In his classic poem "Tongues Untied," black gay poet Marlon Riggs reflects on his experience of moving to San Francisco decades ago. "In this great gay mecca," he writes, "I was an invisible man, still. I had no shadow, no substance. No history, no place. No reflection."
Marlon Riggs is not alone. Black gay men have complained for years about racism in the gay community, but many of these complaints have been dismissed by the larger gay community as the rantings of a few. Now comes a new report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that confirms what many of us have known all along: racism is alive and well, even in the legendary Castro district of San Francisco.
The report, issued last week, came after months of protests by people of color and their allies, who complained about the owner of a bar called Badlands in the Castro. I first learned about this incident back in March, when I visited San Francisco and took part in a book signing across the street from Badlands. I asked Calvin Gipson, the former president of the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration Committee, Inc. and a member of a group called And Castro For All, to tell me more about the incidents at Badlands. He responded in this interview.
1. What is And Castro For All?
And Castro For All has its origins from a group called IsBadlandsBad?, a multi-racial group of friends who noticed that there was a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans and women at Badlands bar. Badlands is one of the most popular bar/dance clubs in San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, The Castro. This group developed a campaign to uncover, publicize, and challenge documented patterns of race- and gender-based discrimination at local Castro businesses, specifically bars owned by Les Natali, Badlands and The Detour. The IsBadlandsBad campaign is now a project of And Castro for All. And Castro for All (AC4A) is a fiscally sponsored project of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center dedicated to fostering a genuinely welcoming Castro neighborhood and broader Bay Area community by promoting awareness and dialogue about bias within the LGBT community and exposing actions that undermine inclusion.
In 1998, I founded Black Rap, an African-American group of LGBT people seeking to increase the visibility of African-Americans within the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration which is the largest event in San Francisco. I began receiving complaints about mistreatment of Black people at Badlands as early as 2001 (the bar opened for business by Les Natali in 2000). Black Rap joined forces with And Castro For All in June 2004 to expose discrimination practiced by Les Natali and his businesses, Badlands and The Detour.
2. What was Leslie Natali accused of doing, and what examples can you provide?
Les Natali has been accused of the following acts of discrimination against African-Americans and women:
African Americans reported that they were asked to produce multiple forms of picture identification which was not applied to other races, asking to show the doorman that they have money before entering the bar, being asked to leave without cause, having to wait for white patrons to be served even though they were first in line, selectively applying a dress code, not being allowed to enter the bar if they were carrying a bag or backpack, and employees being told by Les Natali to not forward Black applicants to him for interviews and that African Americans are “non-Badlands customers”, for example.
Kaya Nati filed the first complaint with the Human Rights Commission in 2001 when Les Natali told him that it was not “costume night”. Kaya is an immigrant from Jamaica and, at the time, was an outreach worker for San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project. He was dressed in afro-centric clothing. Les literally ordered him to leave, retrieved Kaya’s bag from bag check, threw it on the sidewalk and told the doorman to give him his money back. Kaya died on Tuesday, April 12, two weeks to the day before the HRC findings were released.
After attending church the night of September 11, 2001, Gertrude East, an African American woman, entered Badlands with friends. Within moments, she was ejected without cause. She and several witnesses report that Natali told her white friends, "You can stay, but that’s not welcome here." Ms. East and her friends called the police, who, upon arrival, said, "Let me guess: Wrong color or wrong gender?" and told Natali, "You should be utterly ashamed."
In 2002, I entered the bar and noticed I was being watched suspiciously. I bought a drink and hung my jacket on a hook located under a cocktail table and went to the dance floor to dance. When I returned to the table, I reached under the table for my jacket and was accused of stealing my own jacket. I was continually challenged by both staff and patrons until I announced that I was the former president of the San Francisco Pride Parade.
Several former Badlands employees, sworn under oath to the Human Rights Commission, have testified that Natali instructed doormen to selectively enforce an illegal 2-ID policy against many African Americans and engage in a host of other indirect means to exclude Blacks’ admittance and create a potentially uncomfortable environment for those who did enter. In fact, the more than 20 patrons, witnesses, and former employees who have signed sworn testimonies recount three civil rights violations against patrons including unfair scrutiny, unwarranted denial of entry, and eviction without cause
3. Given the years of anecdotal reports of race discrimination in the lgbt community, are you surprised by the discrimination in this case?
I am never surprised by racial discrimination in this case or within the LGBT community. My family is from Oak Grove, LA and I am old enough (44 years) to have experienced racial segregation in the south. I have walked on the Black side of the street, have entered through the back doors of white people’s houses, have eaten in segregated restaurants and have sat in the Black section (balcony) of a movie theatre. I am also of the integration generation and was bussed to white schools in Denver, CO beginning in the 5th grade. We had racial riots when I was in junior high school. White kids would throw eggs at our busses as we were arriving to school and the police would be present to send us back home when riots erupted among the races. Because of my history with racism, I am never surprised when I am confronted by it – even within the LGBT community.
