Effectively telling the story of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) life in Fort Worth and Tarrant County is a challenge for many reasons, the biggest obstacle being a slow transformation from unspoken secrecy to gradual acceptance and community visibility. Beginning with community standards that marked homosexuality as a crime, leading to an underground culture fostered in semi-gay spaces (such as theaters and nightclubs that at times employed female impersonators) and eventually explicitly openly-queer spaces such as gay nightclubs, the multi-decade evolution of LGBT life remained largely invisible until the rise of “out” culture and community progressed to public activism and eventually modern-day acceptance. In many ways, this gradual progression paralleled the gay struggle in the United States in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, but was also in a number of respects specific to Texas, the Southwest and “Cowtown.”
Before the turn of the nineteenth century and several decades thereafter, documentation of queer life was virtually nonexistent, due in large part to the criminalized status of being openly gay. Texas passed its first sodomy law in 1860, and the serious ramifications for being identified as a homosexual could not only result in imprisonment but also social rejection, loss of employment, or, in some cases, death. The earliest mentions of homosexuality in print media took place in the 1890s, with listings in crime blotters in the Fort Worth Morning Register calling out offenders charged with the “serious crime” of sodomy.
In the 1940s gays and lesbians became headline news, though the circumstances allowed only for their representation in certain prescribed roles. Echoing films of the time, gays made news only when they could be cast as villains. Two sensational murders made front-page news of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the first being the 1943 death of Jack B. Disney by purported lesbian Kathleen Latham, a friend—and rumored lover—of his wife. An even bigger headline grabber was the 1949 bludgeoning death of Texas Christian University dean John Lord by his alleged lover, a nineteen-year-old housemate named Arthur Clayton Hester. Stories of gay killers proved popular fodder for the more salaciously-minded press at the time, and Hollywood’s obsession with them, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope, persists to this day. However, local media outlets never devoted as much ink to them after these two cases. Prior to these sensational crime-related pieces, media outlets instead focused on a different aspect LGBT life.
Though the city’s first nightclubs catering exclusively to gays and lesbians were still several decades away, the art of female impersonation began drawing crowds in Cowtown as early as 1899. Female impersonators were regular features in touring vaudeville revues at Fort Worth venues like the Majestic Theatre, showcasing performers such as “The Huntress,” “Richards,” Herbert Clifton, and George Puduzzi. No impersonator was more famous than Julian Eltinge, a Massachusetts-born Broadway and screen actor whose performances in female garb fascinated locals. In 1936, when Fort Worth held its own Texas Centennial celebration (see TEXAS FRONTIER CENTENNIAL), four female impersonators were the opening attraction in Arlington Heights at a hell-themed nightspot called Dante’s Inferno. In 1951 a celebrated traveling impersonation group called the Jewel Box Revue—founded by a gay couple and staffed almost entirely by gay men and one lesbian woman—enjoyed a five-week holdover run at the Skyliner Ballroom on Jacksboro Highway. One attendee told Star-Telegram columnist Irvin Farman, “Some of them fillies in the show can shore [sic] fool you.” Though it’s uncertain how many of these performers may themselves have been gay, we may assume that some were, and the art form was definitely a huge part of gay culture.
The continued success of drag acts seemed curious considering how local police used a city anti-cross-dressing ordinance to routinely harass the gay community. When police stopped by the Southside night spot After Dark Lounge “on a routine check” on Halloween in 1973, they arrested seven male patrons for wearing evening gowns under a city ordinance that made it illegal for anyone to wear clothing “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” The case was dismissed, and the ordinance was eventually stricken from the books in the late 1970s.
Beyond the lurid headlines and occasional references to drag performers, little to nothing of scholarly note was written about LGBT life in North Texas during that period, though Fort Worth did merit a mention in Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s 1952 book U.S.A. Confidential, which documented the dark underbelly of major cities across the country, including queer life. In the chapter called “The Lonely Star: Texas Confidential,” the authors had much to say about Fort Worth’s early ties to organized crime along with its rowdy nightlife, but their scant mention of homosexual life in Cowtown at the time was summed up tersely: “It is wooly and individual and about the only burg of proportions where there are no fairies. Four of these were murdered there and the other handful wafted off for Dallas.” It is hard to say if the book’s glib mention of murder was based in fact, as no mentions of victims slain for their sexuality existed at the time, but it is certainly possible, considering similar crimes in other major metropolitan areas.
Because of the clandestine nature of gay nightclubs, most were not listed in widely-printed sources and were instead shared secretly in handmade guides and privately-circulated listings. The locations were kept confidential in part to protect the anonymity of patrons as well as to avoid potential police harassment.
