Waking Up the Rainbow
Legislative threats could force Fort Worth’s quiet gay community to start making noise.
By DAN MCGRAW Photos by Jerry W. Hoefer
It’s Saturday night, and Fort Worth has another rodeo in town. In one Cowtown bar, the rodeo fans are drinking longnecks and listening to country music. The guys are in their formal country-western attire, pressed shirts and Wrangler jeans, big shiny belt buckles, black cowboy hats that hang slightly over their eyes. The women are in their trusted attire as well, sequined shirts and pressed jeans, big hair and make-up, and all that.
Could be any weekend at any bar down in the Stockyards. But on a recent Saturday, the rodeo crowd was hanging out at Best Friends Club, a gay bar over on East Lancaster Avenue. The rodeo in question was sponsored by the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, a group that runs about 20 of these gay rodeos around the state every year.
In this crowd of folks drinking and listening to music, there are none of the obvious gay clichés that straight America likes to attribute to the so-called faggot crowd: no guys in short shorts gyrating around, no ass-less leather chaps, few women with mullets and flannel shirts. No one is waving a rainbow flag.
But a closer look makes it clear that this is a mostly gay crowd. The entertainment is not just music, it’s also a drag show: One guy is lip-synching to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” (“Stand by your man/And show the world you love him/Keep giving all the love you can ...”), after dedicating the song to his husband. Another man is dressed like a high school cheerleader, performing “Hey Mickey” (“Oh Mickey you’re so fine/you’re so fine you blow ... ”). A third man is wearing a t-shirt that says “I’ve been a bad cowboy, send me to your room.”
And as the night goes on, same-sex couples are slow dancing, shooting pool, listening to a country music band on the patio, having some drinks, and talking to friends. If you ignore their sexual preferences, this crowd is exactly the kind of folks that the city of Fort Worth likes to crow about — the western heritage aficionados whom Cowtown values. They sponsor rodeos, raise money for local charities, work hard at their jobs, own homes, and still have time to get out the cowboy clothes on the weekend.
But in the political and societal realm, you can never ignore the sexual question with this group of men and women. Gay marriage is being debated across the country and by the Texas Legislature in Austin. Depending on which side of the issue you are on, you either feel gays are evil individuals who want to screw Cub Scouts and ruin traditional family values, or they are individuals who have the same civil rights as any other group, including the rights to have consenting adult sex with, and get married to, whomever they please.
Actually, most studies show the American public is becoming less strident all the time about gay rights, despite the current political climate. But the marriage debate is splitting gays into two groups at the moment. Some activists think allowing gays to marry is key to giving them the same civil rights as everyone else. This group wants to push the issue hard right now. The other group wants to put gay marriage on the back burner. Their argument is that gays and lesbians have made gains on many issues in the past decade, and pushing same-sex marriage right now might force gay rights overall back a few steps. America is catching up with gay issues slowly, they believe, and the marriage question will move forward at some point in the near future.
How does all this play in the Fort Worth gay community? It’s a very difficult thing to read. Fort Worth may have one of the quietest gay communities among large cities in the nation. There is no real gay district in Fort Worth, no real gay newspaper, few gay bars and clubs, no openly gay local politicians. It’s almost as if this group that makes up about 15 million of the U.S. population is nowhere to be found here — as if Fort Worth were some sort of gay dead zone.
It’s not that the Fort Worth establishment is politically homophobic. In 2000, the city passed one of the most sweeping anti-discrimination laws in the country, making bias against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations illegal. And because there is no gay district — a “gay ghetto” some call it — homosexuals are more integrated into this community than in many other cities. As far as political influence goes, local gays say they are just following the Fort Worth custom of lobbying quietly behind the scenes to achieve their goals rather than acting up loudly and being rude. And also following the local custom, they are using local gay churches as rallying points.
