Yesterday, Lambda Legal filed a complaint against a hookah bar in Washington, DC with the city's Office of Human Rights, claiming that the establishment discriminated against a transgender patron and her group of friends. The group also launched a social media campaign against the business, asking their Facebook followers to "Share this photo to tell Bistro 18 Hookah Bar that discriminating against customers is against the law." The graphic has now been shared over 4,000 times.
Bistro 18 is located in Adams Morgan - a popular gay friendly area known as one of DC's most diverse neighborhoods. The bar has gay staff and regularly hosts events like marriage receptions for gay or lesbian couples and private parties for LGBT events. The business admits that it had a problem with one server, but fired them on the spot after learning of their actions.
Lambda's social media offensive has had a dramatic effect on the bistro's rating on sites like Yelp and Facebook - even though the organization admits that it doesn't know if the restaurant actually did anything wrong. The bar's rating on Facebook has dropped from a 5.0 to 1.8. Their Yelp rating dropped from a 4.9 to 1.5 with more reviews left after Lambda launched their offensive than the bar had received since opening. Most were one star reviews left from people who live outside of Washington, DC; several left copies of Lambda Legal's graphic in their reviews.
The group, however, is absolving itself from any damage the business may suffer - even if the commission finds in favor of the bar. "Lambda Legal has no obligation to investigate the allegations before doing media work or filling a case. That's up to the commission to decide," said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal Transgender Rights Project Director. "The business' reputation is not our concern."
With LGBT activists and netizens constantly ready to retaliate against any perceived slight and conservative Christians regularly claiming that many businesses are unfairly attacked by activists, what responsibility does Lambda Legal have to ensure that they aren't damaging a business' reputation without reason? Should they be held responsible for any harm they cause the establishment - particularly if the bar is found innocent by the city's human rights commission?
Should leading community organizations be held to account for their actions or is ginning up online outrage without any proof of wrongdoing now acceptable behavior from one of the LGBT community's foremost groups?
The Missing Details Make a Difference
Amira Gray, the complainant in this case, alleges that she and several friends went to the bar in August of 2013 and after a night of poor service were given a bill with "GAY BITCHES" printed on it. In the filing, Gray says that one of her friends pointed out the offending phrase to the manager, Mohammad Elhoda, and he took what he thought was the receipt and printed out a new one without the offending phrase.
"As a transgender woman, I was extremely hurt, embarrassed and upset," Gray says in her complaint. "I felt that the slur was meant as a slap in the face because of my gender identity and expression, my perceived sexual orientation, my personal appearance, and my association with my friends who are or may have been perceived as being lesbian or gay. I believe that those at the table at which I was seated were targeted for ill-treatment based on the fact that our group included transgender and gay patrons and patrons who may have been perceived as lesbian or gay."
After being shown Gray's filing, Elhoda confirmed the basic facts in the complaint but pointed out that other pertinent facts were missing from Gray's version of events. No one from Lambda Legal had contacted him or the business' owner, he said, and the group that included the complainant had, in fact, thanked him for handling the problem immediately and decisively.
Elhoda claims that Gray's table had issues with their serve from the moment the group arrived at the bar on a busy night. He says that after they weren't served quickly enough, the patrons began to harass the server calling her names like "bitch." In Gray's complaint she says she went to the bar to complain and order drinks and Elhoda confirmed that she had, but added that he gave the group of nine free drinks to make up for the delay.
Gray's complaint says that the server only came to the table once to deliver a hookah that had been ordered and Elhoda also confirmed that detail. However, he says that while the server opened the group's tab and handled the charges, he personally waited on the group to ensure that they would be happy with their service. He also gave the patrons more free drinks to apologize again.
Gray's party continued to enjoy their evening and racked up a $152 bill for alcohol and hookah service. Before the bill was presented, Elhoda says, they were demanding a significant discount even though he had gone out of his way to accommodate them and apologize for the slow service.
"The customer is always right," Elhoda said. "I wanted to make them happy. Our customers keep us in business, but I couldn't just give them everything for free. I'd already given them a discount plus free shots."
Once the bill was delivered and the slur was discovered, Elhoda says some members of the group, angry over the slur, came behind the bar to attack the server. Elhoda intervened, found out what the server had done, and fired her on the spot in front of the entire restaurant. He says he then reprinted a new ticket without the slur to show them that he had comped the entire bill.
"When my friends and I saw the receipt, we were humiliated and embarrassed," Gray said. "We went in planning to enjoy Bistro 18 just like everyone else in the hookah bar that evening, but it turned into a disturbing experience. I am standing up for my friends and me because I don't think anyone should have to go through that."
As the server left the bar area, Elhoda claims, some women with the party again started to attack the server calling her names like "bitch" and "slut." Security had to be called and the groups were separated. Security escorted the server off the premises and Elhoda, mortified over the server's actions, again gave the group a free round of drinks.
