A night of fear gave a community its voice.

On June 28, 2009 (the exact 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots) Fort Worth, Texas’ only gay bar was raided by a joint task force of Fort Worth Police and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). By the end of the evening, five people were arrested, one man was rushed to the hospital with serious head injuries – and the entire Fort Worth community’s trust in the police was shattered. “Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge” attempts to document the terror of that night and the aftermath. Utilizing over 30 interviews from witnesses, bar patrons, activists, and even officers, Writer/Director Robert L. Camina successful weaves together how the Fort Worth LGBT community took on a tragic night, banded together, and fought to secure changes that would ensure that something like this would not occur again.

Still from "Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge" - Protest and prayer vigil held outside the Rainbow Lounge after the raid

Synopsis of “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge”

(credit to the Press Release for such a detailed synopsis)

Fort Worth’s relationship with the LGBT community is made up of a history of highs and lows. Members of the community often remain “in the closet”, largely due to the city’s small town feel and Bible Belt values. However, in recent years, an amendment to the city’s anti discrimination policy to include protection for the gay community and the election of an openly gay city councilman, Joel Burns and openly gay school board member, Carlos Vasquez, signaled a possible shift in attitude. Excitement grew within the community when it was announced that a large, trendy gay nightclub, the Rainbow Lounge, was planning to open in June 2009. Very few gay nightclubs or bars existed in Fort Worth and people waited with great anticipation. The modern gay rights movement is often traced back to the “Stonewall Riots”. On June 28, 1969, New York City police raided The Stonewall Inn, a small bar in Greenwich Village that catered to gays and lesbians, and in doing so, helped launch a revolution. Many arrests and injuries occurred during the raid.

On June 28, 2009 — 40 years later, almost to the minute — seven Fort Worth police officers and two agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) raided The Rainbow Lounge, which had been open less than two weeks. The raid resulted in multiple customer arrests and serious injuries. The parallels to the raid of the Stonewall Inn were haunting. Witnesses in the Rainbow Lounge at the time of the raid claim police officers and TABC agents stormed into the bar around 1a.m. with aggressive attitudes and pockets full of plastic zip-tie handcuffs. A patrol transport wagon was parked outside the bar, ready to haul patrons to jail.

According to multiple witnesses, one young man, Chad Gibson (26), was thrown against the wall and down to the floor by officers before his hands were cuffed behind his back and escorted outside. This was after, we would later learn, Mr. Gibson reportedly grabbed the groin of TABC Agent Chris Aller. Gibson was later transported by ambulance to the hospital where doctors discovered a fractured skull and bleeding on his brain. Multiple witnesses believe Gibson was injured at the hands of officers when he was thrown against the wall and then to the ground inside the club. However, officers insist Gibson sustained his injury outside, when, while vomiting, he lost his balance and fell forward into the concrete. Moments prior to Gibson’s arrest, another patron, George Armstrong, experienced a similar confrontation with police. In total, five people were arrested for public intoxication and taken to jail. Mr. Gibson received an additional citation for public intoxication and a citation for assault.

Members of the community felt betrayed by the police and city officials they thought they could trust. Many questions remained unanswered. Why did they come to the Rainbow Lounge? Was the LGBT community targeted? Was the raid specifically timed to coincide with the raid of the Stonewall Inn? Was the raid meant to send a message to the LGBT community? In a matter of hours, several highly visible protests were organized and this story captured the attention of the world.

Still from "Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge" - TABC & Fort Worth police perform raid, officers standing outside transport van

At the same time, Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead stated to one reporter that the situation at the bar had escalated only after patrons made “sexually suggestive movements” toward officers who were there only to conduct a routine bar inspection. Witnesses were outraged at this accusation, calling it false and homophobic. As the events unfolded over the summer, TABC Agent Aller’s description of the alleged “groping” was inconsistent, casting doubt on the story’s validity. A controversial Fort Worth Police Department incident report (which was not filed according to protocol) would later reveal more allegations from officers, describing sexually provocative behavior by two other bar patrons aimed towards their officers. In response to the behavior of his officers at the scene, Chief Halstead defended them saying “You’re touched and advanced in certain ways by people inside the bar that’s offensive…I’m happy with restraint used when they were contacted like that”. This quote resembled the “gay panic defense” and fanned the flames of outrage from around the world.