Confused? Well, get in line. Because many gays in Fort Worth aren’t quite sure who they are either, or where they fit into the local landscape. But there is some evidence that they are waking up — to the smell of some pretty rancid coffee being brewed in Austin — a bill that, worse than preventing the extension of gay rights to include marriage, could deny to gays some basic contractual rights that all Texans now enjoy.
Let’s start with some numbers. According to polls, 77 percent of Americans thought in 1991 that being gay was “wrong.” By 2002, that number had fallen to 56 percent. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans believe gays should have equal rights in the workplace. The same poll also found that 56 percent of Americans have a family member or friend who is gay, and they have discussed homosexuality with them.
In a CBS/New York Times poll last month, 23 percent of Americans said gays should have the legal right to marry, and 34 percent said civil unions for gay couples should be legal; 41 percent said there should be no legal recognition of gay relationships.
According to U.S. census information, 33 percent of households headed by female same-sex couples include children; among same-sex male couples, 22 percent have children. Marketing studies have estimated gays’ national buying power at $610 billion, which is slightly less than either African-American or Hispanic households, but still major.
How many gays are there in this country? Independent studies place the figure at between 4 and 10 percent of the population. Conservative advocates maintain that it’s much lower, about 1.5 percent based upon the same-sex couple census figures. The problem with census numbers is that they count as couples only gays who are living together. Singles were not counted, although they make up a very large part of the gay population.
It is also difficult to define what qualifies one as gay. Is a married man who has sex with men while out of town on business, but keeps his heterosexual marriage intact, a gay man? Should the category of young college-age women called LUGs (lesbian until graduation), who fool around as bisexuals in their youth but then become soccer moms in Southlake, be called lesbians? What about those who have sex-change operations? Or those who may be attracted to the same sex at times but rarely act upon their feelings? What about formerly straight men in prison?
The fact is that gender preference is a continuum, not an either-or, black-white proposition. It is quite difficult to define what is gay and what is not. What is quite clear, however, is that gays are defined by their sexuality when it comes to politics.
This is what the Texas Republican Party — which controls the governor’s office and the state legislature — says in its platform statement about gays:
“The Party believes that the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should the family be redefined to include homosexual ‘couples.’ We are opposed to any granting of legal entitlements, recognition, or privileges, including, but not limited to, marriage between persons of the same sex, custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.”
Even though gay marriage is not legal in Texas, two bills in the Texas Legislature would “clarify” things. One would amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages; if passed by the legislature, the proposal would go before voters in November. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa, but five Tarrant County Republicans are listed as co-authors: Todd Smith of Bedford, Toby Goodman and Bill Zedler of Arlington, Vicki Truitt of Southlake, and Fort Worth’s own Charlie Geren.
The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert E. Talton of Pasadena, goes beyond banning gay marriage to say that partnerships “similar to marital status” would not be recognized in Texas. The bill would prohibit civil unions and domestic partnerships among straight couples as well, even nullifying legal contracts, such as a wills, powers of attorney, or directives to physicians that currently are legal under common law marriage rights. Talton is willing to take away some heterosexual rights, if he can stop practices such as adoption of children by gays.
“Quite frankly, if it was me, I would rather [leave] kids in orphanages” than allow them to be adopted by gay couples, he said during a recent hearing of the House Committee on State Affairs, according to the Austin Chronicle. “At least they have a chance of learning proper values.”
Loretta Gibson is 67 years old and a retired truck driver. She’s five feet tall, and her friends call her “Shorty.” She came out as lesbian in 1969 and remembers when gays hung out at a club on Jacksboro Highway called DJ’s Back Door. She now lives in Mansfield.
“It was kind of spooky at first, coming out,” Gibson recalled. “I didn’t know how people would act. But I’m a country girl, and I had to just be myself. It has come a lot further than it was. You used to be very afraid to say anything or do anything.”
