With so much negative press about the bar raid in Fort Worth, you might imagine queer culture there is suffering. But there’s still much to love about Cowtown’s gay scene — just ask those who live it
The much-publicized June TABC raid at Fort Worth’s Rainbow Lounge has given the city some negative attention, although anyone who lives there knows it is a diverse city that has elected an openly gay city council member (Joel Burns), has laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation and is rich in culture.
But "D" represents a big part of "DFW," and despite the oft-trumpeted rivalry between the neighboring cities, Texans stick together. People outside the state may even think that the whole of North Texas is homophobic — and that’s simply not the case.
Any city with a population steadily edging toward 1 million would have a respectably-sized gay community and, more to the point, a healthy bar scene. Fort Worth falls into that category, although the gay population has mostly kept quiet, and its nightclub scene has an uneven track record (probably because a much bigger Metropolis with more options is only a 30-minute drive away).
So we’d like to remind folks why we love the place whose nicknames include Cowtown, Panther City and Funkytown. Here’s a partial list of our favorite Fort Worth faboos and taboos — with a few shout-outs from some prominent gay residents.
If you see a cowboy/girl at a gay bar, there’s a good chance he or she is the real thing. Unlike in Dallas, where day-job CPAs fancy a little cowboy drag after sundown, the boot-scooters in Fort Worth often own, live on or work on ranches and in agricultural industries in the outlying areas west and south of the city. Scott Jones, who runs the city’s only gay bar with a country dance floor, Best Friends, says he loves the city because "we’re laid back."
Not only might you encounter real cowboys at a gay bar, you can catch some of the city’s female impersonators lip-synching to country divas of yore, such as Bobbie Gentry, Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette. Rhonda Mae, a popular transgender resident who loves the classic ladies of country, has her "Wall of Food" show every Wednesday at the city’s longest-running gay bar, the Stampede (formerly the Corral Club). Tips for the entertainers benefit the food pantry of AIDS Outreach Center. You can also catch shows on Friday and Saturday nights, sponsored by the Imperial Court and/or TGRA.
Q Cinema, Fort Worth’s International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Todd Camp has successfully run this event for 11 years, and has never missed a year. That’s probably because it has never even tried being too ambitious. Not only can you count on a weekend-long festival every spring, Q Cinema sponsors film screenings each month, often of movies making their Texas premieres.
Todd Camp in general. The man dubbed the mayor of gay Fort Worth mayor by the Dallas Observer is also host of the city’s best gay social event, the Nightmare Before Christmas party, a combo Halloween/Xmas QC benefit, always held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
"There are so many things about Fort Worth that keep me rooted here, whether it’s the big-city offerings with a small-city vibe or the exciting changes in store as we continue to grow. But what I really love about Fort Worth is my ever-expanding family of choice," says Camp. "I’m always happy to make new friends and have been happily doing so with some regularity. But the folks who make up my inner circle are the kinds of friends who stick with you always, no matter how big for your britches or how down on your luck you might get. When tested the night of the Rainbow Lounge raid" — Camp was there, celebrating his birthday —"that group was cemented more solidly than I ever imagined. It is for them alone that Cowtown will always be my home."
The museums. Fort Worth has three world-class venues with amazing collections: The Amon Carter Museum, the Kimbell Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, all nestled within a paintbrush-throw of each other in the city’s Cultural District.
We asked Fort Worth gay artist Gregory Story which is his favorite: " The Kimbell is a must-see, but The Modern is downright sexy! From the [Richard] Serra [sculpture, Vortex] out front, which manages to be both a giant penis and a giant vagina at the same time, to the recently purchased Kihinde Wiley (the hottest painting ever hung in a major museum). Artists in Fort Worth have the luxury of access to just enough fantastic art to stay inspired and keep our creative juices flowing, but, without all the distractions of a major city we’re able to actually get work done and make art."
Magnolia Avenue, which is finally living up to its longtime potential with a string of great restaurants, such as the perennial favorite Benito’s, the original location of the vegan staple Spiral Diner, and some of the best Italian food in North Texas, Nona Tata. There’s also a cool gay-friendly college hangout, The Chat Room.
Lower property taxes than Dallas.
The Dallas Diamonds, the championship women’s tackle football team. Ignore the Dallas part of the name, because just like a certain other football franchise in town, the Diamonds play their games in Tarrant County. The field has ranged from North Richland Hills to Bedford, and the gals are always one of the most popular attractions at Fort Worth’s Gay Pride Parade, recently moved from the first week in June to October.
Which brings us to the Gay Pride Parade. It’s considerably smaller than its Dallas counterpart, which can be welcome, considering the heat. The week after, there’s a picnic (where you’ll spot gays you’ve never seen in the bars) and after the parade on Jennings Avenue, there’s a festival at one of the nearby bars.
Bruce Wood. For a decades, the brilliant choreographer ran a terrific dance company that performed three or four times a year at Bass Hall, and his works made frequent use of same-sex coupling. For those who miss him, the Texas Dance Theatre will debut a brand new work by him on Sept. 25 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Scott Theatre.
The Stockyards. All right, it’s not exactly the place to hold hands with and kiss your partner, but for some good Western-themed fun, you can’t beat this area of North Fort Worth, where the megaclub Billy Bob’s Texas towers as the crown jewel.
