Photo by Danny Fulgencio.
Betty Neal started bartending at what was then the only gay bar in her hometown as soon as she was old enough.
She moved to Dallas from Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1979, and by January 1980, she was bartending at a gay club here.
It was the beginning of a decades-long career in nightlife that would put her at the center of the Dallas gay community and set her on a path as a leader and organizer.
Back then, all of the gay clubs were for white men, and those clubs would have occasional lesbian nights. Neal says one of the first white lesbian clubs was called JUGGS.
“They had a Friday night thing when all the black lesbians went,” she says. “We didn’t know there were so many black lesbians in Dallas. And we were like, ‘We should open a black club.’ ”
And they did. Neal and partners opened Raps near Love Field in 1989, and it later moved to Wycliff.
“We didn’t know there were so many black lesbians in Dallas.”
While Dallas’ legendary gay honky tonk The Roundup was boot-scootin’ to George Strait, Raps catered to the black LGBTQ market with rap and R&B. “Gay clubs often wouldn’t let black people in,” Neal says. And there were a couple that denied entry to women.
Bars would request multiple forms of identification or inform club-goers they were not properly attired for entry. If black people did get in, sometimes bartenders ignored them. Even as recently as 2017, reality TV star Tamar Braxton accused the 40-year-old JR’s Bar and Grill of denying her entry because of dress code, which she took as a racist snub.
Neal says Raps was the first club in Dallas to give drag queens a regular performance space, predating the Rose Room. “Drag queens unified the community more than anybody,” she says. “If somebody was to get sick, everyone always called on the drag queens to perform benefits.”
Raps started building their business around drag shows, and it was a huge success, she says. “Some of the most celebrated female impersonators came through my door at Raps,” she says. “Then the colors started to blend because the entertainment was so good. That’s what united us.”
She says black people in Dallas felt left out of the pride celebration, so they united their community around the annual Grambling State University vs. Prairie View University football game, also known as “battle of the bands,” at the Cotton Bowl every September.
Again, they called on drag queens to unite black LGBTQ communities from Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. At first, the focus on college students caused the party to be too much of a … party, and it almost died out. But Neal and others kept it going. The Dallas Black Pride event eventually became Dallas Southern Pride, which put Dallas on the map as an important black LGBTQ city alongside Atlanta, Houston and Washington, D.C., Neal says.
Neal, now 62, organizes the Official Dallas Lesbian Black Pride. The September event includes parties as well as mammograms, health screenings and discussion panels. “It’s open to everyone,” she says. “Come out. Dress up. Turn up. Have a good time.”
Photo by Danny Fulgencio.