Like every gay person interviewed for this story, Gibson acknowledged that Fort Worth’s proximity to Dallas has had an influence on how Fort Worth’s gay population has developed. Specifically, Fort Worth gays have always felt they could go over to Big D, be who they wanted, and then come back to Fort Worth and live quietly. “It’s kind of like that Las Vegas commercial, where they say ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’” said one Fort Worth gay man who didn’t want his name used. “Take it to Dallas and be wild and go a little crazy, but then come back to Fort Worth as your bedroom community. What happens in Dallas stays in Dallas.”
Gibson said she has never liked socializing in Dallas because of the snob factor — “they treated [you] ... like you were some out-of-towner.” Still, she thinks Fort Worth’s lack of a gay district has kept homosexuals on the quiet side. “Sometimes I wish we had a district,” she said. “It would be nice to have a place you can take your lover and hold her hand and go to a gift shop and out to eat and be yourself. As it stands now, you have to be careful not to flaunt it. The public may accept us better now, but they are not ready for everything just yet.”
Scott Jones, who owns the Best Friends Club, also sees Dallas as having an influence on Fort Worth gays and how they view themselves. “The major problem in Fort Worth is that the younger gays often leave town. Tarrant County has a half-dozen gay bars and no real gay shopping area, while Dallas has Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs areas that are openly gay and about two dozen clubs. The younger crowd looks around and figures that other cities offer them more of a lifestyle.
“But it also has an influence on politics and gays’ role in economic development,” Jones said. “The ones who are likely to be politically active see that they don’t have much of a voice in Fort Worth and become more involved in Dallas organizations. So they live here in Fort Worth and do their yelling in Dallas. The result of this is that most Fort Worth politicians don’t see us as much of a force. They don’t treat gays badly, but we aren’t on the agenda like in other cities.”
As other minority groups have also learned, Fort Worth’s quiet way of doing business is a two-edged sword: The hate factor and divisiveness may be turned to a lower simmer here than in some cities because things like the anti-discrimination ordinance have been handled in such a low-key manner. But with an estimated 36,000 gays and lesbians living in Fort Worth, shouldn’t their issues be part of local discussions?
“We see the gay community as an asset to Fort Worth,” said Fernando Costa, Fort Worth’s director of planning. “But the city cannot just create a gay district. It has never worked that way. The experience of cities around the country is that many successful revitalization efforts have been spearheaded by investment by the gay community. But you can’t attribute that success to conscious efforts on the part of local government.
“Gay culture is willing to explore the off-beat, to find value in neighborhoods that are not generally seen as candidates for revitalization,” he continued. “It would fail if we planned something like a gay district. The best thing we can do is get out of the way.”
For many years, gays were making inroads in the Hospital District. But two gay clubs — “651” and Magnolia Station — closed, and the gay community has since scattered. The Eastside neighborhood of Meadowbrook now has about 100 gay homeowners, but no business area catering to gay customers. The scattering of the gay community in Fort Worth is good in one respect: Gays are more integrated in this city. But the lack of a dominant gay district has made it difficult for the gay community to consolidate its voice in political circles.
Gene Gerard, a history professor at Tarrant County College’s Arlington campus, has studied gay politics extensively. “Fort Worth gays seem to have a much more narrow focus than gays nationally,” Gerard said. “If you work on AIDS funding in Dallas, the gay community in Dallas is bigger and has more resources. They raise funds from among themselves, but they can also make their power felt locally a bit more.
“My impression is that gays in Fort Worth, when they want to go to a gay bar or restaurant or hang out with people like themselves, invariably go to Oak Lawn in Dallas,” he said. “That has an effect politically, because they put their eggs in the Dallas basket. They feel ineffectual in Fort Worth.”
