Formed to meet the immediate needs of Tarrant County’s LGBT community in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid, Fairness Fort Worth is evolving into a cornerstone in building a stronger community
TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
FORT WORTH — Even though Fort Worth in 2001 became one of the first Texas cities to include sexual orientation in its citywide nondiscrimination ordinance, the city known as “Cowtown” and the place “where the West begins” was never known for having an especially active LGBT community.
There were gay bars here, sure, and plenty of LGBT citizens in Cowtown. But there was no recognizable “gayborhood,” no active LGBT organizations. Fort Worth’s LGBT churches got lost in the shadow of Cathedral of Hope, “the largest LGBT congregation in the world” located just east in Dallas. And the city’s annual gay Pride parade, while older than Dallas’, had in recent years dwindled away to nearly nothing.
But then came June 29, 2009 — the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York and the night that Fort Worth police and agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided a newly-opened gay bar called the Rainbow Lounge.
In the tumultuous days and weeks after the raid made headlines across the country, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief insisted the city would handle the uproar in “the Fort Worth way.”
Some angry activists, many of them younger and more radical folks who didn’t actually live in Fort Worth, responded with jeers. To them, “the Fort Worth way” was just code for ignoring the problem and looking for some way to sweep it all under the rug.
But a group of stalwart Fort Worth LGBTs took a different tack. They decided to take Moncrief and other city leaders at their word and opted for a more low-key, although no less insistent, approach.
Moncrief said “the Fort Worth way” was to talk things out and work together to find ways to solve problems, and these Fort Worth LGBT leaders stepped up and said, “OK. Let’s talk. But you’d better be ready to do more than just talk. We want solutions.”
And that was the birth of a new day in Fort Worth.
Fairness Fort Worth is formed
Less than two weeks after the raid, a group of LGBT business, civic and religious leaders held a press conference to announce the formation of a new organization called Fairness Fort Worth. Attorney Jon Nelson explained that the group’s initial priority was to help locate witnesses to the Rainbow Lounge raid, providing those individuals with legal advice while also coordinating with TABC and Fort Worth police to get their testimony recorded as part of the several investigations into what actually happened that night.
But even then, FFW founders knew they wanted to do more.
“Even though our city strives to be open, equal and caring, we have much more work to do,” Nelson said at the time.
Over the next several months, FFW continued to coordinate the LGBT community’s response to the raid. The organization marshaled hundreds of citizens to turn out in support of a new ordinance protecting transgenders from discrimination, offering measured, reasonable responses to the bigoted rants of those who opposed the change.
FFW members volunteered for the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force that created a list of policy changes and new initiatives to make Cowtown a more LGBT-friendly place to live and work. And they met frequently with Police Chief Jeff Halstead and other city officials, making sure that those officials followed through on promises they made.
On Sept. 15 that year, FFW incorporated. The organization’s first board meeting followed in January 2010. Lee Zolinger was elected as the first FFW president, but he soon realized that his job was keeping him from being as active in FFW as he wanted.
That’s when Thomas Anable stepped up and offered to run for the office, and in June that year, he was elected as FFW’s new leader.
Anable, a CPA, was new to the world of LGBT activism. He readily admits now that he had always relied on his status in the business world and his ability to “pass,” and had never felt the need to be active in the LGBT community.
But Anable was the accountant for Rainbow Lounge, and he was in the bar the night of the raid. What he saw then made him realize that no one is immune to anti-LGBT bigotry. And he was determined that FFW and its opportunity to be a force for change would not fade away.
A new focus
Under Anable’s leadership, FFW members decided to focus on two specific areas where they felt they could help enact that change: bullying in schools and LGBT issues within Fort Worth’s hospitals.
Anable said that the hospitals in the area had never participated in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual report on policies regarding LGBT issues “because they knew they wouldn’t meet the criteria to get good scores. So we decided to take a new approach. We decided we would encourage them to take the HRC survey, but instead of submitting it, they could use that as a guideline on how to improve.”
