Violence at gay bars and the police

Police actions in the aftermath of the terrorist massacre at Orlando’s Pulse were heroic. This is noteworthy because until recently police were often agents of violence at gay clubs. For most of the 20th century, going to gay bars meant that “you may be placing yourself in a position that you’re not just going to a bar but you’re going to jail that night.”[i] This police repression played a key role in the radicalization of middle-class gays and lesbians in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet while contemporary depictions of the 1969 Police raids on the Stonewall Inn are often as an event of the distant past, as recently as 2009 saw mass raids on gay bars in the United States.

On June 28th, 40 years to the day after the Stonewall raids, Fort Worth police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) inspectors entered the newly-opened Rainbow Lounge without a warrant. Approximately 20 patrons were detained in plastic handcuffs while six were arrested.[ii] Five patrons were arrested for public intoxication and two were sent to the emergency room, one with a torn rotator cuff and other with life-threatening brain injuries. As one witness reported,

“No one resisted arrest. They were singling out specific people, the men who seemed more effeminate. It just seems like it was a deliberate jab at the community.”[iii]

As another patron noted, “It felt so very Stonewall, but without the standing up for ourselves.”[iv] “Fort Worth’s police chief, Jeffrey W. Halstead, initially stood behind his officers, saying Monday that patrons had provoked the scuffle by making sexual gestures toward officers.[v]

Protests at the Rainbow Lounge that forced Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead to apologize and institute reforms.

After protests, the raid was investigated and found to be motivated by homophobia, that the detentions were against departmental policy, and that the officers used unreasonable force.[vi] Five years later, the botched raid was remembered as the catalyst for positive institutional changes at the Texas ABC, the Forth Worth Police department, and the city at large.[vii]

Also in 2009, 48 police officers stormed the Atlanta Eagle without a warrant, including members of the elite Red Dog SWAT team. Patrons were forced to lie face down on wet floors with broken glass, one sustaining injuries, one having a panic attack that resulted in a three-day hospitalization. Patron Nick Koperski was quoted as saying, “I’m thinking, this is Stonewall. It’s like I stepped into the wrong decade.”[viii] Eight patrons were arrested, but all charges were dropped or dismissed.

An independent report commissioned by the city after protests found violations of the Fourth Amendment and departmental procedures against patrons and employees. 24 officers were found to have violated department protocols regarding search and seizures, illegally searching and detaining patrons, and engaging in a coverup. As the report bluntly concluded,

“Officer Menzoian falsely imprisoned the Deck patrons and Rawhide occupants when they were detained without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.”

Two offers were found to have made discriminatory references to patrons:

“By allowing the sexual orientation of the patrons to influence tactical decisions of the Raid, [Officer] Brock allowed his preconceived notions of a class of persons to dictate the treatment of individuals.”

Eleven officers were found to lied during subsequent investigations, many deleting cell phone data to cover up their actions. Six officers were fired, the elite Red Dog unit was permanently disbanded, and the City setlled a Federal lawsuit for more than $1 million.

Unlike in Fort Worth, however, a five-year follow-up in Atlanta did not show positive changes. In 2015, a U.S. District Judge found the City in contempt of court for not complying with orders in the 2011 Eagle settlement. “Over five years after the Atlanta Police Department’s inexcusable conduct in the Atlanta Eagle that we are still in court dragging the APD towards more competent and safe policing,” noted Greg Nevins, Lambda Legal Counsel.[ix]

What was different about raids in the 2000s was the outrage they provoked in the mainstream press and the fact that gay patrons did not expect to be going to jail just for being in a gay bar. But for any reader of the gay press, police raids had never ended and are part of a long and continuous history of violence at gay bars that are actively commemorated on their anniversaries. Earlier this year, for example, headlines read “South Florida’s Last Big Gay Bar Raids Happened 25 Years Ago.” Broward County Sherriff Nick Navarro brought media, visiting dignitaries, and his wife to witness a raid on the gay clubs Copa and Club 21 in Fort Lauderdale when “100 armed officers, masked drug agents and the U.S. Border Patrol raided the gay bars.”[x]   Unbeknownst to the police, a youth group had rented Club 21 and no alcohol was actually being served. Community members claimed the humiliation of being taped by television cameras led to suicides.

Another well known raid that is actively commemorated include San Francisco’s White Night Riots: “Thirty Years Ago, the White Night Riots Inflamed San Francisco.”[xi] On that occasion, police stormed the Elephant Walk and Toad Hall bars in retaliation for a gay protest against Supervisor Dan White’s assassination of fellow supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Little known or commemorated is the post-WWII history of police departments explicitly permitting gay bars to exist as a tool for observing their city’s LGBTQ populations. Indeed, in the 1950s this was coordinated at the Federal level: “The bureau’s regional offices complied lists of homosexual bars and gathering places and kept in close contact with vice squad officers from various police departments who in turn supplied arrests records on morals charges.”[xii]

Also less known are the protests against police raids on gay nightspots that occurred before 1969, including at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria, Los Angeles’ Black Cat, and Philadelphia’s lesbian bar Rusty’s.[xiii] And if attacks on bars with mostly white gay men did sometimes attract attention, attacks on bars frequented by black men or transgender women were often particularly brutal, and garnered much less press coverage, protest, or commemoration. The lack of institutionalized commemorations of these other protests led two sociologists to conclude, “the Stonewall story is thus an achievement of gay liberation rather than an account of its origins” (emphasis added).[xiv]

