New coalition holds four-hour town hall to discuss racism, safety in LGBTQ bars
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[Editor's note: This article contains the N-word spelled out because it was used in direct quotes by a Black man, referring to what people had called him at one of the bars.]
For four hours Thursday night a new coalition of Black, trans, and queer nightlife figures held a virtual town hall where they interviewed the owners and managers of LGBTQ bars in San Francisco about racism and safety issues at their establishments.
The Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition preceded the event, which was held on Twitch and sponsored by Strut, the queer health and wellness center in the Castro, with a survey about queer nightlife that garnered hundreds of responses. The survey gave each nightlife spot a rating (on a scale of 0 to 4) on inclusivity, and another on safety.
"The survey showed that many participants felt most nightlife spaces prioritized and centered 'cis gay white men' over other patrons," the coalition stated. "The survey showed that women and femmes, Black and Indigenous folks, and trans and nonbinary folks didn't feel safe or included in most nightlife spaces."
Survey respondents also said these groups were not adequately represented in staffing, management, marketing, and performances.
Further, survey respondents mentioned that "many nightlife spaces struggled to manage a culture of touching without consent [and] instances of sexual harassment," and that a "substance heavy environment" made sober patrons feel excluded.
Representatives from The Stud; The Edge; Badlands and Toad Hall; and The Eagle were presented with the results of the survey as it related to their particular establishments and in restorative justice moments some of them were faced with those who said they'd had negative experiences at their businesses.
Jolene Linsangan, owner of Jolene's, was originally slated to attend but did not. As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Jolene's is facing a lawsuit from a former co-owner as well as a slew of accusations from an anonymous group of employees regarding alleged employee mistreatment, manipulation, racism, and sexual assault cover-ups.
One individual who was set to engage in restorative justice with Linsangan stated that door staff misgendered a friend. The coalition members said they would make sure Linsangan sees the testimonial.
Linsangan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The July 30 forum occurred the same day that the Castro neighborhood nightclub Badlands announced in a Facebook post that it would not be reopening after the end of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. Badlands had been in the neighborhood for 45 years.
Another bar, with a new name and under new ownership, will open where Badlands once was, according to the post by Badlands owner Les Natali.
Natali, 78, has been a figure of controversy in the Castro at least since 2004, when a report by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission found that Badlands was discriminating against African Americans. The findings were never official because the HRC executive director at the time did not sign off on the staff report. Natali and the complainants eventually reached a confidential settlement.
Natali later opened Toad Hall on the site of what had been the Pendulum, a bar that catered to Black LGBTQs.
The allegations have dogged Natali. As the B.A.R. previously reported, they resurfaced at a Black Lives Matter protest in Jane Warner Plaza in June in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
When asked for his comment at that time, Natali wrote that the allegations "were found without merit and were dropped."
"We welcome people of all races and all colors and we probably have the largest, most diverse clientele of any bar in the Castro," he added.
Natali was not on Twitch to discuss Badlands or Toad Hall and the coalition's panelists — Afrika America and Militia — did not bring up the past allegations with the bars' representatives.
However, Badlands did score last on the inclusivity and safety rankings, with a 1.4 score on each.
The discussion around the bar mostly related to its door policies, as people who completed the survey felt that the door staff were not properly trained.
"We want to learn. We want to take guidance from this new coalition and move forward not just to better the bar but to better the community," Badlands manager Adderly Ayala said. "We want to do everything we have to."
Ayala said that Natali signed a pledge of inclusivity and safety, but did not speak to whether the new owner, who has yet to be publicly identified, will do the same. (As of press time this pledge has not yet been made publicly available either.)
"We can't speak on their behalf," Ayala said. "Of course, I do."
The future of Toad Hall has not been publicly announced, but although the Badlands' Facebook page had been taken down as of late Thursday, Toad Hall's page was still up as of press time.
Ayala and Toad Hall representative David Facer said they did not know if or when the locations would open for outdoor service, which other Castro bars have done amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Edge bartender speaks out
The Edge, located on the same block of 18th Street as Badlands, also scored low on the survey. It received a 1.8 for inclusivity and a 2.1 for safety.
Eugene "Bam Bam" Bibs, a former bartender at The Edge, participated in the first restorative justice session of the night.
"I bartended for four and a half years and was called a 'nigger' three times," Bibs, who is Black, said. "When I told my Caucasian co-worker, the first thing he said is 'Are you sure?'"
Bibs said many Black people feel gaslighted in the Castro.
"Not a lot of people understand what it's like dealing with racism in the Castro," Bibs said. "People talk to you and say you're hot and next thing you know you're getting called a 'nigger,'" Bibs said. "What the fuck?"
Bibs also said he felt it was unfair he was reprimanded for smoking marijuana while another co-worker, who was not Black, showed up to work allegedly high on another substance.
The Edge's representatives apologized to Bibs.
"Your feelings are completely valid and I apologize for that," Edge general manager Michael Schauf said. "In your words, I went to bat for you, and I apologize for the things said to you by customers. I have 86'ed [banned from the bar] many people who said things to you and will do it one million times more."
