3 years after the Rainbow Lounge raid, out lesbian Leigh Ann Wiggins is the new LGBT face of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission
ARLINGTON — The raid of the Rainbow Lounge put Leigh Ann Wiggins in a bit of an awkward position.
On one hand, Wiggins is an out and proud lesbian — and has been since prior to becoming an agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in 2005.
On the other, Wiggins worked closely with two TABC agents who — along with officers from the Fort Worth Police Department — conducted the raid of the Cowtown gay bar on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.
And Wiggins, then stationed with the agents in TABC’s Fort Worth office, said she’d never had issues with them — or anyone else at the agency for that matter — related to her sexual orientation.
“I don’t know that I had a reaction [to the raid] right off the bat, because I got phone calls of course from friends saying, ‘Hey, this is what we heard,’ and then I hear stuff at work,” Wiggins recalls, adding that she attempted to remain neutral. “Really I just tried to distance myself from the negativity, because it was a bad event, but there are a lot of positive things that have come since from that one event. … It was a real negative time for us [TABC], so we really tried to work hard to work through it and move to the next phase and try to find some things to work on to keep it from happening again.”
Three years later, Wiggins has become an integral part of that process for TABC, which fired the two agents and their supervisor for their roles in the raid — and later reached monetary settlements with two injured Rainbow Lounge patrons.
This summer, Wiggins was named TABC’s liaison to the LGBT community for District 2 — which covers all of North Texas and most of East Texas. TABC is the only state government agency in Texas with an LGBT liaison, and District 2 is the only area of the state that currently has one.
However, the agency’s new administrator, Sherry Cook, told Dallas Voice this week that she plans to add LGBT liaisons in the other four TABC districts as well.
“I was here during the Rainbow Lounge incident and the time that followed, working closely with [then-Administrator] Alan Steen as our agency responded to those events, making policy changes and instituting new training,” Administrator Cook said in an email responding to questions from the newspaper. “I am committed to continuing along that path. I support an inclusive workplace and believe in the importance of making all employees feel safe and valued, regardless of sexual or gender orientation. …
“I applaud Major [Robert] Cloud for appointing an LGBT liaison and appreciate Agent Wiggins continuing TABC’s outreach to the LGBT community in North Texas,” Cook added. “I will be seeking out volunteers in the hopes that we can have LGBT liaisons in other parts of the state as we do in headquarters and the Arlington District.”
Carolyn Beck, TABC’s director of communications and governmental relations, said there have been no objections to the LGBT liaison position from those who oversee the agency, including Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s office. Beck, who’s straight, was named the agency’s statewide LGBT liaison in the wake of the raid, but she said she can’t have the same impact as someone like Wiggins who’s in the field.
Maj. Cloud, who’s over District 2, received a written reprimand for failing to follow a TABC policy in the Rainbow Lounge raid. He said he created the LGBT liaison position for North Texas a short time later. But the original District 2 liaison was not a member of the LGBT community, and after she moved to another state the position sat vacant. That’s when Cloud asked Wiggins if she would accept the assignment.
“The fact that she’s a member of the community certainly helps,” Cloud said. “She will certainly be accepted much more readily. I think the dialogue’s going to be more genuine quite frankly.”
Since the raid, Cloud has become an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community.
Along with Wiggins, he recently took part in a panel discussion on the third anniversary of the raid following a screening of the documentary film, Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. And just last week, Cloud attended a candlelight vigil at the Rainbow Lounge for Fairness Fort Worth President Thomas Anable.
“I don’t want anybody to think that the Rainbow Lounge was typical TABC, because it wasn’t,” Cloud said this week. “I’ve been working in bars in the Metroplex for 25 years, and I had a great relationship with the gay bars. In fact, the gay establishments were some of the easiest ones to work.
“Rainbow Lounge came along and it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Cloud added. “We got hit right in the face with the realization that that segment of the community, a growing segment of the community, had been ignored. Not on my watch ever again.”
As a sign of progress at the agency, Cloud pointed to a promotions ceremony he attended in Austin earlier this year. The partner of a gay TABC sergeant who was being promoted to lieutenant was called up for photographs, participating in the ceremony as though he were a heterosexual spouse.
“I sat there in the audience thinking wow, 10 years ago this would never have happened — ever,” Cloud said. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re going to continue to grow and we’re going to continue to be inclusive and I’m very proud of that.”
Jon Nelson, who took over for Anable last week as president of Fairness Fort Worth, acknowledged that TABC’s response to the raid has sometimes been overshadowed by the city of Fort Worth’s.
But Nelson called the agency’s appointment of an LGBT liaison agent in North Texas “tremendous progress.”
“I think it’s significant because government agencies and private organizations can say what they want,” Nelson said. “They can sound good, but until you put those words into practice, we in our community just don’t know. When you see their actions, when you see somebody on the ground who cares and is part of our community, the level of trust between our community and the TABC is just strengthened exponentially.”
“If you’re somebody who wants to go work for the TABC, and you’re gay or you’re lesbian and you’re not completely comfortable with that, what a wonderful thing it is to be hired on to an organization where you don’t have to hide,” Nelson said.
In addition to appointing the liaisons, TABC has conducted comprehensive LGBT diversity training for each of the last three years — making it the first statewide agency to do so.
Rafael McDonnell of Resource Center Dallas, which has conducted the LGBT diversity training for TABC, noted that Wiggins will become one of the few LGBT liaisons at law enforcement agencies in North Texas.
TABC joins the Dallas and Fort Worth police departments, Dallas Fire-Rescue and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department among local agencies with LGBT liaisons.
“I think it shows how committed to LGBT inclusion TABC is,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell added that based on feedback from TABC employees who’ve completed the training, he feels it’s needed and has been a success.
Whether the training will continue is likely to be an annual decision by TABC that’s based partly on the budget, but in her comments to the Voice this week, Cook expressed support for it.
“LGBT diversity training creates awareness among our staff who provide service to the LGBT community,” Cook said. “Just as importantly, the training plays a vital role in making sure that our LGBT employees feel like they can be themselves while at work.”
For Wiggins, being herself at TABC was never a problem.
A native of tiny Huntington in Southeast Texas, Wiggins went to work at the Angelina County Jail at 19.
She said she came out as a lesbian at 21 while attending police academy in Kilgore, before returning to Angelina County to work for the sheriff’s department.
“Once I proved that I could do the job, I didn’t have any problems with anybody,” she said.
As a TABC agent, Wiggins is assigned to a three-county region west of Fort Worth. She and her partner are currently buying a house in Weatherford. They are foster parents with two young children whom they eventually hope to adopt.
Wiggins said as LGBT liaison — a role she’s taken on in addition to her duties as an agent — she’s looking forward to being involved in any way she can. Her primary responsibility is to be the contact person for the gay bars and for the LGBT community in the district.
“If they have an issue or a question, need education, anything, then that’s what I’m here for,” she said. “Hopefully they can feel open enough to talk to me about whatever problems they have.”
Wiggins said she’s already visited Resource Center Dallas and several of the gay bars in Dallas, meeting with employees and leaving her contact information.
She plans to meet soon with LGBT liaisons from the Dallas and Fort Worth police departments to discuss how they can work together.
“I’m open to anybody calling me, whether it’s a co-worker or bar owner, citizen or whoever,” Wiggins said. “If they need to call me and talk, that’s what I’m here for.
“Hopefully it will help people realize that you can be out at work and not have to feel threatened or worry about anybody treating you any differently,” she said.
Wiggins can be reached at 817-652-5912 Ext. 2433 or [email protected].
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 31, 2012.