Tarrant County cities have become more LGBT friendly. Advocates see room for growth

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Tarrant County community and city leaders say they’ve made incremental improvements to protect the LGBT community, especially on the heels of approved city policy changes. But advocates say the work is nowhere near done.

Both Fort Worth and Arlington recognized Pride Month at city council meetings earlier this month, signaling an endorsement to the LGBT community that they’re recognized and accepted by their city leaders.

“It is important for these government entities to recognize that we do have a queer population,” said Antonio Mercado, creative director of Third Space DFW, a nonprofit dedicated to LGBT representation in Fort Worth’s art scene and providing safe spaces for the LGBT community.

But while recognition is welcomed and appreciated, there’s more that needs to be done, advocates say.

“We’re still gay after June,” Mercado said.

He would like to see more LGBT people be appointed for Fort Worth committees and in the city positions to raise their issues to the community at large.

Mercado started his nonprofit in an effort to increase representation and create a safe space that wasn’t a bar for the LGBT community in Fort Worth. Growing up in the north side, Mercado said he never felt represented or that he was taken into consideration and, at times, he felt like Fort Worth’s small town, friendly feel was not always as welcoming to LGBT people.

“A lot of times, people only have bars for safe spaces and that’s not necessarily a place for kids or someone that’s sober,” he said.

Mercado Hopes his organization is a starting point for LGBT people to enjoy their community at home, instead of driving to Dallas, where the Oak Lawn neighborhood is famously known for its gayborhood.

“We want to make sure we still have these spaces and we shouldn’t have to drive to Dallas,” he said.

LGBTQ policies in Arlington

Arlington leaders and officials said the city has made incremental improvements to protect the LGBT community. At June 7 meeting, council members unanimously approved a nondiscrimination ordinance covering protected classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Leaders also approved an amendment to the city’s Fair Housing Code that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to its protected classes. The ordinance will be read and voted on again Tuesday.

The Rev. Kevin Johnson of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church at 305 W. Main St. said Arlington and Fort Worth residents’ attitudes and acknowledgment of the community changed for the better after he left in the late 1980s and returned to Arlington in 2015.

“While the community is still not completely accepting and valuing those who are LGBTQ, in the 26 years that I was gone from the area, the option of being honest about one’s sexual orientation has really improved markedly,” he said.

Johnson was one of two community figures to speak in support of the ordinances at the council meeting. DeeJay Johannessen, CEO of HELP Center in Arlington, also spoke highly of the vote after accepting the city’s proclamation recognizing pride month.

“It says that in Arlington, a person’s ability to get and maintain a job is based upon your merits and hard work — not what you look like, where you’re from and who you love,” he said during the meeting.

The ordinances are the latest in the city’s efforts to signal acceptance, create more equitable policy and boost its score in the Human Rights Commissions’ Municipal Equality Index. The annual report rates U.S. cities based on protections for LGBTQ-inclusive laws, policies and services. Arlington scored a 63 last year, but its score has risen steadily from 11 in 2013. Both Dallas and Fort Worth received scores of 100 in 2020.

Jay Warren, Arlington’s communication and legislative affairs director, said the city has updated municipal policies and created liaison positions to work with city leadership. Warren has served as liaison to the city manager’s office for six years.

“This has all been incremental and as things grow and expand, we’ll look for other ways to show that support to our gay and transgender population,” Warren said in a phone interview.

The city’s score, Warren said, and general environment also plays into business’ and event organizers’ decisions when seeking city partnerships. Companies, including Amazon, have studied Arlington and other cities’ scores before moving offices.

“Their questions were more about, ‘What is the environment our employees are going to be living in?’” Warren said.

Uptick in demand for resources

Another organization aiming to increase visibility and resources for the LGBT community is LGBTQ SAVES, a nonprofit that serves the ages of 12 to 24. Sharon Herrera of LGBTQ SAVES founded the organization, which was started in 2010 as a response to high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth.

LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, according to the Trevor Project. Herrera said her organization’s mission is to make LGBT youth feel welcomed and accepted.

“I attempted suicide at 16, so I want to make sure that nobody else has to,” she said.

During the pandemic, the organization received an uptick in calls because kids were stuck at home and they were coming out to their parents, she said. There was a rise in calls from Latino households asking for resources and help.

The organization is housed at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church. All they have is a closet and a large two rooms where they host board meetings and have quarterly dinners. Herrera said they are working to have a bigger space with showers, a kitchen, offices, a living center and a media center, among other things.

Once it opens in about three to five years, Fort Worth will have a dedicated center for youth where they can feel accepted and safe.

“There’s no doubt that they’re going to be welcomed,” she said.

Herrera said outgoing council member Ann Zadeh was an advocate for the LGBT community. New city council members take over Tuesday and Herrera hopes they continue to help. She believes local government can be more helpful for the LGBT community, such as talking about their issues at meetings.

Felipe Gutierrez, a community leader, said the Fort Worth City Council has made progress to accept and work with LGBTQ+ community members. The focus in the future, he said, should center on holding conversations with people who do not support the efforts, as well as creating equitable change.

“There’s still room for improvement is what I’m saying, whether we’re talking about healthcare for trans individuals from a corporate perspective, insurance perspective or from a city discrimination ordinance perspective,” Gutierrez said. “I think there’s always room to make sure that we’re covering our bases.”

Tyler Long, president of Trinity Pride Fest, said Fort Worth’s Pride Month proclamation is meaningful for the representation of the LGBT community and shows that city leaders recognize their contribution to Fort Worth.

But, still more action needs to happen on the city’s part. This can range from promoting and endorsing Trinity Pride Fest and other local LGBT organizations. This would immensely help a city that constantly loses LGBT individuals.

“In a community like Fort Worth that is a conservative town in a conservative state, that support means more than people know,” Long said. “If you are not from a community that has been overlooked or had to live in the shadows, it’s hard to understand what a rainbow flag in an establishment can mean.”

LGBT events

Long, president of Trinity Pride Fest, said his organization launched in 2019 as an effort to bring the LGBT community in Fort Worth together and also raise awareness of the resources available. He felt like Pride Month didn’t have enough talk about resources and community uplifting and Trinity Pride wants to bridge that gap.

Before Trinity Pride, Pride Month wasn’t celebrated at a large level in Fort Worth, Long said. He would have people asking him what there was to do in June and Fort Worth didn’t have a big Pride scene yet.

“It was kind of born out of wanting to create something for our community in June and trying to honor our community and raise awareness,” Long said. “Our community had been really disconnected, we hadn’t had a really connecting force for pride that everybody was behind.”

Trinity Pride is striving to be a central force for not only a celebration but also a hub for resources around Fort Worth, Long said.

On June 26, Trinity Pride is highlighting LGBTQ SAVES’ youth picnic at Trinity Park. They are also partnering with coffee shops and restaurants that families can visit.

“A big demographic of our Fort Worth community is queer families and queer people with children,” he said. “Those Pride locations are welcoming these families and welcoming their children.”

Each of the local businesses participating will host a local LGBT organization ready to talk about resources and how they can help, he said.

Trinity Pride Fest also has the Trinity Pride Community Celebration and A Community Rebounds events on June 26. Both events will be hosted across different partner locations, such as restaurants and bars.

“Our focus is one connecting, empowering and closing the gaps in our community,” Long said. “And trying to be that beacon to connect queer people as they come to the city.”

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