Everything’s Big in Texas: Dallas/Fort Worth
Tea in hand, I sit back and watch morning creep over a landscape soft with mist and the dappled greens of scrub oak and mesquite. Here there is inviolate air and unrushed hours. Somewhere, maybe a mile away, a horse brays.
Sure, the food is top-notch, the horse rides through the chaparral charming, and the beds luxuriant as any, but it is that airily vast dawn at the Wildcatter Ranch that is perfection - the foundation upon which all others should be built.
Oh, and the smokin' hot ranch hand, his dog Macho in tow, helps, too.
About 90 miles west of Fort Worth, TX, the Wildcatter is the rustic halfway point in my swing through northern Texas. I'll be the first to admit it: to me the Lone Star State is more synonymous with some things - the Tea Party, Chick-Fil-A aficionados, a Bible Belt full of good Christians who hate gays to love Jesus - than it is with others.
And then I experience Dallas. I go to its clubs and bars. I visit its museum dedicated entirely to scientific principles and evolutionary theory. And I am forced to see that I have a few preconceived notions of my own.
While it might be a stretch to say Texas is a beacon of LGBT equality, it would be over-simplifying to say that it is not. Dallas, Ft. Worth, and a few other Lone Star cities are taking it upon themselves to save the Texas brand from the dubious legacies of various Bushes, evangelist David Barton, and Governor Rick "Transvaginal" Perry. Leading the way? A thriving gay community that is far stronger than anyone could have thought.
The Big D
There is Dallas, and there is Dallas. Despite the fact two bars, JR’s Bar and Grill (gay) and Sue Ellen’s (lesbian), owe their namesakes to the show, most gay Dallasites (and straight ones) tend to roll their eyes at the oil drums full of crazy at the Southfork.
In reality, it is a cultural city whose center is dominated by the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the Crow Collection of Asian Art, AT&T Performing Arts Center, and the Dallas Opera House. It is a city whose skyline is populated by the futuristic designs of modernist architect I.M. Pei.
It is a historical city that is upfront about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and has all but sanctified his memory. In fact, the city is planning a year of commemorations in memory of the 50th anniversary of the tragic event.
The lofty aspirations are evident from the get-go at my hotel. The Hilton Anatole is home to a fantastical art collection, ranging from delicately carved jade cups from China to two slabs of the Berlin Wall. To get acquainted, the Anatole throws a "food tour" of each exhibit: popcorn shrimp at the carved elephants from Thailand, meat pies and Macallan at the salvaged Lusitania propeller (she was made in Scotland) and watercress sandwiches at the oh-so-English Wedgwood china display.
Never let it be said that Texas doesn’t feed you. Dallas is home to a bonanza of right-good cookin’, from the highbrow fair at Ocho to the comfort food of the Market Diner, a gay morning-after mecca. Between the two is a smorgasbord of lip-smacking lusciousness. Texas being made for carnivores, Hunky’s burgers are a particular highlight.
But one thing the TV shows did get right was the hats, boots, line dancing, bull riding, colorful phrases ("He can strut sitting down") and the deep and abiding pride for it all. America is a big place, so big it has space for a hodge-podge of regional cultures, and Dallas is dead-center in the "New West," a city looking towards the future, but from underneath the brim of a cowboy hat. Visitors would be mindful to leave the Gucci at home and splurge on a proper topper at one of the local haberdasheries. It’ll help you "blend." Learning the two-step wouldn’t hurt, either...
How Texas Gets Its Gay On
Gay Dallas revolves around Cedar Springs, a three-block stretch of rainbow real estate between Oak Lawn and Wycliff Avenues along Cedar Springs Road that crams in just about every gay establishment possible, and in the case of premier dance club Station 4 and astoundingly good drag bar Rose Room, they stack one atop the other. It’s also a good introduction as to how Texas gets its gay on.
Start at the Round-Up Saloon, a massive space that is ground zero for all things gay in Dallas: The dancing, the drinks, and the shirt-averse bartenders. It is said that "everything is bigger in Texas," and that certainly applies to the clubs and bars - every last one of them is huge. The Round-Up could easily swallow a few New York bars and have room for dessert. After kicking up your heels at the Saloon, Alexandre’s, Dallas Woody’s, and TMC beckon.