Within days, an activist group formed: Fairness Fort Worth. Its first goal, according to spokesman Jon Nelson, was to help police and TABC officials gather witnesses’ testimony. The group’s long-term goal, Nelson added, was to bring together a broad-based coalition of community, civic, and government leaders to facilitate communication and cooperation between the different segments of the city to keep such incidents from happening again. Two weeks later at a Fort Worth City Council meeting, the raid was addressed, and LGBT citizens from across North Texas crowded the chamber. Queer LiberAction (a direct action group) founder, Blake Wilkinson and five others were ejected from the council chambers. Despite repeated warnings from the mayor, they continued to interrupt the proceedings by demanding that the council rearrange its agenda to hear comments on the Rainbow Lounge raid first.

Alan Steen, the TABC Administrator, publicly acknowledged that his agents committed “clear violations” related to the raid: a total of 19 policy violations, according to the results of an internal investigation. The two agents and a sergeant (who was not at the scene) were later fired, with an “excessive force” investigation still to come. Chief Halstead presented to the City Council a preliminary report of the findings of his department’s investigation, concluding that the problems resulted, at least in part, from “flawed policies within the police department.” He presented a very specific new policy outlining how the department would conduct all bar inspections in the future. He also used this opportunity to apologize for his initial comments, which infuriated so many.

After several delays, Halstead released the findings of his department’s internal investigations. Two officers, including the sergeant in charge the night of the raid, were given one-day suspensions for policy violations, and a third officer was suspended for three days. The investigation found that the officers did not use excessive force. Results of the “excessive force” part of the TABC internal investigation also concluded that the excessive force allegations were unfounded. Although the uproar seemed at first to tear the city apart, many of those involved, including activists, officials in city government, the police department and TABC quickly stepped forward to transform what started off as a “tragic incident” into a shining opportunity to address issues and make improvements that could benefit the LGBT community and the city as a whole. Indeed, a night of fear gave a community its voice.

Today, Fort Worth is a leader in LGBT equality. In the wake of the raid, the Mayor’s office created a Diversity Task Force, made up of 26 city employees and community leaders to address issues related to the LGBT community. The Task Force ultimately made an impressive list of recommendations. The City Manager unconditionally approved most of the recommendations, with the City Council later approving Domestic Partner benefits and the amendment of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include transgender, gender identity and gender expression. One of the major accomplishments of the Task Force was to mandate Diversity Training for the city’s nearly 6,000 employees, including first responders.

Chief Halstead eventually progressed from his initial “gay panic” insensitive remarks, to take an active role in the LGBT community, appoint a LGBT officer liaison and join the city’s newly formed Diversity Taskforce. In addition, the events at the Rainbow Lounge brought about change in bar check policies. Bar owners, patrons, as well as officers, are further protected, hedging against an event like this from happening again. The TABC also established a LGBT liaison and is now providing diversity training to all of the state agency’s nearly 700 employees.

Still from "Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge" - Queer LiberAction founder Blake Wilkinson escorted out of Fort Worth City Council Chambers after heated exchange with Mayor Mike Moncrief

The Critique

I’ll freely admit that documentaries are tricky to review. For one, the plot is actual events; no one writes or edits the plot. People generally provide interviews directly to the camera, so there is no casting or acting. Additionally, documentaries usually include raw video footage, newspaper clippings, and even photographs in order to better tell the story. All of this has to be edited into a compelling – and enjoyable – film. To that end, Robert L. Camina quite successfully brings this sensational story to life in this educational & informative documentary.

Utilising a sensationalism form of storytelling, “Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge” takes the viewer into the events of the June 28, 2009 raid of the Rainbow Lounge and the subsequent aftermath. The first thirty minutes of the film focuses primarily on personal interviews to recount the events on the night of the raid. Bar patrons including  Todd Camp, Benjamin Guttery, and many more recall their story. How a rather peaceful night out at the club was suddenly invaded by a barrage of police officers questioning and detaining people randomly. Aided by the haunting & ominous music, the picture they all paint of that night is shocking and horrific. We end up being as outraged as the patrons who suffered through the raid; we want to join in the community’s push to demand answers and seek accountability for the officers involved.