I am disappointed that racism as blatant as that of Les Natali has been tolerated in San Francisco. San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in America. The Castro is a destination for queer people from all over the world. It is a special place of freedom and self-expression. It can shimmer as if it were the Land of Oz. I came to San Francisco as a gay man for one reason: to be free. I did not expect that I would be in such a strong battle of fighting against discrimination within the LGBT community. It feels no different than the struggles I experienced in the Deep South. There is something wrong when we as an oppressed people in the LGBT community are oppressing our own who are also fighting in the struggle of equality and freedom.
4. What did the city’s Human Rights Commission find in its report?
Following an exhaustive ten-month investigation, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission has forcefully concluded that Les Natali has violated numerous civil rights ordinances in his discriminatory practices in employment and patronage against people of color. The finding is definitive validation of the testimonies of dozens of former patrons, employees and organizations who have courageously come forward over the past four years with experiences of discrimination at the hands of Natali and his staff. The Human Rights Commission released in their report on Tuesday, April 26 that Les Natali and Badlands violated Article 33 of the San Francisco Police Code by discriminating in employment and public accommodation on the basis of race. The report found:
· an inconsistent door policy illegally requiring multiple forms of I.D. from some African Americans
· Natali referred to African Americans as “non-Badlands customers” who should be discouraged from patronage
· Natali unfairly denied entry to African Americans “through the use of a ‘No Bag’ policy that was rarely enforced against white patrons
· Natali selectively applied a dress code to African American patrons
· Natali’s “hiring practices . . . were discriminatory towards African Americans”
· Natali “discriminated against an African American woman when she was ejected for the bar for pretextual and unjustified reasons”
The report also concluded that discriminatory practices such as those described above are inimical to the public welfare. They create intergroup hostilities and impede social and economic progress for the entire citizenry. Discriminatory practices in employment and public accommodations also prevent members of minority groups from achieving full development of their individual potential and from contributing fully to the cultural and business life of the community. The commission is in full agreement that the discriminatory practices discussed above diminish our city and are contrary to its goals and policies. The commission finds and concludes that it is essential for business establishments in San Francisco to be free of discrimination and that all customers, employees, and job applicants be allowed to take full advantage of the services and opportunities presented. (Note: I have attached the commission report for the editor’s review).
5. How has the white gay community in San Francisco (included the patrons at Badlands) responded to the charges?
We have had a very wide-array of support from communities of all colors, ages, genders and backgrounds. Over 30 leaders from all different parts of our community have signed a letter of support for our work to fight discrimination and hold the LGBT community up to its values of diversity, justice, and inclusion. We have strong support from members of our board of supervisors and LGBT elected leaders.
Even with our vast community support, we have found that there are white people that refuse to believe the charges or simply don’t care. On Saturday April 30, we had over 70 protesters picketing Badlands and distributing leaflets informing the community of the HRC finding. We boldly disrupted Badland’s evening income but there were plenty of people willing to cross the picket lines for a drink. Racism exists. Discrimination based on race exists. I believe that it is time for white people to begin talking to other white people about their racism. Who will say something when they see a person being mistreated? Have conviction and take a stand. We will continue to fight and struggle as long as there is silence in the community in regards to equality and inclusion.
6. What do you do now?
The Human Rights Commission is an investigative body. The matter now goes before San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission, which issues a local license for all activity within a bar/club, except for the serving of alcohol, including DJs, go go dancers, pool tables, live entertainment, arcade and video machines etc. The Commission can revoke or suspend his license among several possible courses of action.
The State of California’s Alcohol Beverage and Control Board, which issues liquor licenses, will soon conclude their investigation of Les Natali and his businesses. They can revoke or suspend his liquor licenses which can put Les Natali out of business.
We will BOYCOTT Badlands until City and State agencies enact penalties commensurate with the extensive scope of Mr. Natali’s civil rights violations. Justice demands a strong recourse!
WHEN: Every Saturday from 10pm onward
WHERE: In front of S.F. Badlands on 18th Street between Castro and Collingwood Streets
WHY: To demand accountability for widespread racial discrimination and create inclusion in the Castro
We want to see an end to discrimination in the Castro and elsewhere. Period.
We want the owner of SF Badlands and the Detour to be held accountable for violating city and state civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. We want businesses in the Castro to commit to non-discrimination based on race, gender, and other identities/attributes – for patrons and for employees. We’re San Franciscans, after all. We want to support and affirm individuals and businesses in the Castro and elsewhere that share our beliefs in equality and fairness. We want to remind people that discrimination isn’t just a straight thing; it happens within our own LGBT community. We want to support our friends and others who have suffered as a result of discrimination and mistreatment. We want to speak out so that heinous acts like these never happen again, not in our community and not in our City.
We want to help create a space where we can all have fun together: all of us, one community, in its many gorgeous shapes and sizes and colors. We want to remind our community and ourselves that we can work together to make a difference.
In December 2004, AC4A launched the LGBT community Anti-Discrimination Hotline. If you experience discrimination in The Castro please call And Castro for All’s Anti-Discrimination Hotline at 415-865-5542 for moral support, help filing a complaint, and/or legal referrals. For more information regarding the Human Rights Commission Report, Badlands, Les Natali or discrimination in The Castro, visit www.andcastroforall.com.