Putting the Spurs to Cowtown
Most Fort Worth citizens were introduced to Queer LiberAction, a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender activist group, on the evening news last summer. Footage of the packed July 14 city council meeting was broadcast on TV stations all over North Texas. It featured Mayor Mike Moncrief, gavel in hand, facing off against a wiry young man with long thin sideburns who wouldn’t sit down or shut up. (In the age of viral video, the entire episode was uploaded for the world to see on YouTube).
Amid the mayor’s stern warnings of “Take a seat,” and “Don’t interrupt,” and “Do you want to be removed?” the young man waved a piece of paper and claimed to speak for the crowd:
“Sir, we respectfully ask to be put at the top of the agenda. We’re tired of being put at the bottom of the list. Hundreds of people are here tonight to talk about what happened at the Rainbow Lounge two weeks ago.”
When it became clear that the mayor wasn’t going to cede control, the young man’s complaints grew more pointed:
“Sir, I think you’re showing your cowardice tonight. We’re tired of being abused and treated like second-class citizens. We’ve waited two weeks, and we respectfully ask to be moved to the top of the list.”
Moncrief summoned two officers, who each took one of the protester’s skinny arms and led him out of the chamber, to considerable applause from the crowd. Two other Queer LiberAction members were subsequently ejected when they got noisy. Moncrief addressed the rest of the assembly with the lament that, in his six years as “your mayor,” this was the first time he’d asked anyone to be removed, and he wanted it to be the last.
If Queer LiberAction hangs around much longer, the mayor might need that gavel again. Founded in Dallas a year ago by Blake Wilkinson, the young man who so publicly challenged Moncrief at that meeting, QL has regularly organized so-called “direct-action” events like rallies, marches, and protests in our neighbor city to the east. But since June 28, Queer LiberAction has focused much of its attention here. That’s when a “routine inspection” of the Rainbow Lounge by Fort Worth police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents led to injuries of patrons, arrests, lawsuits, and condemnation from around the country.
In the six months since the tense meeting at city hall, QL has sponsored direct-action events at the downtown courthouse, in Sundance Square, and in the Stockyards, where last October’s “queer kiss-in” was greeted by crowds of supporters, conservative Christian counter-protesters, and plenty of TV cameras.
Despite the success that QL events have had in drawing continued attention to the issue of LGBT rights, not all Fort Worth gay leaders are happy about the group’s actions. Some wish Wilkinson and his friends would stay in Dallas.
At first glance, the situation looks like yet another example of the different ways of doing things in Fort Worth versus Dallas, but it’s more complicated than that. Dallas indeed has a more visible, geographically concentrated, and arguably better organized LGBT community than Fort Worth. But both cities have a similar conservative streak that frowns upon the spectacle of public protests.
David Reed, president of the Tarrant County Lesbian and Gay Alliance since 1980, has participated in both direct-action work and behind-the-scenes negotiations in his long career as an advocate for LGBT causes. He agreed that neither city is inclined to greet a noisemaking group like Queer LiberAction with open arms. His own take on QL is a decidedly critical one: “We need our young leaders to be goal-oriented, to pursue measurable results,” he said. “The only thing I see Queer LiberAction pursuing is a high media profile.”
Steve Sprinkle, a gay ordained minister and professor at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, has marched with Wilkinson in Fort Worth and Dallas. He insists that the group’s very public methods serve a need that’s particular to the LGBT community.
“People talk about ‘the Fort Worth way’ and “the Dallas way,’ ” he said. “I just call it ‘the Metroplex way,’ and it’s code for backroom dealing. That’s how all business is conducted, of course. But the problem for LGBT people in North Texas is gaining visibility in a religiously and politically conservative climate. Because the closet is a death trap, visibility means survival for us.”