How the existence of a vibrant and clear gay culture might help a city economically has become controversial. George Mason University economist Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, calls gays the “canary in a coal mine” when it comes to a city’s economic development. What Florida posits is that the younger creative workers — high-tech programmers, artists, architects, engineers, scientists, lawyers — are looking to settle in cities with a tolerance for many different lifestyles. A strong and open gay community is a sign that a city is more tolerant across the board. And with so many big companies now offering benefits packages that recognize workers’ same-sex relationships, Florida theorizes, companies are more likely to relocate or expand in cities that have a strong gay social scene that will benefit their gay workers and help them attract other talented gays.
“Homosexuality represents the last frontier of diversity in our society, and thus a place that welcomes the gay community welcomes all kinds of people,” Florida writes. “Openness to the gay community is a good indicator of the low entry barriers to human capital that are so important to spurring creativity and generating high-tech growth.”
Florida has created a “gay index” that ranks the number of gays within 332 urban areas. Fort Worth comes in at 137. Cities like Austin, Boston, Seattle, and Madison, Wis., rank very high in the gay index, and Florida says that those cities’ economic development in high-tech and creative industries are dependent on their high concentration of gays.
There are many holes in Florida’s theories. Chief among them is that the economist based his rankings on 1990s data, when the high-tech economy was flying. After the internet bubble burst, the growth in high-tech start-ups declined significantly. And Fort Worth has lured many businesses to town, even without a strong gay population.
But there are some other positives to having a more open and vibrant gay culture. “It would benefit all of Fort Worth to have a more active gay culture,” said a Fort Worth gay activist who didn’t want his name used. “When large companies are looking at relocating and doing hubs, they look at what is available for employees. They look for a city’s tolerance. What is thriving is not manufacturing, but private entrepreneurship. Gays have a role in these ventures.
“Fort Worth does have the anti-discrimination law, and that is a positive for economic growth,” he said. “But this city has opportunities it is not taking advantage of. When gays from other cities move here, they drive down the street and see bumper stickers and billboards about divisiveness, and [there’s] not any feeling of inclusion.”
The gay activist did not want his name used in this story because when he worked publicly on the 2000 Fort Worth anti-discrimination law, he received three death threats. “I now have to make decisions about how public I am being gay,” he said. “In Fort Worth, you still have to worry about how you are seen in the job market, how you are treated in the grocery store, how your neighbors perceive you. It is a constant struggle. Some of it is overt, and some of it is subtle.
“If my partner and I go to the grocery store, people look at you funny,” he continued. “One time we both had our hands on the cart, and one man looked at us and said ‘Fags aren’t allowed in this store.’ You have to be very careful around here. When you get death threats for working on a law that benefits everyone, you really have to watch what you do.”
The Rev. Carol West is a lesbian Christian preacher. She is pastor of the Celebration Community Church on Pennsylvania Avenue. The non-denominational church has about 400 members, and many of them are gay. She presides over gay marriages quite often in her church, not legal or binding in any sense, but more of a religious union for those in her congregation who want to solidify their relationships.
Gay churches in Dallas and Fort Worth have become an important part of the gay community. West and others like her use their congregations to help in AIDS activism, providing counseling services for gay people with personal identity problems and offering a religious setting that they feel comfortable with. And during a time when the issue of anti-gay marriage has become a huge one for Texas’ Christian conservatives, it is quite ironic that Christian churches in the area find themselves in the debate.
“Is gay marriage important for our community? Of course it is,” West said. “We want the same basic rights, the benefits that come along with being married, the same as anyone else does. But I think it may kick us back a bit if we push it too hard right now. We need to push it gently, but not too gently. The timing is not quite right.”
West said the Fort Worth Christian community is as divided as the general population over gays. Some pastors ask West to preside over gay marriages in their churches because they fear they might lose their license. On the other side, when the American Episcopal Church ordained a gay bishop, Fort Worth Episcopal Bishop Jack Leo Iker was one of the most vocal opponents. At St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in North Richland Hills, the Rev. Deuel Smith was so enraged over the ordination that he stomped on the church flag in front of his congregation.
