In 2017, a fire destroyed the beloved Rainbow Lounge and, with it, the main LGBTQ+ gathering space in Fort Worth. The scene hasn’t been the same ever since, and many people outsource to Dallas when they want to have a good time. But new ownership at The Urban Cowboy Saloon and the dedication of the staff at mainstays Club Changes and Club Reflection might see that start to change.
After Trinity Pride Fest this past Saturday, I set out to explore Fort Worth’s gay bar scene.
First up was Club Reflection on South Jennings Street on the Near Southside. The space felt familiar from the moment I walked in. Antique saddles rested above the door. Mirrors shaped like cowboy boots hung on one wall framing a dance floor where a few people swayed along to country tunes. Trophy cases full of memorabilia stood in the back, surrounding a couple pool tables. I had just walked into a hole-in-the-wall country bar. Married owners Kevin Barnett and John Garska designed it this way when they opened 11 years ago.
“We just wanted to create a safe space where all are welcome,” Barnett said, taking a break to talk to me in the backroom as two drag queens prepped for their show at 11 p.m. “Even though we’re, first and foremost, a gay bar, we have a varied clientele.”
Barnett and Garska outfitted the space with antiques to give it that homey Western feel. For Andres Valenzuela, that warmth keeps him coming back. The schoolteacher has frequented the bar for 10 of the 11 years it has been open.
“It’s more like a friendly atmosphere,” he said. “You feel like you’re at home. To be honest, not many bars in Fort Worth feel like that.”
Though Club Reflection keeps things laid back, they put on multiple drag shows throughout the week, including drag bingo every other Monday.
Next, I went to Club Changes on East Lancaster Avenue. Changes has a similar feeling, all dim lights and loud music with a couple pool tables at the back. Manager Ridge DuRocher echoed Barnett’s sentiments.
“We’re laid back, no trouble, like a little Cheers,” he said with a molasses-thick accent courtesy of his Southern Louisiana upbringing. “It’s easygoing. We treat everyone like family.”
Men make up most of the clientele, though others are welcome and filter in and out, he said. Changes relies on a steady stream of regulars like Stephen “K” Becker, who held court at the bar, sipping on a vodka-soda with lime. “Oh, my God, honey. I’ve been coming here since it opened.”
Fort Worth’s gay bar scene has little in common with the scene in California, where he moved from 23 years ago, but Becker said he likes the small, close-knit community here.
For the last stop, I headed across the street to The Urban Cowboy Saloon, a long, low building that rises over East Lancaster and I-30 West like a mirage on the horizon. On the night I visited, the place was packed. Revelers of all ages and genders shook it out to pop hits, cheered on by a set of scantily clad men on a small stage over the dance floor.
Co-owner and local drag icon Sapphire Keaton dashed in and out from the back, a vision in a chartreuse floor-length gown. Austin Jennings-Ralph officially passed ownership over to Keaton and her boyfriend Patrick Kubin this June. Keaton has bartended at the club for a couple years and stepped up as general manager last August.
“I’ve bartended for so long,” Keaton said. “Drag is not a forever career for anyone. That can wear your body out. I wanted to do something I was passionate about, and I love being around people.”
As manager, Keaton started bringing in more drag shows and scheduling more entertainment (like the aforementioned dancers) to draw in crowds. Kubin is responsible for updating much of the construction in the bar.
“I wanted to bring that Rainbow Lounge vibe back to Fort Worth, which we were missing,” Keaton said.
She said as she grows The Urban Cowboy, she wants to build a truly inclusive space.
“I’m a transwoman,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of trans and nonbinary people that don’t feel they fit into that male gay persona. I want to make a space for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, bi, trans, whatever. I just want everyone to feel comfortable.”
In the future, Keaton said people can expect more events and shows at The Urban Cowboy Saloon. She keeps in touch with the owners of the other two local gay bars, and by working together and collaborating, she said, they all can keep more of the queer scene in Fort Worth.
“We’re still a community,” she said. “You don’t have to drive to Dallas for everything anymore.”