"They thanked me for handling the situation," Elhoda said. "They were happy when they left. They've come back since. I gave them drinks again because I remembered them and it was embarrassing to me as the manager."
Lambda's Followers Express Outrage
Responding to the torrent of withering criticism on their Facebook page, the bar posted a message yesterday to give their side of the story.
"The management at Bistro18 took extreme and immediate measures in dealing with the situation. The employee was fired that night and Ms Gray received an apology from the employee and the management as well as her check was waived to express the apology," they wrote. "Bistro18 does not and will not tolerate any discrimination in the business as it has been hosting customers and employing regardless to race, color, gender, sexual orientation, and national of origin."
Zakaria Ibrahim, a legal consultant for the bar, also expressed the establishments bewilderment at Gray's filing in an exclusive interview with Bilerico.
"We are all human beings. We can choose what we want to do in our lives. Everyone has their own thing. We have that right," he said. "We serve the public. It doesn't make a difference who you are or what you do. Everyone is welcome. Why would we turn away customers? We need all our clients to sit in the same atmosphere."
"It was one bad server. I'm Iraqi but that doesn't mean I'm Saddam Hussein or think like he did. Don't judge us by one person's actions."
Ibrahim's plea for understanding and the bar's actual pro-LGBT stance hasn't slowed Lambda Legal's online followers one whit as they continue to leave sexist and xenophobic comments on the bar's social media pages.
"Try the Sharia Law Special; it's prepared 100% in-the-closet by the dedicated closet-case, sloppy bigots who work there," wrote Jennifer S. from Sunnydale, California on Yelp over a copy of Lambda's graphic.
"Homophobic hater bitches," Yelp user Michael W from Pacifica, California wrote.
"Disgusting in every aspect. One star is too kind," wrote Shane Fischetti of Lakeland, Florida on the company's Facebook page while Brittney Bowman of Georgia said, "Just shut down the whole restaurant. Burn it to the ground for all I care."
All four gave the establishment a one-star review based solely on Lambda Legal's social media campaign.
What Is Lambda's Legal Responsibility?
Even after being told how the restaurant handled the situation, Lambda isn't backing down from the campaign. Instead the organization has dug in its heels.
"A night out with friends ought not to end with staff delivering written slurs or obscenities to your table. The proof was there in black and white, and if the establishment has fired someone over it, it sounds like they have acknowledged the offense," Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenburg told Bilerico in an emailed statement.
"We invited people to tell Bistro 18 the conduct of their employee, detailed in the complaint, violates the law. We in no way invited a free-for-all. Often businesses aren't held accountable for these kinds of incidents, which we know happen every day - just not always captured in writing. That's why there are processes for complaints like this one, to make sure discrimination is addressed. The point is to make sure the community knows their rights to address grievances. Businesses need to know the law."
Gorenburg seems to be splitting hairs, however, by claiming that they didn't invite a "free-for-all." Anyone who has used the internet in the past few years - let alone an LGBT advocacy group that regularly uses social media as part of their communications strategy - knows what will happen when a business is accused of misdeeds.
One only needs to look at Stolichnaya vodka for a recent example of LGBT activists swinging into outrage mode before doublechecking the facts. When Russia's persecution of LGBT people was a hot topic before the Winter Olympics, many leading activists called for a boycott of the alcohol company - despite their record as LGBT allies. The campaign came under fire from mainstream media and some LGBT activists who pointed out that Stoli isn't manufactured in Russia and the owner has been feuding for years with the Russian government.
None of that mattered to the gung-ho activists though who only cared that Stoli had a Russian name and was an easy target for public outrage. The alcohol was made with some ingredients from Russia, they stated - as if that tied a vodka company to decisions made by the Russian government.
Other activists tried the same method of deflecting responsibility that Gorenburg attempted. The boycott target was all Russian vodka, they said. How could they be held responsible for Stoli's targeting - even though they were busy producing Facebook graphics featuring the company, pouring that specific brand of alcohol in the gutter in front of the media, and generating as much negative publicity possible for Stoli?
A large company like Stoli can handle the internet outrage machine much easier than a lone small bar. The lowered ratings, poor reviews, and negative publicity can kill a place like Bistro 18 - putting several LGBT employees in the unemployment line and permanently damaging the owner and staff's reputation.
While the internet will always be the breeding ground for hoaxes and false stories spread maliciously, LGBT community organizations shouldn't get mired in petty games like Lambda's assault on a small locally owned business. As many in our community are pointing out the dangers of cyber-bullying on LGBT people, Lambda is engaging in the same malicious behavior.
Lambda is urging their followers to damage the reputation of a company that is recognized as an LGBT-friendly spot and hasn't been proven guilty of any wrongdoing. Even worse, their excuses for doing so reek of self indulgence and simply parrot a five-year-old's favorite form of absolution: "Not me." Shouldn't one of the most prominent LGBT organizations in the country have a higher standard?
After all, that's not an excuse they're willing to accept from the bar.