Rainbow Lounge raid in 2009 is remembered as start to positive change

Posted Sunday, Jun. 29, 2014  Print Reprints
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The initial fallout from the bar-check-gone-bad at the Rainbow Lounge was ugly.

Members of Fort Worth’s gay community screamed police brutality after state agents and Fort Worth police converged on the gay bar June 28, 2009, resulting in a handful of public-intoxication arrests and injuries of two bar patrons.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead was vilified for his handling of the incident. Protests were held in Fort Worth, which became an overnight epicenter in the fight for gay rights.

Changes came quickly.

The city hastily created a diversity task force and enacted diversity training for city staff. The Police Department changed its policy on handling bar checks and created an LGBT liaison, which promoted communication between police and the gay community.

Other more recent initiatives, including anti-bullying programs in schools, were outgrowths from the Rainbow Lounge,

“That’s what made my organization change,” said Cpl. Tracey Knight, the police liaison to the LGBT community. “That and leadership. There has been a massive culture change.”

Todd Camp, a gay activist, said Fort Worth has grown much friendlier toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in five years. Now, maybe an eyebrow or two are raised when two men are seen embracing in public, but gone are the angry fist pumps.

“It’s mind-boggling to think what we would be without it,” said Camp, one of the founders of QCinema, the annual LGBT film festival in Fort Worth. “We would have a much worse Fort Worth for LGBT people. I don’t think we would have made as much progress as we did had it not been for the Rainbow Lounge. It helped the city on a national scale.”

The very people who were locked in a furious battle of words over the Rainbow Lounge incident now have open lines of communication to address problems long before they become more serious.

Last week, Halstead, other members of the Police Department, the school district and city officials and representatives of the gay community got together for a quarterly luncheon. The calm atmosphere at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden’s restaurant stood in stark contrast to the event that brought them there.

“What could fester, doesn’t,” said Jon Nelson, former president of Fairness Fort Worth, which was formed after the incident. “These lines of communication are safety valves. Before Rainbow Lounge, we didn’t have the mechanisms we needed for redress. Now we can solve problems in minutes.”

Investigations and aftermath

News of the incident spread quickly through social media, becoming an international story overnight.

“This is the very first case that generated worldwide, almost animosity or hatred, and we didn’t even know the incident happened yet,” Halstead previously told the Star-Telegram. “We were far behind the curve.”

On June 29, 2009, the day after the raid, leaders in Fort Worth’s gay community stood at the steps of the Rainbow Lounge on South Jennings Avenue and demanded answers from law enforcement about what — and why it — happened.

Both the Fort Worth police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission began internal investigations, which uncovered many procedural problems.

But members of the gay community and the City Council were not convinced it was enough and called for outside inquiries.

“I believe that this Police Department does a good job and that those who wear the uniform try to serve and protect us,” Nelson, representing Fort Worth Fairness, said at the time. “But that belief does not create an assumption that everything was OK at the Rainbow Lounge.”

Five people were arrested for public intoxication during the incident, and one man, Chad Gibson, was treated for head wounds and other injuries at John Peter Smith Hospital.

After completing their long internal investigations, the commission fired two agents. Fort Worth police suspended three officers for one to three days.

In 2011, the state agreed to pay $210,000 to Gibson and $15,000 to George Armstrong, who suffered a torn rotator cuff during the arrests. As part of the settlement, Gibson and Armstrong agreed not to sue the agency or anyone connected to it, or the two agents and supervisor involved in the incident. In a 2011 settlement with the city, Gibson was awarded $400,000 and Armstrong $40,000.

As the story evolved it was chronicled in Robert Camina’s feature-length documentary Raid of the Rainbow Lounge.

Success stories

Those who were at last week’s lunch included Halstead, Nelson, Knight, Fairness Fort Worth President David Mack Henderson and Sharon Herrera, a Fort Worth school district program specialist who works with LGBTQ Saves, a youth organization designed to help gay students.

City Councilman Joel Burns, who has been key in addressing gay rights in Fort Worth, and District 9 City Councilwoman-elect Ann Zadeh, who will be taking over for Burns, were also at the lunch and agreed that significant progress has been made in five years.

The raid focused attention on gay rights and discrimination and forced people to talk about issues, with positive results, Nelson said.

Among the successful initiatives:

• More than 6,400 Fort Worth employees have taken diversity training classes geared toward a better understanding of the gay community.

• A weekly lunch meeting at Celebration Community Church was initiated that pairs police with members of the LGBT community, where participants are encouraged to interact with LGBT officers and discuss their concerns.

• The City Council adopted 19 new regulations recommended by a diversity task force that was formed in response to the raid. The regulations were aimed at making the city more hospitable for LGBT city employees and included measures for developing a marketing campaign to attract LGBT public events and visitors, and expanding the city’s nondiscrimination policy to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression.

Beyond the Rainbow Lounge

The gains made — and the awareness raised — after the Rainbow Lounge incident has benefited everyone, Burns said.

The anti-bullying programs that have been developed came about because kids who were being bullied were committing or considering suicide. Many of those children who suffered from bullying were gay or had gay parents, Burns said.

And efforts in the gay community to foster more effective communication have spread to the deaf and hard of hearing, and to the Muslim and Asian communities during the past five years, police said.

Now Fort Worth is seen as a model when it comes to welcoming visitors and organizations who are part of the gay community. In a Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index completed in 2013, only Austin ranked higher than Fort Worth in Texas when it came to treatment of gay residents and visitors.

Local leaders say the progress made in Fort Worth needs to spread elsewhere.

“You shouldn’t wait until you have your own June 28, 2009,” Halstead said. “Some other entities need to come to us and find out what we did.”

Henderson said Fairness Fort Worth is going to lead diversity and sensitivity training sessions for Arlington police employees, both civilian and sworn officers, paid for with funds from seized assets.

“We are excited to be able to facilitate this comprehensive training program the reinforces our oath of office and commitment to provide equal protection under the law for all persons,” Arlington Police Chief Will D. Johnson said.

Said Henderson: “As a city that welcomes millions of visitors annually, it’s clear they are prepared to welcome everyone. We are excited to participate in this process.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3