However, when then the “facts” start to come out from the police department regarding excessive “sexual advances” and “public intoxication” as the reason why people were arrested, we’re also left puzzled. It sets off what ends up being a back and forth between the “official” report of the incident versus the LGBT’s perception and witness statements from that night. It’s hard to follow – however, we are again put into the same emotional situation as those who went through the experience. Again, this is not edited for dramatic value – this back and forth, spewing of inaccurate falsehoods by the police department itself all occurred. However as the truth starts to unfold, there’s a bit of hope and whisper of change as Chief Halstead and the Mayor soften their initial hard stance. Again aided by the triumphant and encouraging underlying soundtrack, the rallies evoke this push towards a better tomorrow.

I cannot justify giving full stars to a few categories, which is part why my review rating is a tad low even though I praise this queer documentary. I cannot accurate judge reality. The events depicted in this film were unscripted and in the moment; there is no chance to reshoot a scene. Even the interviews are unscripted. I cannot remove the star because it would unfairly tilt my score, nor can I give full marks because there is no skill or talent to judge. I will draw attention to the wonderful narration by Meredith Baxter. In her iconic voice, she smoothly transitions and provides clarity to this roller coaster timeline.

Additionally if I keep the same stance on the other elements of films, I cannot grant a full star for the cinematography. There are numerous snippets of handheld and phone video footage spliced in throughout the film, resulting in a raw natural moment. It works perfectly for the documentary, but it equally wasn’t planned. However when they are able, such as during interviews, decent camera work does shine through the rawness to help bring the film together. And don’t get me wrong, despite the roller coaster feel to the events, the film is edited together quite well!  “Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge” gets top marks in capturing a key moment of Queer LGBT History in the US.

Still from "Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge" - Police Chief Halstead and appointed LGBT Liaison hold press converence

Many probably do not recall the actual raid, let alone the amount of inside details revealed in this documentary. I personally only recall it in fleeting memory, so it was rather shocking to learn that this all happened just over a decade ago. It feels like we have come so far towards a better society – but instances like this are merely hidden behind the recently closed doors of yesterday. We cannot forget the atrocities and foundation that helped get us to where we are today. “Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge” helps to keep that history alive lest we forget. I highly encourage everyone to watch this Queer documentary. Not only is it well pieced together, but we cannot forget this events else they’ll be repeated.

Queer Relevance of “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge”

Well, there’s a lot to unpack here. The Rainbow Lounge was a real gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas. On June 28, 2009, a greatly flawed and homophobic-based task force raided the bar. All of the events presented in “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge” occurred. In fact, much of the documentary was filmed live during the various protests, meetings, press conferences, and more! And this is all crucial for a few reasons. First off, it’s a glimpse into the lingering homophobia present in America – even in 2009. Worse, it’s a case where the actually government and civil agencies meant to protect the people were used as a weapon against a segment of its population.

But an even more crucial relevance behind this documentary is not the fact that the raid happened – it’s what transpired afterwards. The people of Fort Worth stood up and fought back, demanding answers along with accountability and the assurance such a biased raid could never occur again. They actually won on multiple fronts! Agents and officers were fired and/or reprimanded because of their wrongful actions that night, and changes were put into place to prevent such a raid from happening again. But the best way this documentary is relevant is that it shows first hand how Chief Halsteed changed his views and in the end, became quite supportive to the LGBTQ community. That positive change still remains in place today, although activists still fight for equity and equality in Fort Worth.

Unfortunately, one thing does not remain. Eight years after the infamous raid, The Rainbow Lounge suffered a devastating fire on June 1, 2017. Arson and any foul play was quickly ruled out, and the co-owner Tom McAvoy announced the lounge would re-open in a new location. However, a few months later he announced that The Rainbow Lounge would not re-opening due to licensing issues.