Democratic State Rep. Lon Burnam, whose District 90 includes a large gay population, said the fight needs to be fought now because Republican legislators have made gay rights an issue. “These bills [being] put forward are very wrong and mean-spirited,” Burnam said. “It is a way of persecuting a minority group. On any human rights issue, it is somewhat easy to say the timing is not right. But the question is: If not now, then when? The Republicans in this state want to impose their own understanding on the rest of us. It is a constant and ongoing struggle.”
Burnam’s statements aside, support for the issue of gay rights and gay marriages is becoming difficult for any politician. America is deeply divided on gay issues. While 11 states passed anti-gay marriage amendments during the 2004 presidential election, surveys showed that 60 percent of all voters in the election favored either legal gay marriage or civil unions.
What’s at issue in the gay marriage debate are significant legal benefits. The General Accounting Office in 1997 released a list of 1,049 federal benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples. These benefits range from survivor benefits through Social Security, sick leave to care for an ailing partner, tax breaks, veterans’ benefits, and insurance breaks. They also include things like family discounts, obtaining family insurance through your employer, having the right to visit your spouse in the hospital, and making medical decisions if your partner is unable to do so. Civil unions protect some of these rights, but not all, because benefit laws differ across the country, and some states do not recognize the rights of civil-union couples from other states.
Republicans get some benefit from pushing anti-gay marriage amendments, but they also lose some of their constituency who support personal freedoms. Democrats already have a large part of the gay community in their camp, and pushing for gay marriage might cause them to lose some moderates. The result, Professor Gerard said, is that, “To some extent the gay activists are in political limbo.”
Republicans are pushing their anti-gay marriage agenda because they saw how the anti-gay marriage amendments won during the last election. The public seems to be becoming more open toward gay civil rights, but many voters are drawing the line on marriage. In Texas, the strong Christian conservative lobby can make life miserable for any politician who isn’t condemning gays publicly, and that includes Democrats. It has put the Texas gay activists in a difficult position. The Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas wanted to work hard this session on laws that would protect the rights of gays in employment, insurance, and education — but now they find themselves in the uneasy fight over marriage rights.
Some of the benefits associated with marriage can be obtained through legal contracts. Robert Bridges, a Fort Worth attorney who deals with gay civil rights, said that “you can contract everything, from a will to the power of attorney to guardian status. If you break up, you can redo the contracts. The problem comes from these contracts being challenged in court, unlike most marriage benefits.”
The battle in the statehouse is on the minds of many gays in Fort Worth these days. “We have been mostly in a defensive posture here in Texas,” said Derek Robertson, 35, director of counseling at the AIDS Outreach Center which serves Tarrant County AIDS patients. “We are trying to keep the legislature from taking away basic rights, like adoption and [prohibitions against] firing people because they are gay. Other states are ready to tackle that issue, but we’re certainly aware of the realities here in Texas. We didn’t choose this battle, but if we can use it to educate people, that’s what we should do.
“I knew this gay couple who had been together for 25 years, and one of them died,” Robertson continued. “The house they lived in was in the dead partner’s name, and most of the stuff in the house they had bought together. Three days later the deceased member’s family swept in with a cattle trailer and started emptying the house. The family told the man he had three days to get out and ‘We don’t want you at the funeral.’ I can think of six or seven instances just like that.”
While the short-term battle over gay rights may be difficult for homosexuals to win, the long-term effect of the fight may be to energize the gay activists, especially in Tarrant County. There seems to be a re-awakening of local gays going on, looking less to Dallas for leadership and realizing the quiet way of doing things in Fort Worth might hurt the cause.
“I’m seeing more gays in Fort Worth getting involved these days, after a period where we were a bit dormant,” said Curtis Smith, associate director of client services for Tarrant County AIDS Interfaith Network and pastor of Trinity Metro Community Church in Arlington. “It has become a chess game, and the local community sees that there are a lot of issues on the table now. We were not very organized before, but that seems to be changing.”