After Bibs spoke the next speaker, named Sacred, said, "Even as a patron I was able to identify different issues, also as a patron I have been called the N-word and noticed the hostility of some of the older white patrons against Bam Bam and other people of color."
Sacred noted that The Edge often does not have Black go-go dancers on busy weekends, such as during Pride or the Folsom Street Fair, and that when the bar does have Black go-go dancers they are often from out of town.
"I only took part in this because I enjoyed The Edge. It was my neighborhood bar even though it was not in my neighborhood," Sacred said. "Why were these [allegations] not taken seriously when a former employee brought these things up? Why does it take this extent to be considered a serious allegation or a serious situation?"
Schauf said, "We have tried to have an inclusive group of dancers. We obviously failed and we have more work to do." The bar representatives agreed that they should look into contracting with Black go-go dancers who live in San Francisco.
Militia said that there is "a running theme of obvious anti-Blackness" in the bar and that "I was told by a booker that whenever a Black go-go gets on the bar they get racist comments and his response was to not book me."
Militia went on to ask what specific "actionable steps" the bar was going to take, accusing its owners of "word salad" and "virtue signaling."
Rob Giljum, a co-owner of The Edge, responded that he does not have "an exact plan" yet but that "this event is very important and it's been eye-opening and humbling," and there will be a plan soon.
The group from The Edge was the second of the four to speak. As the event pivoted to the Badlands/Toad Hall contingent, it sounded like one of The Edge's representatives was overheard on a hot mic apparently mentioning "personal attacks" by Militia, which led to jaw drops from some participants.
South of Market bars
Lex Montiel, co-owner of The Eagle in the city's South of Market neighborhood, was the last of the evening's interviewees. The Eagle scored a 1.9 on inclusivity and a 2.2 on safety.
Montiel denied accusations that The Eagle said it could not host an event in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because it doesn't get into politics, even though on other occasions it has honored politicians such as Mayor London Breed.
The discussion with Montiel was awkward, as he said that The Eagle did not have a Black-centered event even though it turned out the venue does.
Montiel seemed to conflate having an event centered on a particular ethnic or racial background with excluding those of other backgrounds, before Afrika America and Militia explained that it did not mean anyone would be kept away.
"The Eagle is a place to bring the entire community together," Montiel said. "Are you trying to say I should judge people for the color of their skin?"
Said Militia: "Everyone can come to a Black-centered event but what we're saying is to center Black artists and community."
Montiel said that although The Eagle was accused of "catering to white, cis gay men," there are people of color on the staff and in management.
"Nobody knew that there is a Mexican owner of The Eagle," he said, referring to himself. "They thought it was just a white, male bar."
It was agreed at the end of the discussion that The Eagle will be in further talks with the coalition.
The Stud, another South of Market nightclub, had been the first of the evening to be featured. It was held up as an example of how to be inclusive and, indeed, it received the highest scores of any bar — a 3.4 on inclusivity and a 3.1 on safety.
As the B.A.R. previously reported, The Stud's physical location at 399 Ninth Street is permanently closed. However, the members of The Stud Collective intend to open a location elsewhere sometime in the future.
Rachel Ryan, the president of the collective, addressed concerns from a former member of the door staff who said they'd had to endure abuse from customers (though they noted that this was before the collective took over The Stud).
"Blessings to door people and security because — what a tough job," Ryan said. "We try to do what we can to give them the support they need. In my walk-throughs, I always checked in on them."
Coalition formed in response to racism, transphobia
Freddie Seipoldt, a nonbinary individual who was one of the founders of the coalition, told the B.A.R. after the event that "for better or worse, it really revealed a lot of the attitudes that these bars have toward our community."
"I think the audience can decide, based on the data and the response from the bars themselves, whether they trust that these spaces are committed to making the changes needed moving forward," Seipoldt stated in a Facebook message to the B.A.R. "A lot of the audience tonight wanted to know what the follow-up is going to look like. This is just the beginning of a major process of overhauling the entire queer nightlife scene. The Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition plans on holding all of these venues accountable for their actions and making sure they stay true to their commitment to learn and grow."
Seipoldt thanked everyone who viewed the event — while attendance fluctuated, for most of the four hours it hovered between 350 and 400 viewers.
"I can't stress how grateful I am to have had such a large and engaged audience," Seipoldt stated. "The feedback and questions we got tonight were invaluable. I'm excited for what's next."
Many of the coalition founders were involved in the aforementioned June 5 Jane Warner Plaza rally, which was emceed by Afrika America. Seipoldt said that the coalition was formed in mid-June "as one of many responses to the larger conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement."
"A lot of organizations and communities have begun to re-examine the ways in which they make space for Black folks. A lot of Black folks who have worked in the Queer Nightlife scene in the Bay Area expressed similar frustrations. Drag performers, DJs, bartenders, staff and patrons alike," Seipoldt stated. "Actually our town hall was largely inspired by the Black Drag Town Hall, which took place in Chicago last month. That town hall inspired folks here to want to do a similar re-evaluation of our nightlife scene.
"Our work is intersectional and intergenerational, and the focus of our work is building equity, safety and inclusivity for Black and Indigenous people of Color in Queer Nightlife across the Bay Area," Seipoldt added.
The full results of the survey are available on the coalition's Instagram page.
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