A group of gay bar owners and LGBTQ+ advocates recently released a joint statement regarding recent “visits,” which they describe as raids, conducted by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board (LCB) at their businesses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The LCB told bar owners on Jan. 26 and 27 that law enforcement observed violations of the law often called the “lewd conduct law,” which requires employees and patrons to clothe specific parts of their bodies.
A coalition of these advocates release a statement on Instagram on Jan. 29 about the raids, including Joey Burgess (The Cuff Complex and Queer/Bar), Keth Christensen (The Seattle Eagle), Kevin Kauer (Massive), Dan Savage (podcast host and author), Terry Miller (founder of the It Gets Better Project alongside his husband, Savage), and Kurt Olivo, and called on advocates to attend an LCB meeting on Jan. 30.
“We are issuing this statement to express our concern over recent events targeting gay men. Specifically, unjust raids were conducted by the Joint Enforcement Team (JET) and the Liquor Control Board at several historic gay bars, by extension threatening all active LGBTQ nightlife venues,” the statement said. “Our coalition consists of establishments that provide safe spaces for diverse and marginalized communities to express themselves through love, music, dance, and art. The recent raids have disrupted these operations and undermined trust and security within our community.”
The statement continued to explain that none of the venues within the coalition have ever previously been cited for alcohol or violent offenses, and at most, citations related to an individual’s clothing, such as “being shirtless or wearing a jockstrap.” Furthermore, raids on LGBTQ+ businesses have historically persecuted marginalized communities in their safe spaces, and the most recent events cause the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and law enforcement to be challenged.
In response, the coalition statement called for an investigation into the LCB raids. “Our coalition remains committed to fostering positive relations with all stakeholders, emphasizing the need for mutual respect and an understanding of the unique challenges faced by gay, and by extension, LGBTQ+ community as a whole,” the statement concluded. “This statement serves as a call for justice, equality, and the protection of the rights and dignity of our community members.”
The coalition, alongside other residents and advocates, attended an LCB meeting on Jan. 30, where members of the community called out the LCB. “These were raids. Stop calling them visits. If everyone in a bar leaves when you show up, 10 of you in uniform with flashlights, they are not experiencing your presence as a social call,” Savage said. “The message sent was if they are raiding gay bars in Seattle, if they are harassing gay men for being shirtless in gay bars in Seattle, we are winning—the bigots are winning.”
According to King5, the LCB also had individuals taking photographs in the bars to obtain evidence of “lewd conduct.” The LCB investigators didn’t make their visit or their identity known to business owners or patrons at the time. “Taking pictures without consent of gay men and then posting those pictures as evidence is immoral,” said an unnamed speaker at the meeting. Savage described the LCB raid as a violation, rather than a “visit,” and explained that the photos are subject to the Public Disclosure laws which means they will be released to the public once the investigation has been completed. “Not all the men who go to the Eagle are out of the closet in all areas of their lives. Men could lose their jobs or homes once these photographs are released,” wrote Miller on Instagram on Jan. 31. “LCB officers knew these photos would become a part of the public record. LCB officers knew each photo they took had the potential to ‘cause harm to the depicted person.’”
At the meeting, LCB Director David Postman stated that the violations were recorded during the usual enforcement duties conducted by LCB officers. Postman also acknowledged the LCB’s history with the LGBTQ+ community in the past, and he and two other board members agreed to prevent incidents like the raids from happening again.
Washington State law, also referred to as the “lewd conduct law,” prohibits such conduct for any business that holds a liquor license, including employees or patrons being unclothed and exposing parts of the body “to view any portion of the breast below the top of the areola or of any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva, or genitals,” among many other examples. King5 wrote that the law was intended to prevent strip clubs from serving alcohol, but Postman commented that changes to the law are being reconsidered in the Washington legislature. “The lewd conduct law, it’s problematic, just talking about my personal point of view here,” Postman said.
However, Postman also added that even if the law is archaic, they must continue to enforce it until changes are made. “When there’s laws on the books, it’s really hard to just say ‘Well, we’ve decided not to enforce that one’—the lawmakers, the legislature doesn’t like that, and for good reason,” said Postman. “I can tell you; there is no crackdown on lewd conduct right now, there is no crackdown on gay clubs, there’s no crackdown on clubs in Seattle or anywhere else. We’re doing our normal business here.”
LCB board member Jim Vollendroff also spoke at the meeting, ensuring members of the LGBTQ+ community that they will seek a way to prevent it from happening in the future. Likewise, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also issued a statement about the LCB inspections, acknowledging community concerns. “Under my administration, we will not target people or communities based on their sexuality,” Harrell said. “We understand concerns raised by the community based on a perception of violating this principle.”
Last year in July, a new cannabis ordinance took effect, which offers labor protections for employees, which “will help provide a stable workplace, stronger workforce, and contribute to a better overall economy for Seattle.”
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