You could say Blake Wilkinson’s childhood prepared him for his work with Queer LiberAction. When he was five, his father came out as a gay man, and his parents divorced. Although Dad didn’t become an activist, he and his longtime partner regularly took little Blake to gay pride parades in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, making it considerably easier for Blake himself to come out when he was a teenager.
“I’ve been a member of the LGBT community since I was a child,” he said, “and I’m proud of that.”
After high school, Wilkinson went to Chicago to study anthropology at DePaul University. Although he’d always had an interest in politics, he says he didn’t become radicalized until 2003, when he met the man he now considers his mentor – Andy Thayer, co-founder and chief organizer for Chicago’s direct-action group Queer Liberation Network. Thayer is famous for his sometimes rowdy street protests as well as his international work – he helped gay rights groups in Moscow organize their first major city demonstration. Wilkinson participated in Chicago street protests against the Iraq war and in support of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s controversial 2004 decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Another big influence on Wilkinson has been Larry Kramer, the firebrand AIDS activist from New York He was especially influenced by Kramer’s 2004 speech “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” which took urban gay men to task for frivolous and self-destructive behaviors with sex and drugs, calling them to take to the streets instead to protest the re-election of George W. Bush.
Wilkinson went to Madrid for a couple of years after college to learn Spanish, wait tables, and mull over his future. He returned to Dallas in 2008 and decided he wanted to adopt the rabble-rousing, street-marching style of activism espoused by Thayer and Kramer. “I couldn’t find anyone doing the kind of work [in Dallas] that the Queer Liberation Network had done [in Chicago],” he said.
Then on the same day that Barack Obama was elected president, California voters passed Proposition 8, which provided that only marriages between a man and a woman would be recognized in that state. Same-sex marriage rights that had previously been granted in the California courts were revoked at the ballot box. Protests sprang up in major cities across the country, and the Dallas LGBT establishment – including groups like the Dallas County Stonewall Democrats and the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Alliance – began to organize similar public demonstrations against Prop 8. Wilkinson, who participated in some of the planning, found that Chicago-style direct action didn’t fly in Big D.
“The differences [in approach] between the Dallas [gay] establishment and me came down to two points,” said Wilkinson. First, “I wanted to organize a Dallas protest against the Mormon Church” – which had spent many millions of dollars in California to pass Prop 8 – “but I was basically told no, that would be hatred against religion.”
The second point of contention was that Wilkinson believed Dallas’ anti-Prop 8 rally should be held at a place and time chosen for maximum visibility. If traffic was disrupted and the police were inconvenienced, then so be it. But organizers were loath to step on the Dallas Police Department’s toes, he said.
With Wilkinson’s input disregarded, the anti-Prop 8 demonstration was held in a contained area at city hall on a deserted Sunday afternoon. “The only people who paid attention to us were the counter-protesters from the religious right,” he said.
The tepid outcome was disappointing but not surprising to Wilkinson. “I think the first instinct of LGBT people is, ‘We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves,’ ” he said. It’s an instinct he’s determined to fight.
Erin Moore, president of the Dallas County Stonewall Democrats, participated in the city’s Prop 8 rally. She agreed that “the Dallas way” is very business-like, a “wine and cheese” style of activism that precludes getting your suit sweaty during a street protest.
“Sometimes you have to be negative [in your approach], but prolonged negativity just turns people off,” she said, referring to Queer LiberAction. Direct action, she said, can mean not only hitting the streets but “setting up a meeting with your congressman about the issues.”
Wilkinson passed out fliers at the Dallas Prop 8 rally with the name “Queer LiberAction” on them, asking participants if they were tired of being treated like second-class citizens and wanted to participate in a more vocal kind of gay activism. At the first Dallas QL meeting in January 2009, about 25 people showed up, and a new North Texas activist group was created.
Queer LiberAction didn’t significantly expand its reach into Fort Worth until after the Rainbow Lounge raid. Wilkinson and other QL members heard about the raid while they were marching that afternoon in a Dallas rally commemorating the 40th anniversary of the seminal Stonewall riots in New York City, the birth of the modern gay rights movement. (Some people in the community still believe that the timing of the Fort Worth raid was no coincidence.)
