp your ass. I don’t like to now, but I was known for it. It’s my responsibility.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 12, 2016.                           

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