Gay bars have always been sites of danger, Terrorists and gay bashers have long used gay bars to find LGBTQ people- only last weekend, my boyfriend and I had “faggots” shouted at us from a speeding car outside a Columbus, Ohio gay bar. The massacre at Pulse’s nightclub is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, but it is not an aberration: the crime blotters of the gay press have always been punctuated by attacks on patrons at gay bars. In 2013, nine gay men were assaulted during a four-month period outside Cocktails Cleveland. In 2009, three cousins stormed Robert’s Lafitte in Galveston with rocks and chunks of concrete, sending two men to the hospital. Lance Neve was beaten unconscious in 2008 outside Snuggery’s Bar in Spencerport, New York by Jesse D. Parsons. Former Army Seargeant Tony Hunter was beaten to death in 2008 outside Be Bar in Washington, D. C. by Robert Hannah. Activist Nathan Runkle was severely beaten outside Dayton’s Masque in 2008. Sean William Kenney was beaten to death in 2007 outside Brew’s Bar in Greenville, South Carolina by Stephen Andrew Moller. Recording artist Kevin Aviance was severely beaten by four men in 2006 after leaving a bar in NYC’s East Village. And these are just the assaults at gay bars that made mainstream news headlines.
Attacks on gay bars include several mass shootings. Dwone Anderson-Young and Ahmed Said were shot to death outside Seattle’s R Place in 2014 by Ali Muhammad Brown. Eleven men were shot from a car outside San Francisco bars by three cousins with a BB gun in 2009.[xii] Danny Lee Overstreet was killed and six others wounded at Roanoake, Virginia’s Backstreet Café by Ronald Edward Gay in 2000.[xiii] Three patrons of Puzzles Lounge in New Bedford, Massachussets were shot by Jacob Robida in 2006 after he received confirmation from the bartender that he had found the town’s gay bar. Two patrons outside Minneapolis’ Gay 90’s were shot in 2010.[xiv] And more than 15 Black transgender women were killed in Atlanta during a 9-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s after leaving gay bars or clubs, cases that went unsolved.
It wasn’t so long ago that police were as likely to be agents of political terror in gay bars as public servants and protectors. As a New York Times Reporter lamented as early as 1967, the political terrorism of LGBTQ people at gay bars was only recently part of mainstream American culture:
Teen culture back in my Illinois home town during World War II had a simple way of dealing with homosexuals. Our high-school football heroes beat them up. Just for the hell of it. Horsing around outside a Nash showroom recommissioned [for homosexuals] as the Idle Hour, one of our beefy tackles would wait to be picked up by a G.I. He would lead his victim down the alley toward the Knights of Pythias park. Then, wham! The rest of the squad would lay the poor soldier out, perhaps relieve him of his watch, hop into a Model A… It got so bad Scott Field had to station M.P.’s outside the tavern like doormen.[i]
If police are today expected to serve and protect patrons of gay bars, there is a steady stream of gay bashers and terrorists from whom they need protection. For those who wish to do harm, or to send a political message, gay bars have proved a ready target.
Matthew Shepard’s attackers met him in Laramie’s Fireside Lounge[ii] before killing him, shocking the nation and ultimately spurring passage of the first Federal Hate Crimes Act to cover sexual orientation. Next to the Stonewall Inn itself, the Fireside Lounge may be the most reproduced real-world gay bars in artistic representations, through its depiction in the award winning play The Laramie Project and the Emmy-winning movie starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston.
