Fort Worth’s Rainbow Lounge, site of infamous 2009 raid, destroyed in early morning blaze
“It’s the end of an era.”
Todd Camp and his husband had stopped by the 600 block of South Jennings Avenue in Fort Worth to see for themselves the devastation left in the wake of the early-morning fire that destroyed the city’s landmark LGBT bar, the Rainbow Lounge. They also wanted, they said, to save a brick from the gutted shell of the building as a souvenir of the iconic bar.
According to a statement from the Fort Worth Police Department, Rainbow Lounge employees called 911 around 3 a.m. after noticing smoke coming from the roof of the club after they had closed down for the night.
Fort Worth Fire Department crews arrived on the scene about 3:10 a.m. and “found medium to heavy smoke coming from the roof of the club,” the statement explained. “They were required to force entry into the structure, as the club manager had already secured the building and left for the night. Very shortly after entering the building, the firefighters were forced to evacuate the structure due to a partial collapse of the roof.
“At 3:20 a.m.,” the statement notes, “firefighters began ‘defensive’ operations to protect nearby buildings … and its personnel from potential wall collapse.”
Firefighters had the fire under control at 4:21 a.m., but firefighters remained on the scene until shortly before 7 a.m. to fully extinguish the blaze. Eight fire companies responded to the fire. A FWFD chief said the fire appears to have been started by a faulty ice machine, and an onlooker at the scene later in the morning said an employee had mentioned to him some days before that they were having problems with the ice machine.
No one was injured in the fire.
Rainbow Lounge became an iconic symbol of the LGBT rights movement in North Texas and changed the city of Fort Worth after Fort Worth police officers joined agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in a “bar check” that resulted in numerous arrests and left one man — Chad Gibson — in intensive care with a brain injury. The raid happened shortly after midnight on Sunday, June 28 — the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots as the club’s patrons were celebrating National Gay Pride Month.
Just as the homophobic police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, sparked the birth of a radical new LGBT rights movement, the raid on the Rainbow Lounge sparked a vocal and angry new momentum in Fort Worth’s LGBT community. From that incident grew a new organization,
Fairness Fort Worth, that led the way in getting the city — and the Fort Worth PD — to institute new policies and ordinances protecting the city’s LGBT community and creating a new, closer relationship between city and police officials and LGBT citizens.
The fallout from the raid
Todd Camp was at the Rainbow Lounge that night in 2009, celebrating his birthday with friends. And he was at the forefront in organizing the protests that started within hours of the raid. Later on Thursday, Camp said he was “sorry to see the loss of a piece of Fort Worth history,” and expressed his sympathy to the bar’s owner, Tom McAvoy, and its employees.
The Rev. Carol West, senior pastor of Fort Worth’s Celebration Community Church, was among those who came together in the days following the raid to create Fairness Fort Worth. Thursday, she too mourned the loss of the nightclub.
“Like everyone, I am in shock that this building burned, not so much for the building itself, but for what it represents to the LGBTQ community,” West said. “I simply feel a plethora of emotions at its loss, as well as many memories of lessons learned for our community in the raid.
“The Rainbow Lounge was, in many ways, our modern day Stonewall Inn,” West continued. “We in Fort Worth came together for one cause. Every LGBT community has so many different offshoots, but we were all together on this. What happened there in 2009 was not right, and we once again found our voice and our passion for equality.
“We learned through the Rainbow Lounge how to work with city government,” West said. “The city of Fort Worth matured some in the process of the Rainbow Lounge raid, and so did we as a community. Issues weren’t ‘somewhere else.’ They were here, in our town, in our city. We banded together, made some friends and moved toward righting some wrongs. The Rainbow Lounge is no more, but the lessons we learned live on.”
Joel Burns, Fort Worth’s first openly gay city councilman, said Thursday that with the building that burned that day — which had housed LGBT bars for years before it became Rainbow Lounge — was more than just a nightclub.
“In the destruction of 651 Jennings, Fort Worth not only lost an old building on the Near Southside, we lost a safe place where people found acceptance and welcome at times over the decades when they were socially rejected and physically unsafe to be themselves anywhere else,” Burns said. “The community lost the place of memories of celebrating — and making — friendships and relationships, as well as the place where we mourned the loss of so many in the early days of AIDS. And we lost the place where unfortunate events in 2009 sparked a turning point in the conversation about how Fort Worth treats its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.”
Burns also linked the Fort Worth bar and the 2009 raid to the birthplace of the LGBT rights movement, calling Rainbow Lounge”our generation’s Stonewall Inn.”
He added, “As a former council member representing the area and former chair of the city of Fort Worth Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission, I hope the city, police department, Fairness Fort Worth and Near Southside, Inc. will join in the creation of a physical marker acknowledging the Rainbow Lounge, its patrons and employees, its history, and the role of the events of June 28, 2009, in starting a transformative dialog on the way we as a city and community desire to be welcomed and treated and how we want to welcome and treat others, regardless of our differences.
“And in spite of our progress in Fort Worth and that of LGBT Americans across the country since the
Rainbow Lounge Raid,” he said, “much work remains to expand acceptance of our diversity. LGBT workers can still be fired for being gay, municipal non-discrimination ordinances like Fort Worth’s are under siege in legislatures in Austin and across the country, anti-LGBT harassment remains pervasive in our schools and among youth, and the rate of LGBT teen suicide far eclipses that of their straight classmates.
“But today, we mourn the loss of a familiar safe place and appreciate its refuge over the many years.”
Dallas Voice reached out to the management of Rainbow Lounge for comment but as of press time had not heard back from them. But a Facebook post from owner Tom McAvoy indicated that the club would return:
“Fred and I want to say thank y’all for your concerns about Rainbow Lounge. We are extremely glad no one was hurt in the fire. It looks to have been the ice machine that started it. We will be back in Texas in a couple of days to start the rebuild process. Thank you everyone.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 2, 2017.