The Rainbow Lounge became ground zero for gay rights in Fort Worth in late June 2009 when a heavy-handed police raid left two patrons injured — a scene that many likened to the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City that launched the national gay rights movement in 1969.
Both events involved law enforcement raids at a gay nightclub on a June 28th, and both started a movement toward unity and equality in their respective cities.
On Thursday, those bittersweet feelings were recalled as many in the Fort Worth LGBT community reacted to the news that the landmark bar, at 651 Jennings Ave. on the city’s south side, was destroyed in an early morning fire. No one was injured, and the fire is under investigation by the Fort Worth Fire Department.
“I think we are all shocked and saddened,” said the Rev. Carol West of Celebration Community Church, near the bar. “The fire brings all kinds of emotions and memories. In many ways that was our modern Stonewall Inn.”
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The bar is an “iconic historic piece” of the city, Mayor Betsy Price said.
“It’s a shame to see it so terribly destroyed and we’re lucky and very fortunate that there were no human lives lost, but it did make a big impact on Fort Worth and it changed human rights and how we deal with our very diverse community,” Price said.
‘It was our Stonewall’
The nightclub was shoved into the debate over gay rights on June 28, 2009, when Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents and Fort Worth police conducted a “bar check” that resulted in several public intoxication arrests and injuries to two bar patrons.
The police came under intense criticism after the incident, which prompted the city to create a diversity task force and provide training for city staff. The Police Department created an LGBT liaison and changed its policy on conducting bar checks. The city also paid out-of-court settlements to the two injured patrons, including a six-figure payout to one who suffered a brain injury.
The raid unfolded in front of Todd Camp, a Fort Worth gay activist and historian, who was at the bar with his friends celebrating his 43rd birthday. Officers shoved him out of the way, grabbed the man in front of him, and pulled him outside.
“I sat there watching this happening and saying ‘I can’t believe this is happening on the 40th anniversary of the birth of the gay rights movement that ironically began with police harassing patrons of a gay bar,’ ” said Camp, a former Star-Telegram writer and co-founder of QCinema, the LGBT film festival in Fort Worth.
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Camp has been chronicling the history of the Rainbow Lounge and other gay bars in the city for a book.
The club opened in 1969 as 651, the first of four names it would have under different owners, and was among 60 bars that have served the gay community over the years in Fort Worth, he said.
“But the 651 was the city’s longest consecutive gay club,” Camp said.
“Fort Worth became a leader in LGBT equality for cities around the country,” said Camina, who was struck by the double anniversary. “The parallels were haunting.”
The fire destroyed a gay landmark in North Texas.
Robert L. Camina, Dallas film maker
Camina said the Fort Worth raid helped mobilize and organize the gay community and inspired the formation of Fairness Fort Worth, an advocacy organization that supported the transgender community during last year’s hotly debated issue surrounding bathroom guidelines in Fort Worth schools.
“The raid helped prepare the Fort Worth community for future battles,” Camina said, “The Rainbow Lounge raid really woke up the LGBT community in Fort Worth.”
‘It’s a bad day’
Employees were closing down about 3 a.m. Thursday when they noticed smoke coming from the roof. Firefighters arrived about 10 minutes later.
While the Fire Department said in a statement that the blaze is considered to be accidental, the department’s arson and bomb squad units are investigating.
Little swirls of steam were still rising from the collapsed roof by mid-morning. Brick littered the sidewalk in front, and the cordoned-off south wall bowed outward, seemingly in peril of falling. A few people milled about, snapping pictures with their phones.
In a bit of irony, the Rainbow Lounge’s destruction came at the beginning of Gay Pride Month.
Across the street at the Salon District, the fire dominated the talk among hairstylists and their clients.
“Everybody’s just walking around sad. It’s a bad day,” said stylist Laura Valles of Fort Worth, who occasionally patronized the bar with her friends. “There are so many people that would have receptions there, celebrations of life, things like that. There’s really nothing else like it.”
Jacky Reyna, another stylist, said she also enjoyed going there — “plus, the drinks were fairly priced,” she added with a smile. “I enjoyed the drag shows. No other bar in Fort Worth that has drag shows — at least as extravagant as that one.”
On one Gay Pride Day, Valles recalled, “I looked outside and the sidewalk was covered with drag queens. It was the best day ever!”
Former Councilman Joel Burns, who spoke out as an advocate for the LGBT community after the 2009 raid, said the city has “lost a safe place where people found acceptance and welcome.”
“The community lost the place of memories of celebrating — and making — friendships and relationships, as well as mourned the loss of so many in the early days of AIDS,” he said. “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.”
The city ‘lost a safe place where people found acceptance and welcome.’
Former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns
Carol Cappa, co-chair of the Tarrant County Stonewall Democrats, said the Rainbow Lounge has deep symbolic importance for the LGBT community.
“I’m just stunned,” Cappa said. “I hope they are able to rebuild it.”
Bigger, better Rainbow
Tom P. McAvoy, the club’s owner the past five years, said he planned to meet with real estate and insurance agents Friday to start looking for a new site.
He learned about the fire in a sobering phone call at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was told that the fire likely originated in the room housing a troublesome ice maker, and that the building was a total loss.
“The landlords don’t want to rebuild,” McAvoy said in a phone interview. “They’re just going to sell the property and demolish it.”
He hopes to buy and renovate another building — preferably a functioning restaurant and bar — within a mile of the current site and have it open within 60 days.
He also hopes the new Rainbow Lounge will be twice as big as the 3,200-square-foot club destroyed by the fire. “We’re probably going to have a stage built in with a dressing room,” he said.
It’s a bad day. There are so many people that would have receptions there, celebrations of life, things like that. There’s really nothing else like it.
Stylist Laura Valles of Fort Worth
One reason McAvoy wants to stay nearby is that the club’s revenue has increased significantly in recent years, he said, adding that straight people make up a healthy portion of his business.
“We were a drag bar — 70 to 80 percent of our clientele were straight people come to see a drag show,” he said. Straight women regularly filled the dance floor, he said. “They knew gay guys would protect them.”
West, of Celebration Community Church, said that as Gay Pride Month kicked off, there is a realization that more people know about the gay rights movement.
“The spirit of the community is going to be like a Phoenix and rise out of the ashes,” West said, adding that the building may be gone but the lessons learned there are not.
Staff writers Mark David Smith and Andrea Ahles contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.