Anable said shortly afterward, the federal Health and Human Services department came out with new guidelines on how hospitals should deal with LGBT people and access to health care services. And with approval from the FFW board, Anable talked with Resource Center Dallas’ executive director and associate director of community programs, Cece Cox and Lee Taft, about working together to approach the hospitals.
According to FFW treasurer David Mack Henderson, that partnership is in full swing now as the two organizations develop a strategy in approaching the hospitals on those issues.
On the issue of bullying in the schools, FFW has worked behind the scenes to provide the Fort Worth Independent School District with the information and resources it needed to enact comprehensive anti-bullying policies.
The district has already adopted such a policy for faculty and administrators, and Nelson said this week he is “fully confident you will see a comprehensive anti-bullying policy [pertaining to students] in place by the beginning of the next school year, as well as a mindset that will exist on cooperation and treating people fairly with respect, and not just in the LGBT community.”
Plus, Anable noted, FFW was instrumental in helping secure the assistance of the Human Rights Campaign, which created a new staff position for someone to work with school districts to implement anti-bullying policies and programs. The first person hired, Rhonda Thomasson, is already working with schools in Dallas and Fort Worth, Anable said.
The Tarrant County College system also recently adopted anti-bullying policies specifically including protections based on sexual orientation. And Anable has spoken to the system’s board members on including protections based on gender and gender identity, as well.
Anable said that as FFW president, another of his priorities was to make sure FFW worked with other LGBT organizations in North Texas and at the state and national levels. With that in mind, he said, he asked all FFW board members to get involved with those organizations as volunteers and board members.
The reason, Anable said, is that FFW can be most beneficial by acting as a kind of “clearinghouse” for LGBT issues in Tarrant County, helping to identify needs and then matching those needs to the resources that already exist.
“We want to be a coordinator,” Anable said. “We won’t really do programs ourselves. We will identify the needs that are out there, and then match them with the providers who have the resources already to meet those needs.”
So far, the strategy seems to be working. In just 20 months, Anable said, FFW has played a role in making changes that in other cities have taken years to accomplish.
Carol West agreed.
“This organization has had a tremendously positive impact,” West said. “In those early days after the raid, things could have gone either way. I think it was absolutely necessary to have Fairness Fort Worth there doing what we did, and doing it in a very positive way.
“Now, more and more people are getting involved and becoming aware,” she said, adding that diversity training for all city employees is a “direct result of the work of Fairness Fort Worth. … We’ve got a lot of good things happening here.”
West, who is herself on Chief Halstead’s citizens advisory board, said those good things include a focus on improving services for LGBT youth in Tarrant County, developing an LGBT archive for the county that will be housed at Celebration Community Church, and establishing an LGBT hotline that will also be housed at the church.
“Fairness Fort Worth has become a really tremendous organization that really is the face of LGBT politics in Fort Worth, the face of justice in Fort Worth. I think we have really made a difference for the better,” West said.
Nelson said that impact dates back to the first city council meeting after the Rainbow Lounge raid.
“I think it really had quite a sobering effect on the city council and the mayor and the city manager to sit there at that table and look out into the crowd and see hundreds of people there wearing our yellow Fairness Fort Worth buttons,” Nelson said.
“Even then, in its infancy, Fairness Fort Worth was able to do something few had been able to do before: marshal enough people to come to City Hall and really have an impact. When those elected officials saw more than 450 people wearing those yellow buttons that said Fairness Fort Worth, something was different, and they knew it. That perception could easily have dissipated, but because of Fairness Fort Worth, we didn’t let that happen,” Nelson said.
With FFW, Nelson said, LGBT people in Tarrant County now know “they have somewhere to turn if they have questions or concerns.
“They know we aren’t just focused on one issue. We are broad based and we can be that clearinghouse they need.
“And those in the straight community know we exist and that we have the ability to take their concerns out into our community. That has never existed before,” he said.
