As long as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people gathered together in urban areas, there have been gay bars. And as long as there have been gay bars, there have been bar raids.
Since the beginning, governments have used their power to regulate businesses that sell liquor to go after sexual or gender minorities who they considered to be sick, immoral and/or illegal. Until the 1960s, it was against the law for taverns to employ or serve homosexuals, which made gay bars illegal. Even after the laws were abolished, law enforcement agencies continued to find excuses to raid gay bars.
Sometimes, GLBT people fought back, as we did 40 years ago at the Stonewall Inn.
Today, police no longer raid gay bars just for being gay, and the laws that regulate behavior in pubs and clubs apply equally to all. However, while all bars are the same in the eyes of the law, enforcement of the law often differs. If there is a state or local law that regulates "vice" in places that sell liquor, it's more likely to be enforced against gay bars than against straight bars. There is a double standard at work, if only because many law enforcement officers share their society's prejudices, including homophobia.
During the last few months, several gay bars in the Southern United States have been the target of organized bar raids. Though the various raids have nothing to do with one another, they indicate that, at least in the Southland, homophobia is alive and well and often wears a uniform.
On June 28, the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth, Texas was raided by agents of the Fort Worth Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). Though the raid was described as a "routine check," it led to seven arrests for public intoxication and a patron in intensive care with a head injury. Later the Forth Worth police explained its behavior by claiming a "gay panic" defense to sexual harassment on the part of the Rainbow's gay patrons, a ridiculous response that no one took seriously.
Two weeks later (July 10), TABC agents raided the Eagle in Dallas. Though the raid was not as spectacular as the one in Fort Worth, agents shut down the Eagle for having an incorrect address on its liquor license. Never mind that the Eagle had been operating legally for years at the "wrong" address, which happened to be a few yards from the current location. The law is the law, especially when it applies to gay bars.
In all fairness to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which enjoys one of the largest and most active GLBT communities in the south, recent bar raids are not solely a Texas phenomenon. On September 6, Backstreet in Memphis Tennessee was raided by undercover Memphis police officers, which led to the closing of that city's largest gay dance club and the arrest of Backstreet owner Shane Trice. Undercover officers claim that they witnessed illegal drug sales, illegal alcohol sales, and gambling inside the club on at least six occasions. Trice was arrested and charged with aggravated gambling promotion, storage of liquor for sale, possession of gambling device, and unlawful sale of alcohol while three of his bartenders were issued citations for selling alcohol after permitted hours. Trice hotly denies these allegations, arguing that he and his bar have always complied with the law. But, meanwhile, Backstreet remains shut.
Four days later (September 10), the Atlanta Eagle was raided. (Many gay bars share common names like the Eagle or Backstreet, though happily not in the same town.) Atlanta Police officers detained 62 Eagle employees and patrons and made them lie on the floor while the cops searched them and conducted background checks. The cops then arrested eight bar employees and underwear-clad dancers for providing "adult entertainment" without a license. Witnesses claimed that the officers were overly aggressive, making anti-gay slurs and threatening them with violence. The APD claims that the raid was in response to reports of drug sales and backroom sex, but no one was arrested on drug or sex charges. That this happened in Atlanta was an outrage, since Atlanta has the South's most diverse and politically-active GLBT community.
Why so many gay bar raids? Some critics claim there is more than meets the eye. Andrew Sullivan thinks the raids are part of a recent wave of conservative attacks against the Obama Administration and all the changes that it brought in its wake. I don't agree.
Gay bar raids remain popular because GLBT people and our social hangouts continue to be despised by a large segment of our population. To a hard-working police officer, raiding a gay bar is relatively easy, Stonewall notwithstanding, and relatively violence-free. Unlike "straight" bars, where fights are an almost nightly occurrence, gay bars are notorious for their lack of violence. In spite of this, gay bars continue to be raided at a higher rate than their nongay counterparts. But the law is the law, police spokespeople continue to tell us, and the cops are only trying to enforce it. They may be right. I only wish that police officers would crack down on antigay violence with half of the zest that they employ to enforce liquor license violations.
Jesse Monteagudo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a South Florida-based, gay author and activist.