Glenn Hunter's reason for moving to Dallas from Oklahoma City was simple. "There was a life here," Hunter says.
Life, he means, for a gay man and his partner in the 1980s — an active, vibrant community centered then as it is now on Cedar Springs Road, whose gay-friendly clubs offered a safe, lively space for gay people that he didn't find in Oklahoma City.
Dallas’ reputation as a national destination for LGBTQ life is actually relatively new. Before the mid-2000s, gay travel writers stuck to the usual queer haunts — Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., South Beach, Florida. Around 2004, the Dallas Tavern Guild, the group of gay bar owners who throw the annual Dallas Pride celebration and compose one of the city's most influential queer organizations, invited the gay travel press to tour Dallas. The guild set up visits to gay bars. It took writers out to cattle ranches and had them ride four-wheelers. Michael Doughman, executive director of the guild, says the travel press explored the fantasies they had of Texas through a gay lens. “The articles were all glowing. I’ve kept every one of them,” he says. “But the truth is, it’s not us as a community.”
One facet the press tours glossed over was the racism and transphobia that sometimes lurked in LGBTQ spaces in Dallas. Hunter recalls just how bad racism in the Cedar Springs area could be.
One night in the '80s, Hunter and his partner traveled to Dallas for a night out on Cedar Springs with a lesbian couple. They headed to Village Station, a club once named the Old Plantation that still exists today as Station 4. The couple, one of whom was Native American and lighter skinned than Hunter and his partner, got in just fine with Oklahoma identification. Hunter stepped up to present his, and the bouncer told him they didn’t take Oklahoma driver's licenses. Hunter and his partner were black, and they could not get into the gay club.
“We never experienced the racism in Oklahoma City that we got in Dallas,” says Hunter, who moved here in 1987. “If you wanted to go out on a Friday night, you got called a nigger. That’s part of the reason why we started our bar. We got tired of people dictating where we could go out.”
He and his business partner ran a club called Elm & Pearl downtown for about 30 years. It was black gay-owned and attended.
“It was really a kinship, because for the first time we had a club of our own that catered to things that were important to us,” Hunter says.
Howard Okan, a white Jewish man, also saw the racism afflicting the neighborhood in the '80s. He was an architect who helped design for Caven Enterprises, which owns several gay clubs and bars on Cedar Springs. He was good friends with the founders of the company and frequented the clubs. Often on busy nights, the line outside Station 4 wrapped around the corner of Throckmorton Street, reaching beyond where Sue Ellen’s is today. Okan can still visualize bouncers combing the lines for black people. They were not wanted in the bars, at least not in high numbers, Okan recalls.
“There was so much money to be made in the white community that they weren’t interested,” Okan says of the bars. “They thought in their minds that if they let blacks in, the [white] crowd was going to move.”
Okan already owned a gay club called the Wave. There, he and his team began testing an all-black night. “CALLING ALL STARS” was the theme, and the stars showed up. For the next three years, black gays and lesbians poured into the club on Monday nights, he says.
Black nights at the Wave proved lucrative, so Okan opened the Brick in 1991. Like the Wave (and Wrapps, which he opened about the same time as the Brick, merging the two in 1998), the Brick catered to black people. Black night was Friday; white people had their nights on Saturday.
But that was long ago, and it’s hard to convince many white people that overt racism perpetrated decades ago is still relevant. In Dallas' gay bars today, black, brown and white people dance and drink together. Many see that as proof that LGBTQ people are over the problems from years ago.
Caven Enterprises, owner of Station 4 and other clubs, declined to provide anyone for an interview for this article, but in messages sent through its public relations firm, Caven pointed out the claims of racism Hunter and Okan related happened decades ago. If anybody feels discriminated against in any of their clubs today, they should report them to management.
"If such practices had occurred 40 years ago, it is imperative to note that it would never be condoned nor tolerated by our current management," the PR firm wrote. "We pride ourselves in being open to all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and/or gender identity as celebrating diversity is the very nature of our business and who we are as a company."
But one doesn't have to turn back the clock 40 years to find stories of lingering bias in Dallas' gay bars. Mixed with them are complaints from transgender people who also say they've been given short shrift by an LGBTQ power structure that's been dominated by white men and the business interests of bar owners.
Just last year, Krista De La Rosa, a 28-year-old trans woman, says she was called a racial slur by a bartender at The Mining Company after she checked him for misgendering her.
A younger generation of LGBTQ activists say the community here has grown complacent, particularly after U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down anti-sodomy statutes and laws against gay marriage. They want leadership that challenges the bias facing black and trans people. That's especially important now, they say, with the Trump administration in power, backed by Christian evangelicals.
