Last month Hornet reported that two New Orleans gay bar mainstays, Phoenix and Rawhide, were cited by the state-run Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC), based in Baton Rouge, ahead of Mardi Gras 2019. At the time, Phoenix owner Clint Taylor believed both his bar and Rawhide were being singled out, and he encouraged patrons to push back against what was potentially anti-gay discrimination, saying “An attack on one of us is an attack on all us.”
Since then, much more information has come to light. No longer does it appear the two New Orleans gay bar venues are being “singled out” — by the city, the state or any state-run organization. Much more disappointing, at least in the case of the Phoenix bar, a fellow gay bar owner is to blame.
We have to commend the reporting of Frank Perez for Ambush magazine, which serves New Orleans‘ LGBTQ community. After thorough investigation, he is now setting the record straight amidst a stack of reported accusations — and what he has uncovered involves not only gay bar-on-gay bar antagonism but gender discrimination in what has long been considered an American city renowned for its tolerance.
For a very detailed recounting of this New Orleans gay bar drama, head here for Perez’s full report. (It begins on page 24 of the issue.)
What happened with New Orleans gay bar Rawhide
On Sept. 6, 2018, an anonymous complaint was filed against New Orleans gay bar Rawhide with the local police department, and that complaint was later referred to the ATC. Perez obtained the text of the complaint through a public records request:
This establishment allows lewd public sex acts, including oral, anal, group sex and masturbation in clear view of patrons. There is also a room in the back of the bar in which people engage in obscene and lewd sex acts. Male prostitutes solicit (including those that may be minors). Drugs are rampant. Wed, Fri and Sat after 9pm are best times to view.
An undercover investigation by the ATC then commenced. An underage operative was allowed to purchase a beer at the bar, and oral and anal sex and masturbation taking place inside the bar was captured on hidden camera.
After an administrative hearing, Rawhide was cited for showing pornography inside the bar, for sexual activity taking place on the premises and for serving a minor. Rawhide was also fined $6,750, was forced to close for one week, and was placed on a 60-day probation.
Because this serious complaint against Rawhide was anonymous, it’s unknown who filed it, but Perez’s investigative report for Ambush does some digging about who could be responsible. It’s now believed the complaint is connected to incidents that took place during Southern Decadence 2018, an annual LGBTQ event held in New Orleans over Labor Day weekend.
Early Sunday morning, an unidentified woman was allegedly turned away from entering Rawhide by the bar’s management, after which she “[caused] a minor scene” and shouted “I will call and have this place shut down.” Later in the day on Sunday, local leather organization Crescent City Leathermen staged a leather and kink demonstration inside Rawhide. It’s alleged that three unidentified women attempted to enter that event and were refused entry due to their gender as well. One of the women claims they were told, “Well, it’s Southern Decadence” as the excuse for the denial of entry.
It’s unlawful discrimination for a bar to deny entry to anyone based on their gender, and if Rawhide did indeed do so, that is illegal. But that behavior does not justify the spiteful filing of a complaint against Rawhide alleging fabricated claims of prostitution and drug use, both of which were not found by the ATC during its investigation. To be clear, though, the identity of the person who filed the complaint — whether one of the women denied entry to Rawhide or otherwise — remains unknown.
As for the other New Orleans gay bar, Phoenix, that underwent an investigation by the ATC, we do know who is responsible. An ATC deputy commissioner has identified the complainant as “the ownership of Rawhide,” which complained that Rawhide was suffering and losing business to Phoenix following its own investigation, citations and weeklong closure.
Here’s where things get really disappointing.
What happened with New Orleans gay bar Phoenix
On Dec. 4, 2018 — 15 days before Rawhide’s administrative hearing — a complaint was filed with the ATC against Phoenix, requesting an investigation into the New Orleans gay bar. The complaint alleged “lewd and improper conduct [that] occurs on a regular basis,” sexual acts taking place in upstairs bar The Eagle and in the bathroom, gay porn broadcast in the bar and “all you can drink” beer past the 10 p.m. curfew for such drink specials.
While the complaint was redacted by the ATC to exclude the complaint filer’s identity, we now know Rawhide owner Tom Wood has taken credit for it. Here’s part of that complaint:
[Redacted] result, its business is significantly depressed, and its customers have started frequenting its main competitor, The Phoenix Bar. I ask that this investigation take place so that all ‘leather’ bars operate within the same parameters. If you have any questions concerning the foregoing, please do not hesitate to contact me. Very truly yours, [name and signature redacted]
After receiving that complaint, the ATC conducted an undercover investigation of Phoenix, as it had done with Rawhide. And as with Rawhide, the ATC uncovered pornography being shown and sex acts taking place inside the bar, both of which were documented in undercover video footage. Phoenix was cited for those things as well as for selling alcohol to a minor.
But according to Phoenix owner Clint Taylor, his bar faced many other complaints filed with various government organizations in addition to Wood’s original complaint with the ATC. In December through March, the New Orleans Police Department received a call that the bar was showing pornography. (Instead the police found a football game on TV.) In February, the fire marshal showed up when it received a complaint that a patron “feared for his life” because there was no emergency exit upstairs. That same February day, Louisiana State Police Video Gaming officials showed up after they were told Phoenix didn’t have a “No minors allowed” sign posted. Later in February, the Fire Department showed up after a call saying there were no fire extinguishers in the bar, and the office of Building and Permits showed up following a call alleging smoking inside the bar. (Most if not all of these ‘anonymous tips’ resulted in no action being taken against Phoenix.)
Was Rawhide owner Tom Wood responsible for the entire slew of complaints lodged against New Orleans gay bar Phoenix? We can’t be sure. But what’s almost certain is the complaints were made by someone with knowledge of the local laws regarding New Orleans gay bar ownership.
Tom Wood has admitted to the initial complaint against Phoenix. “When I realized they [the ATC] were giving the green light for the Phoenix to take our business and my employees’ jobs, I cried foul,” Wood said to Ambush in a statement. “I am responsible for the employment of almost 100 people and will always do what’s best to protect them as we have almost five decades.”
Phoenix owner Clint Taylor has taken to his bar’s Facebook page following Perez’s article, thanking the community for its continued support, and responding to Wood’s admission that he was behind the ATC’s investigation of Phoenix:
While the Ambush story cites a redacted report, we knew early in the process that the complaint came from Tom Wood. We were and are disgusted. There are enough arrows pointed toward our community in the form of bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, and legislated, legalized hate, that for this to come from within our own circle is beyond disheartening. It’s gutting.
We have long held the belief that the queer spaces of Phoenix and Rawhide are an integral part of New Orleans’ unique LGBTQ+ fabric. And yes, our spaces have changed. Mr. Perez said in the article, “the truly sad fact is those losses appear to have come at the hands of members of our own community.”
Perez is absolutely correct. That is a “truly sad fact.”
In a time when LGBTQ spaces, particularly gay bars and nightclubs, are closing their doors around the world in record numbers, it’s particularly unfortunate that the drama unfolding around these two New Orleans gay bar strongholds has been in part spurred from within our own community. And just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
As a community we must do better to ensure our dedicated spaces’ survival — for future generations to enjoy and also to act as landmarks of our seemingly never ending struggle for cultural acceptance.