Fort Worth’s earliest mention in one of these gay guides came in a 1954 typewritten and mimeographed listing called the “Lady Jai Recommended List.” Lady Jai (aka J.A. Moore) was the secretary of the Detroit Area Council of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBT organizations in the country. Mentioned in Lady Jai’s list was the Longhorn, a bar located downtown on Houston Street, and, while not explicitly listed as an exclusively gay club, it is the oldest potential location on record.
Another night spot that appeared in several early 1960s listings was the Celebrity Room on Lancaster Avenue. The Star-Telegram covered the bar’s opening in 1960 and stated that it was “designed for Fort Worth’s show business crowd. (It’s just a hop and scotch from Casa Mañana).” Its reputation as a lavender lounge was aided by mentions in a number of similar “underground” gay travel guides, making it the city’s first widely-known gay hangout. After several name changes, in 1970 the bar landed as the Other Place, a moniker that lasted through three additional locations and nearly twenty years of business.
Other early bars emerged farther north on the Jacksboro Highway in Sansom Park, including El Toga (later T.J.’s Backdoor) in 1969 and Lil Elvira’s in 1971 as well as the remote Westside spot the Old House Restaurant and Bar in 1970. Gay life was still very much in the shadows, with former Toga doorman Jerry “Big Mama” Cassidy recalling flashing a light to alert patrons to grab a dance partner of the opposite sex during frequent police raids. Many of these former gangland gambling dens were the sites of violence and occasional shootings. In 1969 a ramshackle dive called the 651—after its address at 651 S. Jennings Avenue—opened and began the run of what would become the city’s longest consecutively-operating gay bar.
On June 28, 1969, patrons of a bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, clashed with police after being fed up with frequent raids. The ensuing riots sparked the beginning of the gay rights movement nationally. But the riots barely registered with many patrons in Cowtown. “I don’t think anybody was aware that Stonewall meant anything at the time,” Alan Gellman told the Star-Telegram in 1994. Gellman, who published the long-running weekly gay bar magazine This Week in Texas, was just a teenager at the time of the riots. He reflected, “I don’t think anyone thought Stonewall was pivotal.”
While the East and West coasts buzzed about the post-Stonewall fledgling gay rights movement, Texans dealt with the passage of a new draconian law in 1973, Texas Penal Code § 21.06, which declared, “A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” The offense was a misdemeanor with no jail time, but the message was clear. Gays were still criminals. While their brothers and sisters were finally starting to make headway up north, for many Fort Worth gays and lesbians, progress felt more out of reach than ever.
Responding to this legal setback, Fort Worth’s LGBT people began to edge a little further out of the closet. On April 6, 1973, Ken Cyr, Wayne Ribble, Allen Reid, and several others founded Fort Worth’s first gay organization, AURA (Awareness, Unity and Research Association). The group published the city’s first gay paper, Community News, in addition to advocating gay civil rights and working toward the creation of a gay community center. The following month, Agape Metropolitan Community Church, part of a nationwide organization founded to minister to gays, was officially chartered in Fort Worth by the Reverend Troy Perry of the Los Angeles-based Universal Fellowship of Community Churches. Prominent pastors included Jim Norwood, Brenda Hunt, and Ken Ehrke.
Other gay-affirming churches followed, with the Metropolitan Community Church-affiliated Mid-Cities MCC (later Trinity MCC) in 1984 under the Reverend Jo Crisco, the Fellowship of Love Outreach (FOLO) in 1987 under Pastor Ric Huett, and Celebration Community Church in 1993 under William “Bill” R. Prickett and later, longtime community leader the Reverend Carol West. All remained open as of 2021.
AURA, in conjunction with the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex Gay Council, hosted the inaugural Texas Gay Conference in Fort Worth on June 21–23, 1974, attracting a number of LGBT organizations from across the state. While the conference took place, Fort Worth police staked out its location and wrote down the license plate numbers of attendees and in some cases followed them to gay nightclubs where more plates were taken down. When Ken Cyr, AURA’s director, confronted police officials, he was dismissed and told it was standard procedure mostly done for their protection, even though the Fort Worth police also made those plate numbers available to media outlets. Cyr was undeterred and filed a civil suit the next year. By early 1978 the court ordered that Fort Worth police destroy all records of license plates, names, and other personal data collected regarding area homosexuals. Cowtown gays won their first victory in the fight against oppression.
But the struggle was far from over. The late 1970s saw the rise in popularity of an anti-gay crusade by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant (see ANITA BRYANT PROTEST [HOUSTON]). In response to Bryant and other similarly vocal opponents of gay and lesbian rights, Reverend Jim Norwood of Agape MCC founded the Tarrant County Gay Political Caucus in September 1980; Daune Littlefield was elected as its first president. The group changed its name to the Tarrant County Gay Alliance (TCGA) the following year to reflect its emphasis on civil rights. In early 1979 the Imperial Court de Fort Worth/Arlington was founded as Texas’s first chapter of the International Imperial Court System (IICS), one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the world. The organization was founded to raise funds for charitable causes through regular shows and annual Gala Coronation Balls.