Queer LiberAction members attended the first candlelight vigil outside the Rainbow Lounge that night. That’s where Wilkinson met Joe Remsik, 37, a recent transplant from Chicago who’d been looking for a direct-action group in the Fort Worth area. Remsik had also worked with Queer Liberation Network and Andy Thayer in Chicago, the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2004, and various causes related to the homeless. Remsik and Wilkinson knew many of the same people in Chicago but had never met there.
Remsik became Queer LiberAction’s point man in Fort Worth, helping to organize twice-monthly meetings here, as well as attending Dallas events. He gradually began to notice a subtle difference in attitude between LGBT members in the two North Texas cities.
“There were always more people [at Dallas meetings than Fort Worth meetings],” said Remsik. “There was a culture of fear in Fort Worth that was very prevalent. People seemed concerned for their personal safety if they joined.”
Wilkinson concurs, noting that resistance to Queer LiberAction in Dallas came more from “a desire to maintain a respectable public reputation than a fear of being physically harmed.”
Flouting both fear and propriety, Queer LiberAction began a series of very public Fort Worth appearances. The first was a doozy – that disruption of the July 14 city council meeting, where close to 400 people packed the room to hear community representatives air grievances over the Rainbow Lounge incident. Fearing that their presentation would be shelved or saved until 2 or 3 a.m. to dampen discussion, Wilkinson intervened with his now-famous confrontation with the mayor.
While many LGBT attendees applauded when Queer LiberAction activists were removed, the outburst had the desired effect as far as Wilkinson and Remsik were concerned: The community presentation was bumped up on the agenda.
Inspired by that city hall appearance, Queer LiberAction continued scheduling public demonstrations and events through the summer and into the fall. They organized a march of about 250 people that started after Wilkinson posted a list of demands on the Tarrant County courthouse doors that included transparency and accountability in the Rainbow Lounge investigations as well as full reimbursement of medical expenses for Chad Gibson, the lounge patron who suffered a concussion. Then the group marched with signs and chants down to city hall.
In Sundance Square, Queer Liber-Action staged “teach-ins” – public tutorials for passersby on what constitutes homophobia. Police Chief Halstead’s initial statement that his officers were groped during the Rainbow Lounge raid was reprinted on big white poster boards, and its offensive element was explained. QL also staged several “Milk box” events inspired by slain San Francisco activist Harvey Milk. Instead of a soapbox, a milk crate was positioned at a very public corner, and people were invited to stand up and have their say on LGBT issues. Sprinkle, from the Brite Divinity School, appeared there wearing his minister’s collar, testifying that LGBT people are children of God too. The most memorable moment, according to Wilkinson and Remsik, happened when a girl who appeared to be about 12 stood up to publicly declare love and support for her same-sex parents, a lesbian couple.
And then there were more controversial events, like the October “queer kiss-in” in the Stockyards.
“That was my idea!” Joe Remsik said with devilish pride. Queer LiberAction members thought some of the heat surrounding the Rainbow Lounge incident had started to cool. They decided that a group of QL members and supporters who gathered to exchange some mild public displays of affection might drive home a simple point: Despite the legitimate gains that LGBT people had earned, it’s still a big deal for a same-sex couple to exchange a smooch on a crowded street corner.
The North Texas print and broadcast media agreed, and QL was unprepared for the amount of press it received prior to the event.
“It was insane,” said Wilkinson. “I was doing two or three interviews a day.” As the kiss-in approached, he said: “The tone seemed to get more serious. There was a rumor that the Klan was going to show up. And then Hub Baker said something to the effect that we deserved a whipping for doing this. You can interpret that statement in different ways, and one of them is as an incitement to violence. We were all nervous.”
