The community confronts racial discrimination in the LGBTQ scene
Each Sunday, a segment of the community gathers in a building for fellowship. In this space, the deacons are dancers, tithes are tips and the head of service is hostess Anisa Love, a veteran drag queen of color in the city.
“People don't realize the effect of having ‘Church' every Sunday night,” said Love, who has been running the event, now held at Axis, for nearly 14 years. “It doesn't matter what color you are [and] it doesn't matter what gender you associate yourself as. … It's a place for everyone to love each other and be who they want to be.”
So it's ironic that an incident at “Sunday Church” triggered a heated debate about racism within the Columbus LGBTQ community.
On Sunday, Jan. 1, the first time Love took a night off from “Sunday Church” and hired a replacement, a fight involving people of color broke out in the club. “The consensus that I heard was it was just drunk people being drunk,” Love said. “The staff took the incident and squashed it and it was done.”
But the next morning, Stawn Kaufman, a white, well-known figure in the LGBTQ community, posted a since-deleted, racially charged status update on Facebook that quickly went viral.
“Name-calling and bickering across the internet” ensued, according to Love. Many defended Kaufman's statements.
“These are prominent people who go to these bars … saying, ‘I stand with Stawn,'” said Kevin Williams, who frequents Axis. “As a gay person, it made me feel uncomfortable.”
“Our gay community is not very big,” Williams continued. “We have a lot of gay spaces, but chances are one person knows the other. So it's like, ‘Who else is running in these circles with these racist people? … This bartender who is serving me, does he have these views? … Are [the patrons] judging me because I'm black?'”
“My intent was to express my frustration and ignite a conversation about violence in LGBTQ venues,” Kaufman said in an online chat with Alive. “I went about it entirely wrong, and the words I used misrepresented my core beliefs. What I said hurt some of my dearest friends, and I've never been more sorry.”
But Kaufman's post dredged up questions about race relations that remain unresolved, even following a community meeting with Axis and Union Cafe owner Rajesh Lahoti and an attempted boycott that took place earlier this year. And with the unity-based Columbus Pride festivities approaching, people of color are grappling with incidents of indirect, subtle discrimination known as micro-aggressions in LGBTQ clubs and bars in the Short North and beyond, and also expressing a need for black-owned and black-curated safe spaces.
An April article on the news and culture site Vice titled “Gay bars can be mind-bogglingly racist” compiled national incidents of racism in LGBTQ clubs during the past year. For example, in November 2016, X Bar in Denver was called out for a display showing a bloody Mexican climbing over a wall. In an e-mail that leaked in January 2017, the owner of Washington, D.C. bar JR's requested that a graphic designer replace an image of an African-American model with a “hot white guy.” In April, New York City's Rebar was accused of denying entry to people of color, and West Hollywood's Catch restaurant attempted to deny entry to a trans woman of color, even though she had a reservation.
One of the most widely reported stories centered on Philadelphia bar ICandy. In September 2016, a video surfaced of the owner referring to black male patrons by a racial slur. As a result of that incident and others reported in the city, Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations ordered the staff and owners of 11 gay bars and clubs to undergo anti-racism training, according to February 2017 reports.
Columbus is not exempt from the nationwide issue of discrimination within the LGBTQ club scene, residents say. And the problem has been going on for years, according to Cameron Scott, who remembers having troubling experiences in the early 2000s at Union Cafe in its previous location at 630 N. High St.
“I actually got into a fistfight with a bartender a long time ago because he called my friend a nigger,” Scott said.
“There was a moment where the gay community in Columbus was very inclusive,” Scott continued, citing a peaceful period from about 2005 up until last year, not coincidentally around the recent presidential election. “With all the stuff that was going on last year, it seemed like I started [experiencing] more and more micro-aggressions.”
“As someone who has organized in diverse spaces and dated black and brown men, I can say most queer men of color do not feel welcome in Columbus' ‘mainstream' gay bars,” said former resident Zach Reau, who served as community engagement manager for Equitas Health before relocating to Washington, D.C. earlier this year, in addition to founding Queer Behavior, a volunteer-led group dedicated to building a local queer community by creating spaces where “people could feel comfortable and get to know one another,” as he explained in a previous interview with Alive. “But the real challenge is that so many gay folks who patronize the bars don't see the issue because they literally don't see black people. The city is so segregated racially, including in the gay community, that few have relationships with people of color. The trenches are deep.”
Scott and others in the black LGBTQ community say they run into problematic white gay men in clubs throughout the city, but particularly in the Short North at Axis, Union and Level Dining Lounge. Axis and Union founder and CEO Rajesh Lahoti provided a statement to Alive, which we've run in its entirety, unedited. Level owner Andre “Previn” Wyatt did not respond when contacted by Alive.
Kevin Williams said one of the few times he's been called “nigger” was in Axis in 2015, when he and his friend were approached by a white male patron. “He says, ‘Oh, I didn't see you with your nigger friend,'” Williams said. “Ironically, I got called the n-word again while walking home [near OSU]. … One of the students just decided to scream it out the window.”
Williams also recounted an experience with an older white gay man at Union last winter. “He goes on this weird tangent about the ‘illegals' and being a pro-Trump supporter,” Williams said. Then, in the next breath, the man made a sexually aggressive comment about black male genitalia.
“I just walked away. There's not much you can always say in those spaces,” he continued. “Sometimes people's identity as a white person will win over [their] identity as a gay person. Sometimes it comes out in real ugly ways, at least around here.”
“I think the challenge for my black and brown friends in Columbus is that they are always black first and queer second, because that's how the city treats them,” Reau said. “In the one community where they could feel total acceptance and support … they're further marginalized.”