The existence of FFW, Nelson said, gives the LGBT community and the individuals within that community a tangible presence to the community at large, “both the perception and the reality of an organization and a community that can make a difference. That has never existed before in Fort Worth,” Nelson said.
The Fort Worth way
Some in Fort Worth reacted angrily to activists who converged on Fort Worth after the Rainbow Lounge raid, taking to the streets with chants and placards and bullhorns, and standing up in council meetings to make demands until the mayor had them removed.
But both Nelson and Anable were quick to point out those protesters played a necessary role in the progress that’s been made in Fort Worth.
“I don’t think any right we have today was garnered without protests like that,” Nelson said. “But protests alone get nothing done. At some point you have to sit down with both sides and discuss things. Both sides have to be able to understand each other and trust each other. You can’t do that with placards and bullhorns. And that’s what Fairness Fort Worth has brought to the table.”
That, Anable said, “is what we mean when we say ‘the Fort Worth way.’ It means, let’s sit down and talk about it. Let’s be reasonable and act like adults and have a real conversation that can come up with real solutions. That’s what happened here.”
Anable, who said that before the Rainbow Lounge raid never felt the need to be involved in LGBT political issues or to even make a point about being openly gay, decided at the beginning of this year that he has a new calling in his life.
So he sold his CPA practice to his business partner and now plans to devote himself fulltime to LGBT activism.
He said, “It’s been a really strange 20 months. If you had told me a year and a half ago that I would be where I am today, I never would have believed you. My whole life has changed.
“In one night, my life changed. This city changed. And it’s still changing. And Fairness Fort Worth is going to help make it happen.”
Fairness Fort Worth Timeline
• June 28, 2009: Rainbow Lounge Raid (TABC report says 1:28am).
• June 28, 2009: Protest Rally on Tarrant County Courthouse steps.
• June 28, 2009: Press release from FWPD (mentioning 3 sexual advances).
• July 1, 2009: Candlelight vigil for Chad Gibson.
• July 2, 2009: Chief Halstead announces suspension of joint operations with TABC.
• July 2, 2009: First gathering at Celebration Community Church to form Fairness Fort Worth.
• July 8, 2009: Press conference announcing FFW.
• July 8, 2009: FFW begins coordinating Rainbow Lounge witness interviews.
• July 14, 2009: Officer Sara Straten appointed as interim liaison to the LGBT community.
• July 14, 2009: City Council meeting, more than 450 LGBT citizens and allies attend.
• July 21, 2009: City Council votes on resolution calling for independent federal investigation.
• July 21, 2009: Council votes to establish the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force.
• July 23, 2009: First meeting of City Manager’s Diversity Task Force.
• July 28, 2009: The FW Human Relations Commission votes for resolution trans protections.
• Aug. 6, 2009: Press release of Phase 1 of TABC report.
• Aug. 6, 2009: FWST reports that U.S. Attorney won’t investigate Rainbow Lounge raid.
• Aug. 17, 2009: FFW leaders meet privately with Halstead to hammer out differences.
• Aug. 18. 2009: Halstead tells city council that investigation will require more time.
• Aug 28, 2009: TABC announces it has fired three agents involved in Rainbow Lounge raid.
• Oct 11, 2009: Chief Halstead attends the Tarrant County Gay Pride Picnic.
• Nov 3, 2009: Crime Control Prevention District measure passes with support of FFW.
• Nov 5, 2009: FWPD holds press conference releasing report on investigation into raid.
• Nov 5, 2009: TABC releases excessive force findings.
• Nov 10, 2009: Diversity Task Force recommendations presented at City Council meeting.
• April/May, 2010: Volunteers train to teach GLBT Diversity Training Class to city employees.
• May, 2010: GLBT Diversity Classes commence with Mayor Moncrief in the first class.
• June 28, 2010: BBQ Anniversary with police and city officials invited to Rainbow Lounge.
• April 27, 2011: Final Diversity Task Force Meeting. More than 1,200 city employees trained to date.
• May 3, 2011 : Assistant city manager and FFW members address council on progress to date.