A sign at the door of the Village Station proudly proclaimed the bar to be “gay-owned and gay-operated.” (Courtesy of The Dallas Way)

By Sam Childers
Courtesy of The Dallas Way

It was the last Wednesday of October 1979 at the Village Station, a popular gay disco that had opened at the corner Cedar Springs and Throckmorton barely four months earlier. The typical mid-week clientele danced to Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” while nursing 10-cent draft beers. Some compared notes on the “March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights” held the week before.

Others contemplated checking out the Hidden Door, a new bar holding its grand opening the next night.

They didn’t know it was the twilight of an era. Just two weeks later, the Iranian hostage crisis would begin, facilitating Ronald Reagan’s election victory and a hard shift right politically. And in a matter of weeks, the nation’s first reports of a mysterious and deadly disease spreading within the gay community would change everything forever.

Ernie Dougherty was staffing the Village Station’s front door that night, on Oct. 24, and Streisand and Summer’s defiant “Enough is Enough” was thumping through the speakers as patrons formed a conga line, laughing and singing along as they bunny-hopped through the club. Then, a little before 1 a.m. on Oct. 25, several Dallas policemen arrived, ordering Dougherty to stay where he was and not to interfere. Joined by undercover cops inside, they began making arrests, eventually charging 10 men for public lewdness and a bartender with a liquor violation.

Even though the LGBT community had made progress toward equality since the Stonewall Riots in New York a decade earlier, persecution of gay people was commonly accepted in 1979. In weeks before the Village Station raid, harassment of gay men in such liberal bastions as New York, Boston and San Francisco made news. Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen and orange juice huckster-turned-evangelical-activist, was making a name for herself as the country’s No. 1 gay basher.

Two months earlier, a series of arson fires at Houston gay bars had put the community there on edge. And in Dallas, gay men — and some women — were routinely labeled “perverts” and “deviants” in local newspapers, while raids on gay bars, bathhouses and theaters were commonplace. In fact, in a 1979 Dallas Morning News article profiling the rising gay demographic in Oak Lawn, R.L. Adair, owner of Adair’s Bar & Grill on Cedar Springs, said, “They’re mentally ill. They ought to be locked up. They’ve tried to buy up every piece of property around here and turn this into a queer community, but I don’t intend to let this place become a queer joint.”

But the Village Station raid was different. The Dallas gay community had had enough. It was time to fight back.

That Thursday morning, the Village Station’s general manager, Charlie Hott, posted bond for the men arrested that could not afford it themselves, and he announced he was filing a civil case against the city of Dallas. He posted signs at the club asking for witnesses to the raid to come forward.

Within a week, Dallas attorney Mike Anglin, who chaired the Dallas Bar Association’s Goals for Dallas Committee, met with police officials and committee members, to state its strong opposition to raids on gay bars. They were assured that the police actions were not harassment, but two weeks later the Dallas Times Herald ran a story about the DPD’s vice squad and its entrapment methods. One unnamed undercover officer quoted in the story compared the harassment as “a big game hunt” and made repeated references to “queers” and “lewds.”

“It’s disgusting,” he said, “but you get such a satisfaction out of putting them in jail.” And the vice division’s captain said that the public “doesn’t want us to leave the homosexuals alone.”

That story helped build momentum within the gay community to push back against harassment, discrimination and antiquated laws. In November, Dallas schoolteacher Don Baker, backed by the Texas Human Rights Foundation, filed a federal class action suit challenging the state sodomy law. Club Dallas filed a federal suit against city and county law enforcement, citing harassment of its patrons in December. And as the new decade began in January, members of the Gay Political Caucus met with city officials, including Mayor Bob Folsom, who admitted that his knowledge of the gay community was “somewhat limited” and asked for a follow-up meeting to learn more about gay issues.

By the end of the month, more than 600 people attended a meeting, at which an assistant city attorney urged the group to file harassment complaints with the DPD’s Internal Affairs Department, outlining the steps to do so.

Two of the men arrested at the Village Station pled guilty to misdemeanor charges in January and the bartender’s case was dismissed. In February, Dallas Criminal Court Judge Chuck Miller found two more defendants not guilty after five of the undercover vice cops at the Village Station that night could not corroborate their testimony and it was revealed that they could not even agree on the layout of the club.

Riled at the judge’s decisions, District Attorney Henry Wade dismissed the remaining six cases and reassigned them to conservative Judge Ben Ellis’s court, citing bias on Miller’s part. Outraged, Miller accused the district attorney of “forum shopping,” the practice of dismissing cases in one court and reassigning them to another to secure convictions. The Dallas Bar Association concurred. Miller initially requested, and was granted, the return of the cases to his court, but relinquished them reluctantly, saying “The mere accusation of bias itself creates the possibility of a cloud hanging over whatever verdicts are reached by this trial judge in these cases.”

Wade eventually backed down and agreed to have lewdness cases assigned randomly after a formal inquiry into the forum shopping was drafted. By the end of 1980, the remaining Village Station cases were decided, mostly with guilty verdicts, although at least two of those were later dismissed.

It was a turning point for LGBTQ citizens of Dallas. Thanks to Dallas attorney Don Maison, who represented two of the defendants — in one notable trial, Bible-toting citizens were countered with disco-dancing men in the courtroom — the names and badge numbers of questionable cops were publicized. Gay citizens began appearing at city council meetings, demanding an end to harassment. And politicians began to listen.

As Maison recalled in an oral history for The Dallas Way, “The raid and its aftermath sparked a dialogue between the police department and the gay community that hadn’t existed before. It later led the police department to assign a liaison officer to the gay community. It changed the whole relationship between the community and law enforcement.”

The Village Station closed for a time in the early 1980s, but re-opened in 1987 in a larger space on Cedar Springs — that just happened to be next door to Adair’s Bar & Grill. The newly-empowered “queer community” that R.L. Adair had condemned just a few years before had arrived.