3 years after FW bar raid, the city’s response has become a model — and an award-winning film is helping to cement the saga’s place in history
ANNA WAUGH | Staff Writer
FORT WORTH — It’s been three years since Fort Worth police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers raided the Rainbow Lounge on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, leaving disaster, pain, confusion and an infamous date for LGBT North Texans behind.
But while the hurt and mistakes from that night’s events still linger with the dozens of people present and with the community as a whole, the improvements in communication and trust resulting from the raid shine brighter now than any negative spotlight that was cast on the city and police.
A ‘perfect storm’
In the early hours of June 28, 2009, officers would decide to make Rainbow Lounge the third stop during a night of bar inspections. The 40 minutes they spent in the bar led to six arrests and the injury of a patron who was sent to the intensive care unit for internal bleeding.
Todd Camp, founder of Fort Worth’s Q Cinema, was at the bar that night, the second weekend it was open. Amid the protests and the LGBT community’s outcries for an investigation and answers, Camp said the event, the date of Stonewall and the group of people in the bar combined to create a “perfect storm” of activism — and later change.
“I honestly think it was a long night and they’d been other places where they’d had problems and when they got to our bar they were mad and they were ready for a fight even though there was no reason to expect one,” he said. “It was the wrong time, it was obviously the wrong day, and they did it in front of the wrong gays.”
Three investigations into the brute force and disregard for following policy resulted in the Fort Worth police department revamping its inspection policy for establishments serving alcohol. TABC would later reveal that 19 policy violations occurred that night.
Fort Worth police Chief Jeff Halstead had only been on the job for about six months when the raid occurred. He immediately drew criticism from the community when he stood behind his officers’ claims that bar patrons made sexual advances toward them. Over the course of the investigation, he began to admit that mistakes were made, he said.
“I was speaking from a position of fact, when it was really partial information that was delivered to me in a different manner,” he said. “And that put me in a very, very tough position early on in this incident.”
Halstead said what strained the effort the most was a three-week break for City Council during the raid and an inability to bring city officials together to discuss the incident. When the council finally met, the meeting went well past midnight because of the heated and passionate community response.
After the meeting, he said two officers came out to him and told them they were proud to have him as their chief, a moment he said he’ll always remember as a turning point.
“I knew we were actually turning a big corner at that point,” he said.
The fight for Fairness
After a dialogue opened, the healing progress began. The city created a Diversity Task Force that made 21 recommendations for the City Council to consider in relation to the LGBT community, ranging from sensitivity training for city employees to adding transgender protections to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which occurred later in 2009.
Fairness Fort Worth President Thomas Anable said recently that the only item still outstanding from the recommendations is comprehensive healthcare coverage for transgender city employees. To date, about 88 percent of the city’s 6,000 employees have participated in the diversity training over the last 25 months.
“As far as the city’s concerned, they kept every commitment they’ve made,” Anable said.
Although Fairness Fort Worth was created as a grassroots organization to help witnesses of the raid come forward and give their statements in a neutral environment, Anable said the organization has grown into an umbrella group, focusing on healthcare, bullying and directing the LGBT community to the proper resources.
Halstead also turned his attention to healing the community and building back the public’s trust in the police department. He appointed a full-time LGBT liaison and mandated that officers undergo sensitivity training. A few weeks ago, the department reached a 100 percent completion for the in-service training, a proud moment for Halstead.
But while addressing criticism and later changing policies wasn’t easy, he said the hardest part was gaining the community’s trust back.
“In this profession, you’re so proud of the job you do and the service you deliver and when the service is delivered in this manner — when it’s so offensive to members of our community — you really, really have to pull yourself out of the rank and out of the position to understand how it was perceived by members of that community,” Halstead said.
Camp said the response from the city and police was overwhelming as time went on and a lot of positive change happened when officials listened to the community’s concerns. He said he thinks the LGBT community has healed in the years since the raid but would still remember its impact.
“I think they knew that they’d screwed up and to their credit they did everything they could do to fix it as quickly as possible,” Camp said. “I can’t help but be anything but impressed and proud with what we were able to accomplish. I think as a city and as a community, not just the GLBT community, but the community as a whole, we’re all the better for it.”
Anable echoed those sentiments, highlighting the channels of communication that opened and still exist today, helping the LGBT community find its voice — and keep it.
“The biggest change is that in Fort Worth everyone got to get permission to talk about LGBT issues and feel safe and not ridiculed or get fired or ostracized,” Anable said. “That attitude wasn’t here before.”
Cowtown’s coming of age story
Robert L. Camina spent 21⁄2 years working on the documentary Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. The film premiered in Fort Worth in March, followed by a Dallas showing in April and a screening at Fort Worth’s June Q Cinema film festival, where it won Audience Choice Award. The film then won Best GLBT Film at the 32nd Breckenridge Festival of Film in Colorado.
A screening in Dallas on the three-year anniversary June 28 will feature a panel discussion afterward involving several of the parties involved in the raid’s aftermath.
Camina said he hoped the film would be used in a training aspect some day — and it already has. Clips from the film were used in Northern District of Texas U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldaña’s June 7 diversity event.
Camina also attended a White House Pride event June 15, and the White House and the Department of Justice have requested copies of the film, he said. They were requests he was more than happy to fill.
“I would love to continue that momentum and use this in any form possible as an educational tool,” he said.
Camp, who is featured in the film, said the “interviews are so raw that the emotion is all right there on the screen.” He said he wasn’t surprised that a film festival in Colorado gave it an award, demonstrating the power of the film to impact complete strangers.
“It’s really bizarre to think that me and several of my friends are out there on a big screen in another city talking about something in a bar that no one knows about and that they’re able to tap into that emotion and react to it as much as we did almost,” Camp said.
Camina called the film a coming of age story for Fort Worth, which grew into a stronger and more progressive city after the raid.
“I think Fort Worth really came into its own with the raid,” he said. “With the raid, it united a dormant community, and I think Fort Worth is a stronger city because of that. I think it’s a stronger LGBT community.”
‘It is an absolute model’
As the months and years passed and business went back to usual for the Rainbow Lounge, many people will forever remember the events of the raid and it’s powerfully effective aftermath.
Although it’s not as revered as Stonewall, Camp said it ignited the gay rights movement in North Texas just as Stonewall did for the nation decades ago.
“I’d like to hope that we have some place in GLBT history,” Camp said. “We’ll always be a part of that narrative and I think certainly for the people that live in this town it will be remembered.”
Camina said the raid is “part of our fabric of our history now” and will forever be “connected with the Stonewall raid because of its haunting parallels,” but hopes that other cities learn from the past that history so recently repeated.
Halstead described the first few months of the aftermath as “the hardest thing I had ever faced in 22 years of police work,” but said he’s grateful for the experience because it made him a more patient, understanding and detail-oriented chief. He sees the event and the documentary as a teaching opportunity to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“We are going to have other incidents in other parts of the country and we may have them here, but I know now relationships we have been strengthened and solidified,” he said, adding that Fort Worth is a model for other cities. “It is an absolute model, but the model takes time and it takes the right leaders in the right areas of our community to work with us, so hopefully those leaders exist in other cities, because they were invaluable to our success.”
Raid of the Rainbow Lounge will screen on the three-year anniversary Thursday, June 28, at Magnolia Theater, 3699 McKinney Ave. The screening is at 7:30 p.m. followed by a panel discussion. Tickets are $12 and available at RaidoftheRainbowLounge.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 22, 2012.