Four years after Rainbow Lounge raid, longtime activist says it’s time for Cowtown’s LGBT community to shed notion of being a ‘stepchild’
DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Arlington in the late 1970s, David Mack Henderson played the school’s mascot at sporting events.
When UTA’s administration found out Henderson was gay, school officials asked him to resign.
“I was distraught,” Henderson said.
That night, he went to the Tarrant County Mining Company, a gay bar in Arlington. He met friends there who had lost everything to arson the night before and were harassed with graffiti and broken windows for a week before the fire destroyed their house.
“They couldn’t fight back,” Henderson said. “I could.”
So he refused to resign as mascot and founded the first LGBT group on the UTA campus.
And Henderson, who would later serve on the Dallas Gay Alliance board before moving to Fort Worth, has been fighting back ever since.
After the raid on the Rainbow Lounge in 2009, he was involved in the formation of Fairness Fort Worth — and last week, he was elected president of the group.
Henderson said this week he’d like Fairness Fort Worth to become the go-to organization on LGBT issues for Tarrant County. He’s pushing for more gays and lesbians to be appointed to Fort Worth boards and commissions, continuing work on comprehensive transgender health benefits for city employees and expecting members of his expanded and diverse board to tackle a variety of new issues.
“We came together out of extraordinary need four years ago,” Henderson said. “But now it’s time to expand and reach into the broader community.”
That effort began a year ago when Jon Nelson became president and he began expanding the board to reflect the LGBT community’s diversity. Current members are Hispanic, African-American, transgender, straight allies, parents of LGBT children, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, representing a variety of professions and educational backgrounds.
Henderson called his board a good cross-section of the city, crediting Nelson with doing a good job of expanding beyond the four or five founders of the organization and moving past that crisis.
But he said the city is in an odd position. Fort Worth is the 16th-largest city in the U.S. — larger than Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Denver or Washington. All of those cities have active, well-organized LGBT communities.
But Fort Worth is the largest city in the U.S. that ranks second in size in a metropolitan area.
“We’re not the stepchild, but [we’re] thought of that way,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s vision for Fairness Fort Worth as the go-to organization for Tarrant County is already starting to take shape, he said.
When a group of teenagers was arrested for spray-painting an Arlington lesbian couple’s car with anti-gay graffiti, Henderson attended the court proceedings. When the couple’s 2-year-old child needed to be shielded from the press, Henderson helped, and when the couple couldn’t appear for the sentencing of one of the defendants, he read the victim impact statement to the court.
When a gay Everman couple’s home was targeted for vandalism, the men called Fairness Fort Worth for guidance.
Newly elected FFW Vice President Jim McAlister said while the group has been involved in those cases, a big part of its work involves under-the-radar bureaucratic issues.
He gave the example of comprehensive transgender health insurance for city employees, a proposal which is still being discussed at Fort Worth City Hall.
“Our job is to make people in authority feel comfortable about doing the right thing,” McAlister said.
Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said Fairness Fort Worth has been instrumental in protecting the rights of all citizens and he expects continued success in the future. Costa considers the group a trustworthy resource for the city that he would rely on should an issue arise.
“They formed in the wake of a tragic event,” he said, “but much to their credit, they’ve always been constructive — never adversarial.
Fort Worth as a whole can take pride.”
Costa cited the Fort Worth school district’s anti-bullying policy as an example of the group’s work, as well as LGBT diversity training for city employees and the police department.
“Change takes time, but their progress is little short of phenomenal,” he said.
Costa suggested the group might work with local businesses to bring the same employment policies to companies that it brought to the city.
Henderson said he expects various board members to take up different projects and run with them.
McAlister said he’d like to see the group get involved in youth advocacy.
Nelson said nondiscrimination policies and partner benefits in other Tarrant County cities and at the county need to be addressed.
Henderson said he’s not trying to compete with Dallas organizations. Instead, he’d like to see FFW provide services that groups like his offer in other cities his size.
“We need to have a community infrastructure that will bind Tarrant County’s LGBT community comparable to cities our size elsewhere,” he said.
And while HIV services in Fort Worth are provided by established organizations, the community has no paid staff providing LGBT services. So FFW has teamed successfully with Resource Center Dallas on several issues, like updating policies and providing partner benefits for DFW Airport employees. He’d like to see that partnership grow.
Henderson, who served on the DGA board when Bill Nelson was president of the group in the 1980s, recalled that after Oak Lawn Councilwoman Lori Palmer won election with strong support from the LGBT community, she began making LGBT appointments to boards and commissions. Others followed as council members began to respect the LGBT community.
“In Fort Worth, that hasn’t quite happened yet,” he said. “That might be one of our next steps. If we’re going to be stronger in the fabric of Fort Worth, we need to play our part, too.”
The Rev. Carol West, pastor of Celebration Community Church, said she expects the group to expand on the work already started.
West has served on the board since the group’s founding.
“We’ve made great strides toward a more fair Fort Worth, Tarrant and surrounding counties,” she said. “Fairness Fort Worth will continue to do the good work it has been doing.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 2, 2013.