Williams and others also said it's common for black men to be sexually objectified in LGBTQ spaces, and black women say they are singled out, as well.
“[They] react as though they are entitled to your body and you should not feel any type of way about it because, ‘Hey, I'm gay. I don't want you anyway; I just really like your boobs and it's OK for me to touch them,'” said Tiffani Smith, a gay woman of color. “They don't respect black bodies.”
“I used to love going to karaoke [at Level] on Sunday nights, and then I stopped going because every time I would get on the microphone, there would be people grabbing me,” said Izetta Thomas, a bisexual woman of color. “It's always white folks.”
Patrons of color have also complained about having their hair touched, being asked if they sell drugs and facing other stereotypical comments. Some also mentioned a tendency to receive slower service and to be carded more frequently than their white counterparts.
And sometimes staff and bar-goers can paint people of color as perpetrators when they feel like victims, at least according to Wriply Bennet, a trans woman of color who says she was attacked at O'Connors Club 20 in the Old North in October 2016.
“The [karaoke DJ] started saying some very transphobic things,” Bennet said. “As I confronted him, a whole crowd of gay white men came up and started hitting me and hissing at me and spitting at me. But when the police were called and when it came time for the club to hold some responsibility, they blamed me.”
Club 20 Owner Jeff O'Connor wasn't present at the time, but said he watched surveillance footage of the fight, describing Bennet as the aggressor. O'Connor said he deleted the video after sharing it with police. Columbus Police have no record of receiving the video.
Stawn Kaufman's comments following the fight at Axis brought discussion surrounding racially charged incidents to the forefront of the LGBTQ community and proved to be a catalyst for action. Club-goer Tylon Fuller organized a boycott of Axis, Union and Level, though he eventually took some focus off of Level.
“I don't think they're completely innocent, but I think Level has made more strides to be inclusive,” said Fuller, citing the club's black staff members and its weekly hip-hop night.
Fuller also organized a meeting with Axis and Union owner Rajesh Lahoti on January 12 at Stonewall Columbus. Along with Cameron Scott and another community member, Fuller says he told Lahoti his businesses were “supporting racist culture.”
Fuller says presented Lahoti with five demands: hire people of color in bartending roles; recruit main-stage entertainment of color; facilitate cultural competency training for the staff; raise funds for a local black organization or allow them to have an event in the space; and make a public statement regarding the fallout surrounding Kaufman's social media commentary.
Though Fuller said the subsequent boycott created awareness around the issue of racial inequity in Columbus' LQBTQ bar scene, it didn't gain enough participation to be successful.
“As black gay men in the city, we don't have that many options of places to go that offer [a] quality [night out],” Fuller said.
“I also think that there is a community of black people who might identify as black but might be immersed in white culture, and so I think they can't recognize [the racism],” he continued. “If you are the only black person in your group, you're not really going to understand what we're saying because what we're talking about happens to groups of black people.”
Years ago, there was an abundance of black-owned or otherwise safe spaces for the black LGBTQ community, according to Cameron Scott. He remembers going to a bar called Touch, currently Three Sheets in the Brewery District, and Paradise, which was in the basement of what is now Copious Downtown, and hip-hop night on Thursdays at the now-closed Wall Street Nightclub. For a short time, the black-owned gay bar Fuel served a diverse South Side clientele, closing in 2013. There were also parties in buildings that have since been co-opted.
“That has to do with gentrification,” Scott said. “It's the cost of these buildings. It costs more to rent them [and] it costs more to buy them, so with that it's kind of pushed the gay black community out of places. … In Olde Towne East there was always an after-hour [party] in a building somewhere that somebody's uncle owned.”
“Black queers remain isolated and build their own communities in backyards and living rooms,” said Zach Reau. “They're strong networks, but it also prevents them from accessing the strength and resources of the … LGBTQ community at-large in Columbus.”
There are some options today, such as the black-owned Traxx Columbus, which began as a weekly event at Outland in the Brewery District in 2010. It has since transitioned to a monthly event at XO Nightclub. In fact, owner Brandon Chapman had taken a break from hosting the functions but was spurred back into action following the incident at Axis.
“I understood I could not tell people not to patronize and not provide something for them,” Chapman said.
Hamadi Rose's monthly BLVCK ICE event moved from MINT Collective at 42 W. Jenkins Ave. to the Summit when the former South Side space closed, but both Chapman and Rose have faced challenges finding locations — “I'm not doing a Pride event [this year] because of venue issues,” Rose said — and have found more success partnering with traditionally “straight” clubs than gay establishments.
“The majority of the gay clubs are white, and they are very protective of their demographic and who they serve,” Chapman said.
In addition to seeking and creating more spaces owned and operated by people of color, engaging in open dialogue may be another positive action step in the face of racism, though some have expressed fears of backlash and getting blackballed by potential employers.
“People haven't reached out to us to necessarily help them address [this issue],” said Program and Pride Coordinator Lori Gum of Stonewall Columbus, which provides services for the Central Ohio LGBTQ community. Gum said Stonewall was aware of the meeting between Fuller and Lahoti but was not asked to participate.
Gum mentioned Stonewall Columbus will be moving to a larger community center next year, which would help it provide more safe spaces for people of color.
“We will continue to be a resource for this community, particularly in facilitating dialogue and conversation about this,” Gum said. “We have a very close relationship with most of the club owners in town and we could easily help do that.”
“I think it's a conversation that we all need to have,” said Anisa Love, who was careful to say she never experienced racism at Axis or Union. “As a community, I think we should talk more. I think we should all love each other more.”