This fall, Doughman will resign from the Tavern Guild after 18 years leading it. The search is underway to name his replacement. Communities of queer people are calling for a new generation of leaders to build a more inclusive and stronger LGBTQ movement. Some say the movement’s current framework was built for white LGBTQ people to be accepted by straight white people, leaving behind some of the most vulnerable groups of queers.
The issue isn't unique to Dallas. In Philadelphia last year, a video surfaced of a club owner in that city's Gayborhood using a racial slur, prompting the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to issue a report that said women, minorities and transgender people felt unwelcome and unsafe in Philadelphia's gay neighborhood, according to a story on NBC News.
"It is maybe not as palpable as it was, but it's still there," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, according to NBC. "We need to do everything we can as a government to hold it up."
In Atlanta this year, drag performers in the city's gay clubs organized to combat what they say is racism and poor pay, NBC reported.
In the United Kingdom, an LGBT charity called Stonewall issued a survey in July that said 51 percent of LGBTQ people of color say they have faced discrimination, according to a report in the Metro, a British newspaper.
Back home, Mieko Hicks, a black transgender woman, has seen Dallas gays over the years turn a blind eye to the struggles of trans people. In the mid-2000s, she was one of many trans women who did sex work off the Cedar Springs strip. The area was more dazzling back then, more abuzz than it is now, she says. Dallas police vice officers arrested and ticketed trans women. “It got to the point where they stopped every tranny out there,” Hicks says of the police. She has no memory of any gays, not business owners nor bar patrons, protesting or calling for the police to stop the arrests.
When trans woman Nicole Hall was found dead near White Rock Creek this spring, a small cluster of gays and trans people met in a park for a candlelight vigil. Local news outlets showed up. Lee Daughtery attended. He is the owner of Alexander’s, a gay bar, and the director of Take Back Oak Lawn, a neighborhood watch group serving the Cedar Springs area. After the vigil, Daughtery stepped to the side to do an interview with CBS 11. Hall’s death came about the time of two assault and robbery attempts of people leaving gay bars. The news outlet headlined its package of Hall’s vigil, “Oak Lawn Community On Edge After Death Of 2 Transgender Women, Robberies.”
Hall’s death was across town and under different circumstances from the robberies, and yet it was all one story. For Shannon Newton, who planned the vigil for her fallen sister, the coverage served as another example of how the gay community here has conflated “gay” with “LGBTQ” priorities. It seems to her, and to others who talked to the Observer, that gay leaders here have been most interested in building up their commercial interests rather than empowering queer people of all genders, colors and economic backgrounds.
The issue of who gets into gay bars is becoming less relevant as more people use dating apps, but racism has found its way online, too. Sinakhone Keodara, writing in the Advocate in July, threatened to sue the popular hook-up site Grindr for allowing its users to express racial preferences for their partners after coming across one white, elderly user who wrote “Not interested in Asians” on his profile. "'No Asians' Is Not a Preference. It's Racism." was the headline.
Keodara is pushing back. A younger generation in Dallas' LGBTQ community is ready to do the same.
President Donald Trump, who is attempting to ban transgender people from serving in the military, has left many LGBTQ people feeling uncertain about the future. There is a rift between young LGBTQ people, who are starting to take ownership of the movement, and older queer people, who lived through the height of the HIV crisis and long enough to see same-sex marriage legalized. Many 20-somethings in Dallas feel as though LGBTQ people here are too proud of what it has achieved. Not enough is being said about what challenges could lie ahead.
Meka moved back to Dallas in 2014 from Houston. A trans woman, she attends LGBTQ events across the city, and every time, she’s left feeling uninspired.
“There is no ‘fuck the system’ type of passion, and we need that,” she says. “I see something really dark about to happen, and we’re not prepared for it.”
This past June, she sat through a LGBTQ history presentation put on by the Dallas Way. “A Roundtable Discussion on the History of the Black LGBTQ Community in Dallas,” read its pamphlet. Among the speakers was Betty Neal, who described herself as an “O.G. Dyke.”
Neal has seen many different sides of Dallas. She wore a pink sports coat over a white T-shirt, a vintage look right out of the 1980s. Neal moved to Dallas in 1979, and a year later started working in the gay clubs on Cedar Springs. Meka and a friend, Niecee X, sat in the back corner of the room, pointing their iPhones toward the stage, listening and sharing the conversation on Facebook Live.
Neal has a perspective on Dallas that most people don’t. She has seen it come from nothing to a place she’d describe as a top destination for LGBTQ people, blacks in particular. Working in the clubs (the first was Village Station), Neal saw firsthand how the white-run establishments catered to white customers before they embraced queer people of color. Through the music they played, the bars, she said, filtered out black crowds.