We recommend shopping at Leddy’s for quality boots (there’s also a location downtown), chowing at Love Shack for the now-famous Love Burger, which as a fried quail egg as part of its toppings (the owner, Tim Love, has appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef and on the Food Channel). You’ll never want an eggless burger again.
Rev. Carol West, of the city’s largest gay church, Celebration Community Church, loves her city. "Fort Worth has a wonderful history, and as a seventh generation Texan, that history is meaningful to me," she says. "The community of Fort Worth is an amazing tapestry of people. The family I have at Celebration Community Church is a reflection of what I love about the city, where I have found so many people whose definition of community extends far beyond the city limits."
Bass Hall is the home to the renowned quadrennial International Piano Competition named for Cliburn (just completed earlier this year) as well as the Fort Worth Opera, which has done some daring work in recent years, including the Texas premiere of the Angels in America opera and Dead Man Walking.
The FWO is run by general director Darren Woods, who adds this about his city: "What I love about Fort Worth is the vibrancy of a big city in what is really a small town. There has always been a feeling of complete acceptance for my partner Steven and I from the day we moved here. We have always felt a huge part of the community."
Mama, the jolly man who was at the front door at the former gay nightclub Magnolia Station and now runs a small bar on the east side of town, Changes. Mama is always smiling — and ready with some juicy gossip. Because cowboy authenticity aside, gays still love to gossip.
Mark Lowry, former theater critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and long-time Cowtown resident, now lives with his partner in Dallas. He co-founded the Web site TheaterJones.com.
RL on RL
Our Rich Lopez talks about what he loves about the Rainbow Lounge
Ever since it’s opening weekend — the 40th anniversary of Stonewall — the Rainbow Lounge has been drowning in controversy. The infamous TABC raid on the night of its grand opening put the new Cowtown spot on the map, but for the wrong reason. A few weeks later, one of its bartenders died in a car accident. It almost seemed as if the place was cursed. But I had to see for myself.
What I found was a gem of a nightspot.
With best friend in tow, we ventured across the Trinity on a Monday, expecting to find a lax crowd on a school night. We were surprised by the decent turnout the place had by 9 p.m., with cars filling the tiny parking lot. Thankfully, street parking was easy and not populated by meters and restrictions. This alone is reason to love Fort Worth.
When we passed the front door partition, we saw a delight of a lounge. The place glitzed in all the right ways, with a sleek but inviting bar to our left and the ample dance floor to our right. It would double as a stage later for talent night, with Whitney Paige who was in the V.I.P. Lounge preparing to go on.
Kudos to their interior designer. The lounge is designed in a way that’s flashy but never garish and doesn’t rely on the overuse of nude pics of men and women to ascribe how sexy the place is. The V.I.P. lounge is created by the simple use of curtains and sofas with a second bar, but doesn’t come off snobby or exclusive.
The crowd was a nice mixture of men, women, young and old and even some straight among the sea of gay. Employees and patrons were all cordial; even the dancers stopped and initiated conversation as we observed (even though we assumed they were warming us up for tips). Still, it was wonderful to genuinely converse with the locals.
Its small-town charm in a not-so-small city is a triumph and despite its rough start, the Rainbow Lounge should exhale with a sigh of relief for creating an authentically festive spot for its Fort Worth community.
Butch (and Not-So-Butch) in Sundance
Fort Worth is a big enough city to attract lots of talent but small enough that its downtown is still walkable and appealing — even at night. (How many large cities have a downtown you’d feel safe in?) And a lot of that appeal is its Sundance Square, which already is what Victory Park wants to be — an urban destination, especially for foodies.
Sure, any place that proudly nicknames itself Cowtown can be expected to have decent steaks. And most Texas cities cultivate good Tex-Mex cuisine. But you can actually get both at Reata. This Fort Worth institution has been the breeding ground for Tarrant County’s best chefs: Grady Spears, Tim Love, Brian Olenjack and more have fed their customers and their own reputations with this definitive high plains cuisine.
Of course there are the steaks, including a blackened buffalo ribeye and carne asada and pepper-crusted tenderloin, which all seem to have been carved from the steer as we sat down, so deep and luscious was the meat. Preparation is predictably expert, with the tenderloin awash in a port reduction that seduced the flavors right out of the beef.
But Reata also boasts, hands down, the best enchiladas I’ve ever tasted. Ever. Who gets excited about an enchilada? Try one and you won’t ask.
Then there’s Piranha, which you could assume goes outside the box for Cowtown with its sushi. But who couldn’t enjoy such colorful and creative seafood? Lusciously prepared rolls, many with kicky ingredients and a hip vibe (think dance music), give Fort Worth some funk.
Dash around the corner and drop about 20 feet below street level and you can enter Simply Fondue, a grotto-like subterranean treat. Here you can order three kinds of fondue: entree-style (either with cheese or hot oil for boiling meats) and dessert-style (melted chocolate with fruits and marshmallows). Forget the diet here and luxuriate in the sin.
And that’s just a smattering of the culinary and cultural class — and only in a few blocks. There’s always more to discover. Come hungry.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.