Gay party venue fights to remain open
by Matthew S. Bajko
A club South of Market long home to many LGBT-related events and dance parties is fighting to keep its doors open after state regulators labeled it a public nuisance due to nudity and simulated sex acts occurring at club nights marketed to gay Latinos and lesbians.
The dispute between the straight owners of the DNA Lounge and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has brought forth accusations that the agency retaliated against the club after it was successful in its attempts to become an 18 and over venue, which the ABC initially opposed unless the club agreed to certain conditions.
Because the latest actions against the club involve LGBT parties, the ABC is also facing questions from LGBT promoters and entertainment officials wondering if the agency enforces its rules and regulations differently when it comes to gay nightlife offerings.
Between March and May of 2008 ABC investigators reported witnessing 33 instances where an entertainer or employee at the DNA Lounge on 11th Street near Harrison either performed or served drinks naked, allowed a patron to fondle their genitals or breasts, or engaged in or pretended to have sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, or oral copulation.
At a hearing before an administrative law judge last month, the ABC accused the club of being "a disorderly house" and a "disturbance to the neighborhood ... in which people abide or resort which is injurious to the public morals, health, convenience or safety." It is seeking revocation of the club's liquor license, which would in effect shut down the business.
"The department is confident in the facts it has gathered in its investigation," said ABC spokesman John Carr. "The ABC wants to see all businesses succeed, but they have to be compliant with the law."
Most of the violations occurred during two parties, a monthly gay Latino circuit party called Escandalo, which in Spanish means scandalous, and the lesbian-oriented Cream. Both parties were put on by Club Papi Productions.
The ABC also accused the club of sex discrimination after male investigators were charged a different price than female attendees at the Cream parties, in violation of state laws. After DNA Lounge management learned of the ABC's accusations against the parties, they phased the two events out late last year.
The club owners do not dispute the accusations made by the ABC. What they do contest is the ABC's decision to seek revocation of the club's liquor license instead of suspending their license for a certain amount of days.
"It is absolutely absurd. If you have been out to a party in San Francisco, you have seen it. This is nothing shocking," said Barry Synoground, the club's manager who has a small ownership stake in the business, of the behavior cited by the ABC. "There is no precedent for the ABC going after gay clubs for this issue in San Francisco."
In an e-mail to the B.A.R., the club's main owner, Jamie Zawinski, insisted that the ABC has taken such a hard line against him because "we had the audacity to appeal their denial of the conversion of our license from 21+ to all ages, and win. It's very rare for a nightclub to convert from 21+ to all ages, and ABC apparently didn't like that at all. I believe their current actions are retaliatory."
Zawinski also wrote that based on the testimony of the ABC employees during the hearing it was obvious they do not understand San Francisco's "community values," noting that one undercover officer stated he was unsure if a performer named "Lola" was a man or a woman.
"It seems to me that the ABC investigators have no understanding of gay culture or what gay clubs are like," wrote Zawinski, who opened the club in 2001. "It sounded to me like the guy had never seen a drag queen before. ... That sounds like a Sacramento suburbanite cop. So I suspect that the severity of the punishment they are asking for has something to do with the fact that gay activity freaks them out."
ABC director Steve Hardy, a former San Francisco police officer, defended his agency's actions, telling the Bay Area Reporter that they were merited based on the severity of the club's violations.
"This was a weekly thing. It wasn't just one or two times," said Hardy. "It has been described by some owners of the club as minor difficulties. As you know, it is a lot more substantial than that."
Hardy also disputed the club's allegations that the ABC's pursuit of revocation of its license is retaliatory.
"We are not going after anybody, that is not the case at all," he said.
The administrative law judge's ruling in the case is expected soon. Depending on what action is taken, the club is prepared to appeal the ABC's decision, and if needed, pursue other legal options.
"Hopefully, saner minds will prevail and it won't go that far," wrote Zawinski.
Dispute draws LGBT complaints
In the meantime, many LGBT people have questioned the ABC's actions against the club.
In an e-mail to the B.A.R., Cindy Emch, an out lesbian who founded the Queer Open Mic nights wrote, "Similar infractions in straight clubs have elicited a fine and some probation. Why should the punishment be worse for the LGBT community? Unless it's about the continued attempt to convert SF into a town of straight wealthy people and finish off the work that greedy landlords started by pushing the queers, artists and weirdos [sic] out of town culturally as well as financially."
An accordion player who performs at the Hubba Hubba Revue female burlesque shows at the DNA Lounge, Emch said in a phone interview that many people are worried about losing the venue.
"They are very concerned. Venues friendly to underground art in San Francisco seem to be going away," said Emch. "A lot of people are seeing both racism and homophobia in it. These were two events targeted for queer folks of color."
Of the supposed sex acts that occurred during the shows, Emch said she finds it "ridiculous" those incidents would lead to the club having to close.
"I can see that walking down Castro Street. At the Bay to Breakers there is definitely more exposure than anything I have seen happen at DNA Lounge," added Emch, referring to the street race known for its naked participants.
Adrian Roberts, who with his wife, Deidre, has hosted twice monthly Bootie parties at the club that draw a mixed crowd, called the ABC's tactics "draconian."
"It seems that because the ABC is not threatening a wrist slap and is instead threatening to shut down places over what appears to be minor infractions, that to me points to they want to pretty much stamp out nightlife," said Roberts, the B.A.R.'s former art director.
Hardy denied that the ABC uses a different standard with gay clubs versus straight clubs.
"I would categorically deny that. We are just doing our job," he said. "We pursue revocation with any licensee that is violating the terms and conditions of their licenses."
But Audrey Joseph, an out lesbian who is president of the city's Entertainment Commission, called the ABC's decision to seek a license revocation "insane." While she does not condone what occurred at the club, Joseph said it would have been more reasonable of the state agency to seek a suspension of the DNA Lounge's liquor license.
"All of us are supporting them, so hopefully the ABC may back off," said Joseph.
Commission Vice Chair Jim Meko, a gay man who lives near the club, said he is unaware of any complaints about the DNA Lounge from neighbors.
"I consider the DNA Lounge among the grown-ups along the 11th Street corridor," said Meko. "As far as justifying having sexual carrying on in their establishment, that is a tough case to argue for. Most gay clubs in SOMA are really careful to not let that go on."
Yet Meko also echoed sentiments that the ABC is seeking a harsher outcome than is warranted.
"It sure doesn't sound like due process to me. That just seems logical you would first get a warning or suspension," he said.
District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty said he recently spoke with the ABC's Hardy about the club. Dufty said he does not see the club's problems as having to do with a culture clash.
"He started his career as a San Francisco police officer, so he is connected to what San Francisco is about. It doesn't feel like some person who doesn't get San Francisco," said Dufty, adding he has attended many events at DNA Lounge. "I do have to say there are some very serious issues under investigation. This was initially referred to me as a dancer at Club Papi pulled down his underwear and some guy grabbed him. To me that is not an acceptable reason to revoke a license."
"It is more significant than that, so I don t know what the outcome is," added Dufty.