Gay bashers have also used gay bars to locate targets, sometimes nakedly professing anti-gay prejudice as the motivation for their crimes.[iii] From 2015-2016, dozens of gay men were assaulted in Dallas’ gay bar district. A New York Times reporter attributed a string of hate crime assaults in Greenwich Village in 2013 to the collision of different worlds:
There is the world of gay men and lesbians and the bars they go to. And there is the world of heterosexuals and the bars they go to. Those last two worlds collided in these attacks, culminating when Elliot Morales shot and killed Mark Carson.[iv]
The influx of heterosexual “tech bros” into Seattle’s gay neighborhood was similarly cited in a string of hate crimes in 2014-2016. A man threatened to kill the lesbian bouncer at R Place, the same bar where a patron was the victim of racist and homophobic hate speech this year[v], Three gay men were threatened with a knife while walking between gay bars in Capitol Hill by Troy Deacon Burns, who shouted homophobic slurs. [vi] In 2014 and again in 2015 arsonists firebombed Neighbours nightclub. The second attack is still unsolved despite security camera footage of the suspect (see Figure 3).[vii]
Seattle’s Neighbours had been firebombed only one year earlier by Musab Masmari during a New Year’s Party while 700 patrons were in attendance. He was apprehended at the airport where he had purchased a one-way ticket to Turkey;
“Surveillance video showed Masmari entering a bar linked to Neighbours by an interior door carrying a one-gallon gas can in a bag. Masmari headed straight into Neighbours, set the fire and then fled through the bar.”[ix]
The bar’s own statement the day after the attack credited patrons, U.S. service members Christopher Bostick and Mike Casey, and bartender Lucas Shipley for putting out the fire with an extinguisher and pulling the fire alarm.[x] Neighbors had previously been the target of neo-nazi and white-supremecist bombing plots in 1990; the oldest gay bar in gay neighborhood Capitol Hill, the Elite Tavern, had been firebombed by such groups in 1993.[xi]
Arson and even bombings have long been a risk in owning or patronizing gay bars. Although many press reports have described New Orleans UpStairs Lounge arson as a hate crime (until yesterday, the deadliest attack on a gay bar) it is likely that it was part of another tradition of violence in gay bars: violence committed within the community.
The Admiral Duncan bar in the London gay neighborhood Soho was nailbombed in 1999 by neo-Nazi David Copeland as part of a campaign of terror.[xv] Three were killed and 70 injured by the bomb packed with nails that detonated at 6:30pm at a crowded bar at the start of a holiday weekend. It was linked to two other bombings that targeted racial and ethnic minorities. Sir Peter Tatchell described the street of 7 gay bars in terms of terror:
“A lot of gay people saw the Old Compston Street area as being a safe haven. They felt able to relax and hold hands without fear of attack. This outrage has destroyed that cozy assumption. There are no safe and secure neighborhoods for homosexuals and that we are still vulnerable to violent attack.”[xvi]
Compounding the tragedy, David Morley, one of the bar employees who survived the attack was later murdered by a group of youths in a homophobic attack while walking between two gay clubs in London.[xvii]
Atlanta’s Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar with a significant African American patronage, was bombed in 1996 by Eric Rudolph, injuring five. Better known as the Atlanta Olympics bomber, his campaign of terror on behalf of the “Army of God” also included bombing an abortion clinic, and secondary bombs designed to injure first responders. Memrie Well-Cresswell, attending the bar to celebrate the birthday of a friend, was the most seriously injured. Outed by the mayor in a press conference about the attack, Cresswell was fired from her real estate company while still in the hospital. As Atlantan John Michaelsen remembered the incident, it affected all LGBTQ people, making going out a source of defiance and solidarity:
Though the bar wasn’t one I frequented, I still felt an immediate kinship, as most gays and lesbians in the city, indeed the country, who sympathized for the victims, their lovers, and their families. After all, we were all ‘family…’ I was afraid, nervous every night I ventured out to the bars, the dance clubs, my favorite haunts, fearful this night might be the next time a bomb exploded, or when fire ripped through a club I was dancing in. Yes, gays and lesbians at the time were all scared, but we put on our brave faces and in that fuzzy space of the unknown, we found our strength and courage in numbers.”[xviii]
The bar never reopened after sustaining a reported $700,000 in damages from the terrorist attack, one now included in FBI training materials alongside attacks by Al Qaeda.[xix]
Journalists and politicians often don’t name such attacks as terrorism, struggling to connect the two. News that accused Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam was a patron of a Brussels gay bar sparked confusion that someone could possibly be terrorist, Muslim, and queer. After the sea-change in US popular attitudes towards LGBTQ citizens in the 2010s, attacks like yesterday’s on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub are increasingly seen as attacks on everyone, not just on gays, as evidenced by coverage in the populist New York Post:
Despite the outpouring of thoughts and prayers for the victims of the Orlando LGBTQ massacre, there is little political support for an assault weapons ban. Instead, 2016 has seen more than 200 bills to curtail LGBTQ civil rights. Just as when police in gay bars were routine agents of political repression, the line between terrorism and everyday politics is blurry, disputed, and shifting.