After years of trying to get organized, the gay Stonewall Democrats now have a Tarrant County office instead of relying on the group in Dallas. The gay Log Cabin Republicans are also working to get more involved in Fort Worth politics.
“We have 83 active members now,” said Lisa Thomas, an engineering project manager who is president of the Stonewall Democrats of Tarrant County. “We don’t have an in with any of the local politicians, but we are becoming a force in the community and among the Democrats.
“I have friends in the gay community who come to me and ask me why we’re working so hard for the defeat of the gay marriage amendment. They were afraid it would hurt us in the long term. But we aren’t the ones who are pushing these issues; the Republicans set it up, and we have responded. We are trying to frame the issues first, in language that is appropriate, instead of having Republicans frame it and set the tone.
“Most of the gay issues are state and federal issues. But as we get more active in those areas, we will use that experience to work in local politics,” Thomas said. “Fort Worth hasn’t worked against gays, but it is also time for this city to see us as an asset for the entire community. We don’t want special treatment, but we shouldn’t be ignored either.”
J. D. Angle is vice president and a senior consultant for The Tyson Organization, a Fort Worth-based national political consulting firm. He is gay and believes Fort Worth gays are “well integrated into all parts of the community.”
But he does see the lack of a more openly gay community as hurting business. “My business looks to recruit new talent, and frankly there are gays who do not want to move here. It’s hard for single gay people to come here and make it. It’s even true for young straight people. This city doesn’t have a lot of entertainment options for young people,” he said. “But I don’t buy the excuse that Dallas draws all the gay talent away. St. Paul [Minn.] has a thriving gay community, and so does Minneapolis, and they both have gay culture and a strong business environment. Fort Worth needs to see this, and I think that is happening.
“But the most damaging part of this marriage issue is that it sends a signal far and wide that Texas is intolerant and doesn’t have its priorities straight,” Angle said. The gay marriage issue “should be way down on the list. We should be working on education and health insurance and growing the economy. Instead they want to stop me from adopting children.
“If you’re a high-tech business and bringing in high-tech workers, some companies will say their employees don’t want to come here. I would hate to see Texas get off track because of this marriage issue,” Angle said.
Sitting at Best Friends Club, watching the Fort Worth gay community do their western thing, it is quite apparent that Fort Worth doesn’t see the gay community as a positive part of the city. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram covers and promotes just about any rodeo that comes through town, but it carried no story on the three-day gay rodeo. The Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau touts any event that brings in people from out of town but, once again, makes no mention on its web site of gay rodeo fans coming to the city.
What is quite obvious about the crowd at Best Friends is that they seem about the same as everyone else. No one slow dancing with his or her partner has any interest in destroying traditional family values. On the contrary, they want to be part of that. And as America becomes more accepting of gay culture — more gay characters on tv and young people being less opposed to gays than older Americans — it’s odd that some in Texas see this as the time to restrict the rights of some fellow citizens because of who they like to dance with.
The gay activist who received the death threats put it in perspective: “If there is a sanctity to marriage, then how dare you deny it to me? What we are doing is demeaning the institution of marriage by defining it by sexual components. The core structure of marriage is about love, commitment, and responsibility. It has nothing to do with sexuality. The ability to conceive is not a prerequisite for a marriage license. If you are a heterosexual who has been married for 10 or 20 years, is sex what defines your marriage? No, it is about love for your partner and working together. Gays feel they should have the right to get married if they want to, just as you have the right to be Jewish or Christian or any other religion if you want. It is all about a sense of equality and fairness.”
And maybe the issue of “equality and fairness” will wake up Fort Worth gays. Maybe the city will see that businesses catering to the gay community can have a positive impact on the city as a whole. Because whether Fort Worth likes it or not, gays are part of the community. It is an easy political decision to cater to the fears of voters. It’s a tougher one to tell some voters that their fears aren’t based in fact. That’s what Fort Worth gays are dealing with right now.
Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance journalist.
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