Fairness Fort Worth co-founder and president David Henderson, who died Dec. 3, helped his city’s LGBT community find it’s voice

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David Mack Henderson, the conscience of the Ft. Worth LGBT community.

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

The man that the Rev. Carol West called the conscience of Fort Worth’s LGBT community has died.

David Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth, died Saturday, Dec. 3, of esophageal cancer.

Henderson was diagnosed with the disease, already at stage four, in August. He made the diagnosis public in early October, but remained active and engaged in working for LGBT equality until the end.

Henderson was the sponsor of the Coalition for Aging LGBT Tarrant County summit  held in Fort Worth on Nov. 12. Although his health didn’t allow him to attend, summit organizer Cannon Flowers said Henderson helped with all of the details and planning leading up to the event.

Earlier this year, the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce presented Henderson with its Extra Mile Award in recognition for his work with Fairness Fort Worth and his many years of service to the community. Chamber CEO Tony Vedda said, “David was like a dog with a bone, unflinching in his tenacity when advocating for the LGBT community.”

Vedda said he was glad the chamber honored Henderson before he was diagnosed with cancer so that “he knew that we knew how much he did.”

Henderson’s activism began in 1980 when he was a student at UT Arlington, and was elected as the school’s mascot. When staff in the athletic department found out he was gay, they asked him to resign.

Not only did Henderson refuse to resign, the incident prompted him to found what’s now known as the GSA@UTA, the first campus LGBT alliance in Texas that was officially recognized by a school.

Henderson said he was proud that the attempt to get rid of him because he was gay resulted in the school having a LGBT organization as well as a mascot who was not only gay but now vocal about it.

“David had the most loving and gentle heart and his spirit filled the room everywhere he went and fought for social justice for all LGBTQA+ people, especially youth,” Becki Clesse, president of GSA@UTA wrote in announcing Henderson’s death to the group.

Before graduating, Henderson transferred to University of North Texas and promptly founded an LGBT alliance on that campus as well. He joined the board of the Dallas Gay Alliance in 1984, the year AIDS hit Texas hard, prompting DGA to form the AIDS Resource Center. Henderson managed daily operations at the storefront on Cedar Springs Road.

Henderson left Texas for about 20 years and worked as a tax accountant. One of the couples suing for the right to marry in Massachusetts — the lawsuit that led to that state legalizing same-sex marriage in 2003 — was among his clients.

Henderson returned to Texas in 2009, shortly before the raid on the Rainbow Lounge that made headlines around the world.

In the raid, Fort Worth police accompanied Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents into the Rainbow Lounge, open for only a week at the time. Rather than just inspect the receipts behind the bar, police and agents chose to engage with patrons, becoming abusive with customers and leaving two of the customers injured. One of the two sustained permanent brain damage when he was slammed to the concrete floor and handcuffed. He was transported to JPS Hospital after collapsing outside the bar.

The raid, coming on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, prompted outrage and anger in the otherwise sleepy Fort Worth community — and around the country, and even the world. Protests began within hours.

“We gathered together some smart people,” Henderson said on a video made before his GLBT Chamber award dinner, “and came up with the concept of working with some people in the city and not against them. We sat down with the police, with City Council and city management.”

“He did it and he did it spectacularly,” Vedda said of Henderson’s efforts after the raid. “And he turned things around quickly.”

That was the beginning of Fairness Fort Worth, an organization that worked for equality on a city and state level.

Within a few years, the group had given four-hour cultural competency training sessions to all of Fort Worth’s more than 6,000 employees. They provided that training to Arlington’s police department and parks department as well as to school districts around Tarrant County.

Resource Center Communications and Advocacy Manager Rafael McDonnell said he worked together with Henderson to get quite a number of things accomplished, ranging from getting nondiscrimination policies in place with government agencies such as the North Texas Council of Governments and the Tollway Authority to putting in place anti-bullying policies at Uplift Education and the anti-bullying and transgender student policies in Fort Worth.

McDonnell said he and Henderson took the rivalry existing between Dallas and Fort Worth and exploited it to the advantage of the LGBT community. Before the Obergefell marriage equality decision in June 2015, Fort Worth updated its pension policy to provide equal coverage to same-sex couples. The two activists then took that to the Dallas pensions and said, “Hey, look what they have,” McDonnell explained.

“As much as I miss the fellow activist, I miss the person,” McDonnell said sadly. “He came to my dad’s funeral. We went to see Lady Gaga together.”

Before the Obergefell marriage equality ruling, Henderson wanted Tarrant County prepared and ready to issue marriage licenses. So weeks ahead of the decision, he negotiated with the county’s Republican district attorney and county clerk, answering any questions they had. On the day of the decision, while the Dallas County clerk was meeting with his staff until noon and the Harris County clerk was dragging his feet until late afternoon, Tarrant County was issuing licenses and marrying couples almost as soon as the Supreme Court ruling was announced.

Ten days after that decision, a Republican judge appointed Henderson as foreman of the Tarrant County Grand Jury, where he presided over more than 1,600 docket cases during his three-month term. That appointment made him the first openly-gay countywide official in Tarrant County.

“When David grabbed onto a cause, nobody was more tenacious, more dedicated or more articulate,” said Jon Nelson, a co-founder and former president of Fairness Fort Worth. “Whatever he did, he was in that cause with both feet, 110 percent.”

Nelson called Henderson a very impactful person when it came to helping other people. Henderson’s motto was, he said, “Be the role model you wish you had growing up.”

To that end, Henderson mentored four young men who had been bullied or were thrown out of their homes when their parents found out they were gay. One of the four was Alex Loesch, who met Henderson on his 15th birthday.

Loesch said he lived with his grandmother because he never had a father and his mother died when he was young. In school, he was bullied.

“Losing David is as close to losing a father as I’ll ever know in my life,” Loesch said. “He took me to my first gay Pride parade, even letting me march in it. He frequently took me and my best friend Zane out to dinner, bought me dress clothes and lectured us on safe sex.”

Loesch said Henderson took him to get his driver’s license and taught him to change a flat tire. He took him white-water rafting and attended his graduation. When Loesch was looking for a job, Henderson was his reference.

“David was there for every single milestone of my coming of age,” Loesch said.

Loesch was the first young gay man Henderson took under his wing, but Henderson mentored three others as well.

“Xavier was able to grow from complete poverty and starvation, being shunned from family and classroom alike to being a child prodigy, starting the first GSA in his school and becoming the president for GLOW at Paschal, as well as being an outstanding violinist,” Loesch said of one of the other three of what Henderson thought of as his godsons.

Another was Tony, who “didn’t have a home to go to, let alone a school to attend,” Loesch said. “But it didn’t take long for him to finally graduate, find a place of his own and start life anew. And none of these lives would have been changed for the better without the help of David.”

West called Henderson a mentor in every sense of the word, saying that just as Henderson’s death was a tragedy for the young men he mentored, it is a tremendous loss for the entire community.

“David helped the Fort Worth community find its voice,” she said. “He worked with passion. He didn’t give up. He drove people crazy.”

West said Henderson was realistic about his illness and knew it was terminal, and applauded the friendship he had with his mother, “who loved him for who he was.” He died, West said, wrapped in a rainbow flag his mother knitted for him.

David Mack Henderson is survived by his mother, Dr. Janet Henderson, and the four young men he mentored and thought of as his godsons. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. at Celebration Community Church, 908 Pennsylvania Ave, Fort Worth.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2016.