In June 1982 Fort Worth hosted its first Gay Pride Picnic, sponsored by TCGA and drag entertainer Raina Lee, at Forest Park. Lee was the stage name of Gary Taylor, a tireless activist, entertainer, Imperial Court member, and representative for the community.
One of the original goals of AURA was finally met in March 1983 with the opening the city’s first center for gays and lesbians—Center for the Community at 2412 Lipscomb Street. The offices were home to the Llambda Community News, a new gay paper, and a proposed retirement center for gays that never materialized. In June of that year the city’s first week-long Pride celebration took place.
But the newfound sense of pride and celebration gave way to fear and sorrow when, on both coasts, a new disease dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) began spreading throughout communities of gay men in large cities in 1981. More accurately renamed Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1982, the disease was not documented in Tarrant County until 1985, with thirty-two confirmed cases and nineteen deaths by November of that year.
A new era of support organizations began, starting with the founding of the AIDS Outreach Center (AOC) in 1986 under executive director Thomas Bruner, which provided education and assistance for people living with HIV/AIDS. The Tarrant County AIDS Interfaith Network followed in 1989 to educate and mobilize people of faith, and Samaritan House offered housing for persons living with the disease in 1991.
Bars became unlikely hosts for memorials, where longtime familiar faces, community leaders, and popular performers were eulogized far too soon and too often. At the age of thirty-one, Tiger Lil (aka Michael Currier), a legendary local drag performer, was one of the first high-profile locals to be claimed by AIDS in 1987; followed by Michial Robinson (aka Mother Michial), another local pillar in 1990; Raina Lee (aka Gary Taylor) in 1991; and pioneering activist Ken Cyr, who died in 1993.
This ongoing crisis also injected local nightclubs with a new sense of activism and community service. When the AOC opened in 1986, there was no official food pantry. The disease was ravaging the community, with many losing their jobs, homes, and familial support. During that time, 651 owner James Allen and manager/bartender Rhonda Mae Cox began to buy and deliver food to locals living with the disease who were too ill to shop on their own. Starting in 1989 Cox eventually began collecting money and canned goods for local food pantries at Allen’s westside bar the Office/Breakroom. Her Wall of Food drag variety show fundraisers, a name taken literally from the ever-growing towers of food purchases each week made through donations, entertained and opened wallets in almost every other bar in town and raised tens of thousands of dollars during the next few decades.
In 1982 the Fort Worth chapter of the nation’s largest family and ally organization, PFLAG was founded. The acronym stood for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays later adding the word “Families” to the name in 2014. The organization started in the offices of Dr. Rita Cotterly, who also founded the Sexuality Education Center. The Fort Worth Counseling Center was founded by Daune Littlefield in 1988 to provide AIDS support and affirmative mental health services for LGBT people and their families. The Health Education Learning Project (HELP) came on the scene in 1994. In 1998 PFLAG partnered with the Tarrant County Lesbian Gay Alliance to launch the Teen Project, supporting LGBT youth.
This period also saw the formation of several social community organizations which quickly became devoted to helping raise funds to fight the disease, including the Cowtown Leathermen in 1983 and the Trinity River Bears in 1997. In 1999 QCinema, Fort Worth’s Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, held its first four-day event; it has become the longest ongoing LGBTQ festival of its type in the state. All of these organizations remained active as of 2021.
The 2000s brought major political change, with Fort Worth becoming the first city in Texas to protect people from discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation in September 2000. A long-fought battle to overturn Texas’s “homosexual conduct” law was won on June 26, 2003, with the U. S. Supreme Court decision on Lawrence v. Texas that essentially decriminalized consensual private sexual acts between adults. “I think this ruling is the best we could have hoped for," David Reed, president of the Tarrant County Lesbian/Gay Alliance told the Star-Telegram. “It brings our country one step closer to fulfilling its ideas of equal treatment under the law.”
In 2009 the former location of Fort Worth’s oldest consecutive gay bar, the 651, reopened as the Rainbow Lounge. A little more than a week after its opening, a group of Fort Worth police officers and agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) stormed the bar on the night June 28, the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Officers zip-tied and arrested patrons for public intoxication and marched them outside into waiting paddy wagons. One young man, Chad Gibson, was thrown to the ground so roughly that he suffered a head injury and bleeding on the brain and was later sent to the hospital. The event touched off an international controversy and led to the creation of a local activist group called Fairness Fort Worth which successfully negotiated with the police and city leaders for a list of sweeping reforms, including changes to the city’s anti-discrimination policies as well as diversity training for all city officials.
In 2011 in a historic move celebrating thirty years of LGBT Pride, the annual parade for the first time proceeded down Main Street in downtown Fort Worth as a testament to how far the city’s LGBT community had come.