City councilman Joel Burns, who is gay, released a statement criticizing the kiss-in, declaring that Fort Worth was a tolerant city and noting with apparent distaste that QL was a Dallas-based organization.
The final event was, thankfully, violence-free – just 10 or 12 same-sex smoochers and about 50 supporters, including some lip-locking heteros. Oh, and what seemed like a million TV news cameras. QL decided beforehand that their public displays of affection would be no more outrageous than what a straight couple visiting the Stockyards might do. The only friction was provided by a counter-protest of conservative Christians with anti-gay signs. The two sides kept a tense but mostly uneventful distance.
And what did the queer kiss-in accomplish? Wilkinson said Queer LiberAction added several energized young LGBT people to its Fort Worth roster. Even better, he cited the apparent turnaround – or clarification – by Baker, who declared, via a sign in a photo in Fort Worth Weekly, that same-sex PDAs were A-OK with him. Wilkinson said he couldn’t imagine any other event that would spur a Fort Worth business leader to make a public statement distancing himself from homophobia.
Opinions differ among Fort Worth LGBT leaders about the impact and relevance of Queer LiberAction’s events in the city.
Jon Nelson, 63, is a lawyer and the spokesperson for Fairness Fort Worth, an activist group that works within the system. Fairness Fort Worth was created after the Rainbow Lounge raid to provide legal counseling and support for bar patrons who wished to come forward and provide witness statements to the police. Fairness Fort Worth continues to work with the city to see that recommendations from the city manager-appointed Diversity Task Force are implemented.
Nelson was at the July 14 city council meeting – Fairness Fort Worth had recruited most of the 400 GLBT citizens in attendance. “I think that show of force was a shock to the city council and the mayor,” he said. “They didn’t expect that level of unity within the community. They knew then that we weren’t going away until things were resolved.”
He didn’t like Queer LiberAction’s disruption of the council meeting and said that standing up and yelling in public isn’t his personal style. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate what the group does.
“I thought it was inappropriate,” he said of the group’s actions at the meeting. He believes Fort Worth is more amenable to traditional methods of negotiation. Still, “I will say that there is a place in the LGBT movement for protest, and Queer LiberAction provides a valid forum for that,” he said. “No rights that the community has today would exist without protest.”
Reed, 51, of the Tarrant County Lesbian & Gay Alliance was also at the meeting. He thinks that the times have changed and that local gays have less need for direct action.
“Blake Wilkinson’s claim that the Rainbow Lounge presentation was given short shrift because of its place at the bottom of the agenda is ridiculous,” he said. “Community presentations always come at the bottom of the agenda. That’s council protocol. We weren’t asking to be treated like someone special. Most of us were prepared to be there until 2 or 3 a.m.”
Reed believes that Queer LiberAction’s methods stem more from a desire for media attention than for tangible change. Unlike 30 years ago, Reed insists, there are now people in power – Burns and Kathleen Hicks on the city council, City Manager Dale Fisseler, State Sen. Wendy Davis – who are receptive to LGBT concerns.
Wilkinson acknowledged that the “level of discomfort was high. You could tell Mayor Moncrief wasn’t prepared for it. He looked rattled.” Ironically, he said, “Most of the support we got afterward was from straight people.”
Indeed, Remsik takes it as a point of pride that then-Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Hicks and her mother, retired Judge Maryellen Hicks, an old-guard civil rights activist, walked over to him and declared their support after the meeting. They offered the phone number of a lawyer in case Queer LiberAction’s activities got the group into legal trouble.
Judge Hicks approved of their rabble-rousing style, Remsik said. He said that she told him, “That’s the only way you’re going to get anything done in this city.”
Reed is also dismissive about the kiss-in. He calls it “manufactured outrage.”
“I suppose if a dozen gay couples had decided to kiss spontaneously – without Queer LiberAction organizing it and alerting the media – then people would’ve looked askance and not said anything until they got in their cars,” said Reed. “The same thing would’ve happened to a dozen straight couples.” He views it, like much of QL’s work, as an immature grab for attention that “brings the community into disrepute.”