[i] Schott, Webster. 1967. “.” The New York Times, Nov. 12, pp. 2-71-2-85.
[ii] The motives of the attack and whether the Fireside was a “gay bar” are disputed, but the attack has entered gay lore as an iconic example of the dangers facing young gay men. See, e.g.: Spottiswoode, Roger. 2002. The Matthew Shepard Story. 1 hr 28 min. Needham, MA: Echo Bridge Entertainment. Jimenez, Stephen. 2013. The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.
[iii] Williams, Joseph R. 2014-15. “‘I Don’t Like Gays, Okay?’ Use of the ‘Gay Panic’ Defense in Modern American Courtrooms: The Ultimate Miscarriage of Justice.” Albany Law Review 78, pp. 1129-1169
[iv] Barron, James. 2013. “Charges Filed in Killing of Gay Man in Greenwich Village.” The New York Times, May 13, accessed Jun. 10, 2016.
[v] Pulkkinen, Lee. 2014. “Man Charged in Threats at Seattle Gay Bar.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer Dec. 2, accessed May 29, 2016.
Spangenthal-Lee, Jonah. 2015. “Officers Arrest Two For Homophobic, Racist Threats Outside Capitol Hill Gay Bar.” SPD Blotter, Jun. 22, accessed May 29, 2016.
[vi] Clarridge, Christine. 2015. “Guilty Plea in Knife Attack Against Gay Men on Capitol Hill.” Seattle Times, Aug. 7, accessed June 4, 2016.
[vii] Spangenthal-Lee, Jonah. 2015. “Update: Detectives Seek Person of Interest in Nightclub Arson,” Aug. 8. SPD Blotter, accessed June 4, 2016.
[ix] Pulkkinen, Levi. 2014. “10 Years in Prison for Seattle Gay Club Arsonist.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jul. 31, accessed May 29, 2016.
[x] Neighbours Seattle. 2014. “Neighbours Seattle official statement,” Facebook, Jan. 2, accessed June 4, 2016.
[xi] Hatch, Walter, Charles E. Brown, and Dee Norton. 1990. “Neo-Nazi Plot Aimed At Gay Bar, FBI Says.” The Seattle Times, May 15, accessed June 4, 2016.
Associated Press. 1994. “Tacoma Man Sentenced in Gay-Bar Bombing.” The Seattle Times Sept. 29, accessed June 4, 2016.
[xii] Kurhi, Eric. 2010. “Hayward Men Get Six Months for BB Gun Hate-Crime Shooting.” Oakland Tribune, Apr. 22, accessed June 10, 2016.
[xiii] Breaux, Kia Shant’e. 2000. “A Rampage in Roanoke.” The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, VA., Sept. 24, p 1, accessed Jun. 9, 2016.
[xiv] Bolcer, Julie. 2010. “Two Shot Near Minneapolis Gay Bar.” Advocate, May 21, accessed Jun. 10, 2016.
[xix] Houghton, Brian K. and Jonathan M. Schacheter. 2005. “Coordinated Terrorist Attacks: Implications for Local Responders.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 74:5, pp. 11-17.