One time, she told the audience, her manager at S4 left the club to take care of a chore. Neal, who was DJ'ing at the time, was given explicit instructions not to play hip-hop. She played Salt-N-Pepa anyway, and the crowd loved it. But the manager came back, pissed off to the point where she literally broke the record. Back then, bars were regulating how many black people could come in, Neal said, because the owners feared more crimes would occur in the neighborhood, and they were not willing to lose their white customers.
Caven's PR firm says the choice of music at the company's clubs is not about race: "Across our clubs, we play a wide variety of music including hip-hop. If we have ever refrained from playing a particular song — of any genre — it would be due to the explicit nature of lyrics that drove customer complaints because of offensive language, glorification of violence and/or degradation of people based on sex, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation."
People who came to listen to the Dallas Way’s panel asked about race, both historically and in the present. One man shared a recent experience. It was the weekend of Dallas Southern Pride, also known as Dallas Black Pride. While at JR’s Bar and Grill, packed with black LGBTQ people, he overheard a white bartender talking about how ready he was to leave. Now, it is possible the bartender was ready to leave after working a long shift but the man thought, rightly or wrongly, that the bartender would have rather not had the black gays at the bar. The man, who said he was a doctoral student, asked the panelists how they’re supposed to deal with these perceptions.
Neal said black people are welcome in Oak Lawn, but just be sure to follow the rules. Frustrated, Meka tossed her braids and Niecee shifted again in her seat. “So we’re supposed to learn how to act around white people,” Niecee said under her breath. The rules, Niecee said weeks later to the Observer, do not treat white and black people equally. Beyond limiting the number of hip-hop tunes on the playlist, the rules target baggy clothes and big purses, and she and others believe that's a subtle way of exclude black queer people.
Niecee, 28, and her circles are not satisfied with the mainstream version of queer Dallas. The suggestion in the Dallas LGBTQ community that black people who are unsatisfied with their service at white-owned gay clubs should take their black dollars elsewhere is an insult, Niecee says. It's erasure.
“If you can’t see me, you can’t see all the things that affect me,” she says. “I also am not willing to forgo on the things we must have for our survival.”
Niecee, with her friend Imani Jones, 26, are working to open a cafe and bookstore, because when she Googles about gay history, “the first pictures that pop up don’t look like me,” Niecee says. The cafe will serve as a place for queer people of color to come and explore the deeper histories of the LGBTQ community.
“Just because you put a rainbow on it doesn’t mean you are not problematic,” Niecee says.
Jalenzki Brown, who works at the Resource Center, which treats people for HIV and offers other services, says he hears from black queer people frequently who don’t feel like they have a say in matters concerning LGBTQ life. Some don’t involve themselves in the political process, because queer politics have featured white (mostly gay men) in stories about queer issues.
Amanda Robinson is working on the future. She is one of a handful of black women on the Dallas Tavern Guild’s Pride planning steering committee, made up of 30 people, mostly white. In 2014, she started Dallas’ first Teen Pride. The goal is to invite young queer people (and hopefully their families) into the politics and lifestyles of the LGBTQ movement at early ages. Robinson is among the many who think the next generation of queer people will find solutions to the divisions within LGBTQ communities, but the problems that came from last century have to be dealt with before progress can be made, she says.
“Before we can think about moving forward,” she says, “we have to be able to reach back.”
So far, there have been few efforts to talk openly about Dallas’ history of racism and transphobia within LGBTQ spaces. But if Dallas won’t, popular culture will. Pose, a drama series running on FX, explores the lives of black queer people during the 1980s through a narrative built on ballroom culture. It is said to be among the first mainstream accounts of the impact black queer people have had on gay culture overall and how black queer people have been stolen from by white people for commercial gain.
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Underground ballrooms were formed by queer people in New York who found themselves unwelcome at white gay-owned establishments. They developed a form of drag to mimic the white society they couldn't access. It’s not as well-known as the drag pageants at Station 4 in the Rose Room, but Dallas has an active ballroom community.
J Roc, a black gay Dallasite, teaches classes on how to vogue, a dance that came from ballroom. Most people familiar with vogue think of Madonna, who appropriated the dance from black queer people and popularized it with her song “Vogue.” J Roc gives his classes for free, so he was taken aback when he read a flier from one of his students. It advertised a course on how to vogue: $30 for six sessions.
The student, a white woman, had been taking J Roc’s course for only a short time. She was pretty good at voguing, earning the affectionate nickname “Vanilla Cunt” because she could hit all the right moves. But for her to take what she learned for free and sell it for a profit, to J Roc, betrays the whole purpose of the dance. It came from a place that was not financially rich. He instructs the dance mixed with history lessons about it, so people who see it will recognize the disenfranchisement that has affected black LGBTQ people over the years.
Says J Roc, “Her classes look like a mockery of what we do.”