Although I am sure it has stories to tell, Cedar Springs leans towards the nicely naughty PG. If gleeful NC-17 is more your style, the clubs off the strip are ones that satisfy: Pekers, the Dallas Eagle, Brick Joe’s, and the Tin Room and Zipper’s, two flesh-fests that revel in a gay man’s unabashed horniness. Get some singles for tipping, kick back, and take in the pole dancers, cage boys, and trapeze artists (not kidding) in all their thong-y glory. You’re welcome.
Where the West Begins
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Fort Worth Police Department illegally raided a local gay bar, the Rainbow Lounge, which had opened the previous week. Several patrons were arrested on trumped charges of intoxication, and in the ensuing chaos, one man sustained a severe brain injury at the hands of the officers.
According to the documentary, "Raid on the Rainbow Lounge," a clumsy cover-up attempt, a "gay panic" defense by the officers and apathy on the part of the Ft. Worth civil leaders combined to paint Mayor Mike Moncrief as bigoted, Police Chief Jeff Halstead as clueless, and Texas as the red-state bastion of hatred and homophobia that gays outside and in already thought it was.
In all their unapologetic bravura, what city leaders and law officers did not see coming was a solid punch to their teeth. Gays, lesbians and allies, empowered by 40 years’ worth of progress, descended on the city from across the nation, an enraged tide officials had no idea how to control. Marches, sit-ins, lawsuits, public disobedience, and worst of all, bad press, turned the raid on the Rainbow Lounge into a public trial by fire of Ft. Worth itself.
As New York found out in 1969, so Ft. Worth found out 40 years later. The message was clear: "You can’t do this to us anymore."
Ft. Worth blinked first, and emerged from the raid with a suite of some of the most extensive LGBT protections in the state. Determined to be a better city, Ft. Worth scrambled to prove its charms, and to be fair, it has them by the truckload. Or rather, by the herd.
Historic Roots and Moderns Wonders
While it is no less current than rival Dallas, (check out Warhols, Lichtensteins, and arty-gothic sculptures at the Modern Art Museum), Ft. Worth stands proud as "where the West begins," the Old West in particular, and is to Texas what Kyoto is to Japan: A window to the somewhat idealized past.
Thirty-five minutes west of Dallas, yesteryear is never too far away in Ft. Worth. The romantic iconography of the cowboy is a part of everyday life - although as I quickly find out, the proper term is "drover." In the day, "cowboys" were either farmers or bandits. So identified with longhorn cattle, Ft. Worth was dubbed "Cowtown." Herds are still run through the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.
Proudly staying true to its roots, this is a town where the men doff their hats when introduced to women, where "sir" or "ma’am" is tacked on to answers of every yes-or-no question, and where the Southern accent really works. Yankees may snicker, but not only do chivalry, good manners, and
cowboys drovers live on deep in the heart of Texas, one comes away wondering why they ever died out elsewhere.
Lassoing the Best of Ft. Worth
A good HQ is the Stockyard Hotel, a treasure trove of Old West lore and the one place you can order Buffalo Butt Beer ("better than it is cracked up to be!") and not get a weird look.
But the Stockyard is also fortuitously placed; not only are the stockyards themselves just down the street, but so are all the things that make Ft. Worth an enchanting time warp: saloons, the Cowtown Coliseum, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, scads of genuine Old West clothing stores, the culinary masterpieces of Top Chef Masters alum Tim Love at the Lonesome Dove Bistro, and the venerable Billy Bob’s Texas.
A sprawling one-stop-shop for things "Western," Billy Bob’s manages to hit just about every facet of cowboy culture and do it under one roof: The food, the drink, the people, the rodeos, and most of all, the music. Imagine a block-party barbeque with live musical accompaniment and a bull-riding ring built in - that’s Billy Bob’s. The space is unegotistical, intimate, and cost-effective. You can sit literally at the edge of the stage and be three feet from Reba McEntire or Kenny Chesney for a drop in the bucket compared to the front row at Madison Square Garden.
How can the native habitat of men in chaps not have an allure? Texas is like any destination - you just have to know where to look. Even the most unlikely of places can have some real finds, that Wildcatter ranch hand, for example. But he was married, to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader no less.
The Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is the largest hub for American Airlines, and is reachable by all major airlines.
Getting around there: Central Dallas has a public light rail system, but Ft. Worth and to and from the Wildcatter Ranch require a car.