Inside the Race-Filled Controversy of a New York City Gay Bar’s Opening Weekend
Racial discrimination in nightlife is nothing new. My first experience with it happened when I requested a song called the “Biker’s Shuffle” at a bar in my hometown as a teen. Denied, I asked for a few Beyoncé songs to no avail. “The owners won’t let me play that kind of music,” the DJ told me over the din of some Top 40 hit. “They don’t want an urban crowd.”
It was only the first of many microaggressions in queer nightlife I would experience as a black man, but it was in no way an experience exclusive to myself.
On April 13, REBAR, a new gay bar in Chelsea, opened its doors. The space had been gutted and reworked after G Lounge — the gay bar that had been there previously — closed at the end of 2016. But after a series of events during REBAR’s opening weekend, the bar has been caught up in a whirlwind of racially charged controversy on social media, to which their response has been tepid at best.
According to allegations from multiple users on Facebook, REBAR staff enacted a policy of “black capacity.” In short, hopeful patrons of the bar who happened to be men of color were denied entry under the claim that the space was filled when it was not. They haven’t been the first to do so — not by a long shot. But for such a new venue, it was surprising.
In one Google review, a patron tells the story of a party of 30 being denied entry because of the spot’s apparent popularity. “My boyfriend had a friend that was working the door, and he allowed 3 of us in the bar,” the review reads. “To our surprise, the club was nowhere near capacity. It was full of Caucasian patrons and maybe 5 African-Americans. After realizing that they were only allowing Caucasians in, we left.”
Another Google review alleges a similar story by a party of three. Possibly most explosive was Ian Alexis’s account, posted to Facebook, which calls for a boycott of the space.
In the comments to Alexis’s post, friends point out that this supposed racially charged discrimination was part of a pattern.
“It’s like G lounge all over again. This happened before,” one writes. “They didn’t want an ‘urban’ crowd, but the business started declining. Once they made the crowd more diverse, the business survived a little longer.”
In particular, the comment was referring to a rumored contentious relationship between the owners of G Lounge — who are also said to own the newly opened REBAR — and their clientele, which increasingly became men of color over the years. As this switch began to occur, the bar instituted measures like cover charges and dress codes, banning the wearing of hats and other accessories typically associated with audiences of color, in an attempt to stem the demographic change.
Eventually the owners gave in, and by the time I began to frequent G Lounge — in late 2015 and 2016 — it had become known as a spot for queer men of color and their admirers. Some are speculating that reputation — in part, at least — caused the owners to rebrand the space as REBAR.
As the comments and ratings on Facebook began to stack up, some even pointing out that they thought the club’s ads and marketing materials were “whitewashed,” a self-identified manager of REBAR released a statement to Edugaytion. “We have no statement,” he said. “The situation is not real. We’re not going to give it credence at all.”
The glibness and flippant nature of the response was noted by those following the story. It became a pile-on, with social media users attacking anyone and everyone who supported or worked at REBAR.
Adult film star Boomer Banks found himself in a tangential flurry of messages when he posted about the spot, even though he himself is a person of color. After showing a flood of support for the bar leading up to its opening, Banks took to the bar’s Facebook page to defend it.
“I’m living for all the reviews good and bad!” Banks wrote, dismissing the ongoing accusations. “Some people are up to their old tricks BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH (the boy who cried wolf).”
The next day a Facebook user asked “Do you hate black people?” That set off a drama-filled thread.
While watching the story unfold, Hornet and Unicorn Booty have reached out to REBAR management repeatedly for comment but were told the bar didn’t have one. Eventually the bar released a statement on its Facebook page: “We understand that patrons were made to feel unwelcome during our opening weekend,” they wrote. “That was never our intention.”
According to reports, REBAR management claims the incident was all just a misunderstanding. While their team was working out kinks out its recent opening, it needed to empty the bar to fix “operational and staff issues,” it says. The door team was told to only allow VIP inside, and this created a line wherein guests were told the space was at capacity.
And as for why it took so long to release a statement? “We wanted to have a measured and appropriate response,” the bar’s management told Mic. “We didn’t intend to offend anyone or create bad feelings — but we must acknowledge that it was handled poorly.”
The response that REBAR eventually gave was a boilerplate one. It was a non-apology, offering no explanation, and could be used for any incident. It was not measured, and, it could be argued, was not appropriate either. As a new establishment, in a place that had previously suffered from rumors of discrimination, catering to an audience that itself consistently deals with racial issues, one would expect the venue’s response to be both nuanced and cognizant of context. REBAR’s was not.
To be clear, few will know whether or not Chelsea’s newest club was in fact employing racist tactics. Racism and discrimination are convoluted, nuanced and complex issues. They are understandably contentious, and they can be further complicated when money is involved. But what is and should be clear here is that a dismissive attitude toward any discrimination-based accusation is a fool’s errand. A response showing that a business understands the gravity of the accusations being leveled at it — and then in turn addressing those accusations — is the “measured and appropriate” response for such situations.
While it’s clear that REBAR didn’t provide that in this situation, let’s hope that at least the establishment has learned from the incident.