Nelson did not attend the kiss-in, but he sees the pragmatic side of it. “If the ladies and gentlemen of the Fort Worth Garden Club had decided to go to the Stockyards and have a kiss-in, where [in the newspaper] would it be covered? In the society pages,” he said. “And the religious right would not be screaming at them with placards.
“The reality is that there are a substantial number of people in this city – in this country, for that matter – who find same-sex affection offensive,” he said. “We can talk about equal rights in our living rooms, but the public square is a different matter. I think the kiss-in illustrated that.”
Remsik said that the kiss-in accomplished its purpose. “The purpose of direct action is to stir the pot and create a healthy tension,” he said. “I don’t mind pissing people off. But then you try to take that anger and channel it into dialogue.”
Reed does not oppose direct action simply as a reflex. Indeed, he points to a protest that the Tarrant County Lesbian & Gay Alliance participated in with a gay veterans’ group in 1991, in which the demonstrators blocked off several lanes of traffic at the gates of Carswell Air Force Base. The Air Force was delaying the discharges of several gay servicepeople, detaining them in small dark rooms to pressure them into ratting out other homosexuals in their ranks. The protest made area newspaper and television headlines, and shortly after that the discharges were issued and the detainees released.
What’s the difference in his mind between that bit of direct action and what Queer LiberAction does? “We had a clear goal that was quantifiable – the release of the servicemembers,” he said. “And there was simply no other way to get the attention of people with the power to change the situation.”
Nelson believes that “the Fort Worth way” – working with city leaders and using the tools of the system – has been unfairly condemned. The members of Fairness Fort Worth and the city manager-appointed Diversity Task Force are not lackeys doing the bidding of municipal powerbrokers, he said. The proof is in the list of goals that have been accomplished in a very short time – creation of diversity training for police and city employees, appointment of a police liaison to the LGBT community, and the ongoing serious consideration of domestic partnership benefits for city workers. Protection for transgender people was also added to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
“If that’s the system that’s being disparaged, it’s a hell of a system,” he said.
But Nelson disagrees with Reed that Queer LiberAction has somehow brought disrepute to the city’s burgeoning LGBT movement.
“Let’s go back to the 1960s,” he said. “You have Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the same movement. Nobody can say today that Malcolm X’s presence damaged the cause of civil rights. Has Queer LiberAction hindered anything that Fairness Fort Worth and the Diversity Task Force have tried to do? No, they haven’t. They exist to give a voice to one part of the community.”
Wilkinson is unapologetic about Queer LiberAction’s in-your-face approach. He also puts that movement firmly within a historical context: “If you look at different civil rights movements – including African-American, women’s, and workers’ rights – direct action is the way that disenfranchised people have engaged the status quo. Maybe it’s unpalatable to some, but it’s also very effective.”
Sprinkle has no doubts about the role that QL has played in Fort Worth’s gay scene: “They have served a great purpose in educating a wide range of LGBT young people about what direct action is,” he said. “Their work is important, and I think Blake Wilkinson is a very brave young man.”
As for the future of Queer LiberAction, Wilkinson admits it’s a big question mark. The group has no direct-action events planned in either Fort Worth or Dallas for the immediate future. His voice is tinged with disappointment when he discusses the cool reception QL has received from mainstream LGBT organizations in both cities. No one has thwarted their work, but few North Texas community leaders have encouraged it, either. He’s now pondering direct-action organizing at a national level rather than working locally.
If Queer LiberAction has been confrontational in its tactics, he said, that’s because there are plenty of problems that need confronting.
“We as LGBT people have a lot to be angry about – marriage inequality, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no federal protections against workplace discrimination, the suicide rate among LGBT youth,” he said. “We’d like to disassociate ourselves from those realities. QL is saying, ‘There’s a time and a place to express this anger.’ “