Now that Stonewall has taken on the cast of a distant though memorable event, police are not necessarily outsiders to gay bars. Indeed, police not entering gay bars can be a problem. The 2015 report on LGBT hate crimes in the UK called for police to spend more time attending events and socializing with patrons in gay bars.[xv] Also in 2015, police refused to include homophobic details in an attack on a gay man outside a Huntsville, Alabama gay bar, in part because they did not interview bartenders or take witness statements from patrons inside.[xvi] In Ohio in 2013, a string of hate crime beatings of patrons outside Cocktails Cleveland received a letter threatening them with fines for “excessive 911 calls,” and suggesting they deal with their problems on their own without calling police to the bar.[xvii]

Evidence that police may be welcome in gay bars are evidenced by the human interest stories that express surprise at any examples of positive interactions between gays and the Police. Indeed, it was remarkable that relationship between police and the LGBTQ community went unremarked in the accounts of police aiding victims of the mass murder at Orlando’s Pulse. Only one week previously, the internet had expressed pleasant surprise at the novelty of a Glasgow officer’s impromptu karaoke performance of “I Will Survive” after breaking up a fight in a gay bar.[xix] Among the first such mainstream stories was the national news made in 1996 when New York City police officers marched in that city’s gay pride march for the first time.[xviii] And in 2015, a local article noted the irony of new downtown Los Angeles gay bar Precinct that took a police theme, opening in a space that used to be a parole office for the California Department of Corrections: “The police theme is evident in the bar’s name, as well as a giant 17-foot cut-out of a mustache-bearing police officer with sunglasses that greets visitors.”[xx] A lineup allows patrons to take branded selfies:

Pretending to get arrested at a gay bar in 2015 was ironic, given that gay men were threatened with these charges in 2009.

Joking about getting arrested in a gay bar marks a real change from the long history of adversarial relationships between the police and gay bars. Of course, many officers have been staunch allies to the gay community, or members of it. But this relationship is still troubled, however, especially for many transgender people, queer people of color, and poor LGBTQ citizens. This makes the praise for police by Latinx queer clubgoers in Orlando so noteworthy. The widespread support for the victims and their families and the highly professional response to the tragedy marks a high point in the history of police, gay bars, and the LGBTQ community.


[i] Stewart-Winter, Timothy. 2016. Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 70.

[ii] Pena, Andy. 2009. Inter-Office Communication C09-012 (Aller/Chapman). Austin: Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Oct. 30, p. 4.

[iii] Nash, Tammye. 2009. “What They Saw at the Rainbow Lounge.” Dallas Voice, Jun. 29, accessed June 7, 2016.

[iv] Admin. 2009. “Rainbow Lounge Update,” Jun. 28. Dallas Voice, Jun. 29, accessed June 7, 2016.

[v] McKinley Jr., James C. 2009. “A Raid at a Club in Texas Leaves a Man in the Hospital and Gay Advocates Angry.” New York Times, July 4, p. A16.

[vi] Camina, Robert L. 2012. Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. Dallas, TX: Camina Entertainment.

[vii] Mitchell, Mitch. 2014. “Rainbow Lounge Raid in 2009 is Remembered as Start to Positive Change.” Star Telegram, Jun. 28, accessed June 7, 2016.

Nash, Tammye. 2014. “Rainbow Lounge Raid: Five Years Later.” Dallas Voice, Jun. 27, accessed June 7, 2016.

[viii] Boone, Christian. 2009. “Atlanta Police Raid Gay Bar, Arrest 8.” Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sept. 14, accessed Jun. 7, 2016.

[ix] Lambda Legal. 2015. “City of Atlanta Held in Contempt in Eagle Raid Case,” May 19. New York. Accessed Jun. 7, 2016.

[x] Rothaus, Steve. 2016, “South Florida’s Last Big Gay Bar Raids Happened 25 Years Ago,” Miami Herald, May 3, accessed June 7, 2016.

[xi] Bajko, Matthew S. 2009. “Thirty Years Ago, the White Night Riots Inflamed San Francisco.” The Bay Area Reporter, May 21, accessed June 9, 2016.

[xii] Miller, Neil. 2009. Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s. New York City: Alyson Books.

[xiii] Faderman, Lilian and Timmons, Stuart. 2002. Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, pp. 157.

Stein, Marc. 2004. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Temple University Press, p. 274-77.

[xiv] Armstrong, Elizabeth and Suzanna M. Crage. 2006. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71:5, p. 724.

[xv] Chakraborti, Neil and Stevie-Jade Hardy. 2015. LGB&T Hate Crime Reporting: Identifying Barriers and Solutions. Manchester, U.K.: Equality and Human Rights Commission, p. 18.

[xvi] Edwards, David. 2015. “Alabama Gay Man Severely Beaten Outside Bar, But Cops Refuse to Put Anti-Gay Slurs in Police Report.” Raw Story, Jun. 11, accessed June 8, 2016.

[xvii] Shaffer, Cory. 2013. “Cleveland Sends Bar Involved in Recent Hate Crimes Sends Warning Letter for Excessive 911 Calls, the City Then Rescinds It.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 11, accessed June 9, 2016.

[xviii] LeDuff, Charlie. 1996. “Participation in Pride Parade Marks Greater Acceptance for the Blue and the Gay.” New York Times, Jun. 30, accessed Jun. 8, 2016.

[xix] Villarreal, Yezmin. 2016. “Police Office Sings ‘I Will Survive’ After Breaking Up Gay Bar Fight.” Advocate, Jun. 6, accessed Jun. 7, 2016.

[xx] Kulicke, Heidi. 2015. “A Cop Theme Meets Rock in Downtown’s New Gay Bar.” DT News, Jul 14, accessed Jun. 8, 2016.



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