Headlines, Calls for Answers After Seattle Gay Bars Raided
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Law enforcement in Seattle issued citations at two popular gay bars last weekend in what the local queer community – and LGBTQ+ establishments – say were "raids" like the ones that used to happen in the bad old days. Now there's a call for answers, along with national headlines.
Famed sex advice columnist and "It Gets Better" founder Dan Savage is among local advocates calling out the police actions, and taking note that while similar "raids" were undertaken in a number of other businesses, it was only in the gay bars that patrons were cited under laws that criminalize wardrobe that would be legal anywhere except in establishments were alcohol is served.
As previously reported, officers from the JET – the Joint Enforcement Team, which includes personnel from the Seattle police and fire departments, as well as the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) – swept into four gay establishments with flashlights, taking pictures of patrons and handing out citations for offenses like an exposed nipple and patrons wearing jock straps.
Local news outlet the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reported that a collective of LGBTQ+ establishments "are teaming up with neighborhood queer community leaders Dan Savage and Terry Miller in calling for the state's liquor control board and Seattle Police officials to explain what they say was a weekend crackdown reminiscent of historical harassment of Seattle's LGBTQ friendly venues."
The blog quoted from a joint statement in which the proprietors decried the way law enforcement entered their establishments and issued citations. "None of the venues in our coalition have ever been cited for alcohol or violence related offenses," the statement said, before going on to blast the citations having been "issued based solely on individuals' clothing choices, such as being shirtless or wearing a jockstrap, which we consider a breach of the power entrusted to JET and the LCB for maintaining public safety."
The proprietors pointed to the "absence of violence or liquor-related issues in the citations," claiming that the lack of any such activity "indicates a concerning focus on targeting queer individuals in queer spaces."
The LBC, responding to criticisms over the citations, issued a statement of its own in which it declared, "The LCB wishes to assure the LGBTQ+ community that, in no uncertain terms, the agency does not and will not target LGBTQ+ locations."
"As expressed in the public statement by representatives of several gay bars in Seattle and representatives of Seattle's LGBTQ+ community, LCB recognizes that these venues are considered 'safe spaces for historically marginalized community members' and concerns raised by the visits over the last weekend raised alarm and concern among community members," the LCB's statement added.
But concerns remain, especially since out of all the establishments the JET team entered, citations were only issued to people in gay bars. Community leaders, including Savage, are looking for answers.
NPR's All Things Considered delved into the gap between what bar proprietors and the gay community are saying – that the action was a raid – and the city's response, in which that characterization was rebuffed.
Local reporter Vivian McCall, who writes for local biweekly alternative newspaper The Stranger (where Savage is a columnist) explained that things got started in the wee hours of Jan. 27, when officers entered a bar called The Cuff, located in the gay neighborhood Capitol Hill, and began to scrutinize – and photograph – Friday night revelers.
"The bar owner says that they had flashlights, that pictures were taken of patrons, and a bartender was found to be in violation of state law for having an exposed nipple, which, in Washington, is actually something that the cops can cite you for if you're selling alcohol on the [premises]," McCall said.
As to why pictures were taken, McCall theorized that the reason was in order to have evidence to substantiate the citations, and added, "I will say that the board chair of the LCB has said that photos being taken was unfortunate, but it is something that happened."
The idea of a male bartender being cited for an exposed nipple – which could result from being shirtless or even wearing certain kinds of undershirts – may sound ludicrous, but it's especially perplexing given that there is no ordinance in Seattle against nudity... except in the cast of establishments that serve alcoholic beverages.
As McCall noted, "there is a nearby park where a kickball game was going on where people were playing in their jockstraps, but as soon as they walked into the bar, that would be considered a state violation."
If city officials happen to have forgotten a long history of homophobic persecution in which patrons of gay bars routinely had to face the prospect of police raids on LGBTQ+ spaces, the queer community has not.
"A lot of people were horrified at the image of a bunch of officials coming into a bar with flashlights," McCall noted. "That is something that really recalls, you know, historical raids on gay bars that happened for decades, where people would be arrested for simply being at a gay bar."
McCall pointed out another source of sensitivity for Seattle's gay community, observing that the city "is feeling really defensive of its queer spaces right now because... there's a nude beach in Seattle that's been historically queer for decades that could have gotten a children's park put on it through an anonymous donation at a time where queer people are being labeled groomers" – another example of hostile forces intruding on precincts long regarded as safe for queer people in which to congregate.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.