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The police raid on the Rainbow Lounge has rocked the world of Fort Worth gays

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In some of the unlikeliest places, like the conservative, ultra-conventional suburbs northeast of the city, you can also find gay couples such as Robert Curle, a 41-year-old flight attendant, and Gary Agee, a 48-year-old horse trainer, who have been together for 19 years. They were surprised to find five other gay couples living in their neighborhood in suburban North Richland Hills. Several work for Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which solidified its gay-friendly reputation when it stood up to some of the nation's top anti-gay crusaders a decade ago.

In 1998, the Southern Baptists, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, Gary Bauer's Family Research Council and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America threatened American Airlines, Fort Worth's largest company, with boycotts if it continued the practice of marketing to gays and lesbians and sponsoring gay, lesbian and AIDS-related organizations. The policies, the groups said, imperiled the sanctity of the family. Not only did American stand fast, in 2000 it became the first major airline to begin offering the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners as it does to married spouses.

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The closer one gets to Sunday morning in the city, the bigger an issue being gay becomes. Dust-ups rooted in the culture war that religious conservatives continue to wage against homosexuality often flare in the city.

There are a few LGBT churches, but as Stephen Sprinkle, a professor at Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School, points out, many gays in the city grew up in West Texas and remain tied to the Southern Baptist tradition. "But [when] two guys living together, not the most open people but who love each other, show up as a couple on picture day at the Broadway Baptist Church, and all hell breaks loose," Sprinkle says.

The 2,000-member church sidestepped publishing the photos early this year but the matter revealed that openly gay members were serving on church committees. As a result, in June, the Southern Baptist Convention broke its 127-year-old ties to the church, declaring its stand on homosexuality to be too lenient.

Broadway Baptist's most famous congregant, 75-year-old concert pianist Van Cliburn, has been attending services for years with male partners, members say. Conforming to mores that persist among the city's moneyed set, he has never discussed his sexuality in the media. He was outed in 1996, however, when his partner, a mortician, filed a palimony suit saying they had been intimate for 17 years.

For most church positions, and in the webs of nonprofits that spread from them, "I would suggest you not be open if you want the job," says Sprinkle, the divinity school's first openly gay, tenured professor whose duties include placing students in local churches and church organizations. In a city so steeped in fundamentalist Christianity—home to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Episcopal diocese that split from the national organization last year as a protest against acceptance of same-sex unions and the ordination of women—Sprinkle believes religious anti-gay biases infect other aspects of life in the city. "Let's not candy-coat it," he says. "We're in the Bible Belt. This isn't San Francisco. There is a lot of denial that goes on in the LGBT community here and a lot of places, Houston and Dallas included."

If there is a statistical measure to back up Sprinkle's conclusion about attitudes, it might be the November 2005 vote on a Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In Tarrant County, the ban passed by an overwhelming 76 percent, compared with 66 percent in Dallas County and 72 percent in Harris County. Travis County—Austin, again—was the only jurisdiction in the state to reject the amendment, with just 41 percent voting in favor of it.

Against that backdrop, there are things about the newly opened Rainbow Lounge that, in Cowtown parlance, might have spooked the livestock. Unlike the city's existing gay bars, the Rainbow Lounge featured dancers, "6 boys, 5 ladies and one diva," as the June 19 opening night poster put it. The flyer shows half a dozen muscle-rippling men in bikini briefs and come-hither looks, plus a zaftig drag queen named Whitney Paige.

The entertainers dance on platforms and collect tips in their skivvies. Several attracted the attention of TABC Agent Aller, who was outside the bar two nights before the raid, according to his account in a TABC internal investigative report released two weeks ago.

Peeking through a fence, Aller said, he spotted "two males dressed only in thong-like underwear or bikini bottoms sitting on some picnic tables. As [Aller] continued to view the area, he noticed the male subject who earlier identified himself as the owner entered the patio area and quickly made his way to one of the individuals in the underwear and whispered in his ear. Aller said the male subject got up and ran inside." He "believed the subject's actions were odd and could indicate the possibility of drug activity or lewd conduct."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec