“The Wrong Place for the Right People.”
In 1938, Café Society opened its doors at 1 Sheridan Square in Manhattan’s West Village for the first time, taking its rightful place in history. Billed as “the wrong place for the right people,” it was the first completely desegregated nightclub in the United States. Barney Josephson, the owner, envisioned “a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front...there wasn't, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.”
Eighty years later and a block away, New York drag legend Honey Davenport took the stage at Monster Bar on Christopher Street. Nothing seemed amiss at first when she engaged the audience: “Each and every Saturday, I close out the motherfucking show, so are y’all ready for me to give you a number tonight?” The audience cheered as the queen’s voice grew. “Are y’all ready to see me perform tonight?” More cheers.
Then the mood suddenly shifted. Davenport’s voice grew hushed:
Davenport’s voice began to break:
Davenport was referring to texts from then-General Manager of the Monster, Italo Lopez, criticizing a flier for Davenport’s show that night. The racist undertones of Lopez’s screenshotted texts went viral.
Onstage, Davenport issued a final word before literally dropping the mic: “If you don’t want my people at the party, I won’t be there.”
The crowd chanted her name as she walked off the stage, up the spiral staircase, and out of the Monster—likely for the last time.
“This started because I was hurt,” Davenport says days later as we talk in the basement kitchen of Boxers in Washington Heights. She’s here for Halftime, her Wednesday night gig with co-host Brita Filter. “I’ve been doing drag for ten years now. I’ve had this conversation behind closed doors so many times. It was finally like ‘I’m just going to print these receipts.’”
The incident at the Monster may be the most recent, but it’s far from the first allegation of discrimination in a New York queer bar this year alone. At least two other instances have widely gone public within Manhattan’s queer community, dehumanizing patrons, straining friendships, and turning jobs into labors fraught with ambivalence.
Rose Colored Glasses
Richie Friendly’s stature in Hell’s Kitchen evokes a vast array of reactions among local queer people—few of them neutral. A straight white man who owns four prominent queer spots in the area (two of which tout $4 liquor), his hold on queer nightlife in the area is unignorable. He’s often seen around the neighborhood, checking on his bars, always clad in a faded leather jacket with a bandana over his head.
“I dress like a total fuckin’ Trump supporter,” he says before clarifying that he’s a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Vodka Soda/Bottoms Up, or VSBU as it’s known colloquially, is one of Friendly’s bars. The establishment faced immense backlash from queer New Yorkers when trans drag performer Zarria van Wales Powell was kicked out for allegedly using the establishment’s “free drinks for drag queens” policy to get a drink for a friend on their birthday. Friendly confronted her and the situation escalated until Friendly had her thrown out of the bar, despite her being scheduled to perform at VSBU that night. Powell said something to the effect of “If I was white, that would’ve been okay?”
This is when the two stories diverge.
According to Powell, Friendly responded to her question with “Yup” before calling her the N-word audibly under his breath.
Friendly claims he balked at the statement and left Powell with security.
The next day, Powell recounted the events in a Facebook live video which received thousands of views and compelled many in the community to take a side. Some pledged never to give another dime to VSBU or any of Friendly’s other bars. Drag Race alum Monet X Change supported Powell in a Facebook post, saying “I have personally been victimized by this detritus person, and have heard countless accounts by trustworthy friends of his flagrant disregard for the Gay Community.”
Monet is right about there being other accounts. VSBU’s Facebook and Yelp reviews have a disproportionately higher number of racism allegations than any other prominent queer bar in Hell’s Kitchen—averaging to one allegation every two months. This is excluding the reviews written in response to Friendly’s interaction with Powell, and the allegations span back years before the incident.
Some defended Friendly, citing the diversity of the staff and their experiences there. “It didn’t happen the way Zarria said it did,” one person at the bar that night told me. VSBU put out surveillance footage on its Facebook page that claimed to show Powell giving the drink to her friend. Powell points out that it doesn’t show the confrontation with Friendly and security guards. Some claimed she was lying out of anger for being kicked out.
Friendly put out a statement after the incident saying he regretted the manner in which things unfolded, but that he acted professionally the entire time and that Powell was mistaken if she believed he was a racist or used a slur against her. He later told me:
“Even to this day I still get backlash from people,” Powell tells me in her dressing room before Set it Off Saturdays, her weekly gig at Boxers.
Synonymous with Naughtiness
Though some bar managers see advertisements for a “black night” as bad for business, it was black establishments that historically allowed many white queer New Yorkers to have nights of joy and authenticity unencumbered by threats of raids that threatened queer nightlife downtown.
During the Harlem Renaissance, queer whites flocked uptown to queer establishments like the Clam House and to after-hours rent parties (unauthorized residential parties that charged admission). Though segregated queer spaces in downtown Manhattan were fraught with raids, few reached above 110th street.
Queer historian Lillian Faderman described the scene:
One yearly event—The Faggots’ Ball at Hamilton Lodge—saw the fairies and drag royalty of Harlem emerge for a night of revelry. It was a widely publicized and integrated event, drawing many queer white people to come out for the same sexual colonialism that Faderman describes.
The relationship of whites to Harlem was parasitic at best, with a Cosmopolitan article at the time describing the neighborhood as “synonymous with naughtiness.” However, had it not been for the predominantly black establishments of Harlem, a generation of white queers would’ve found the closet even more suffocating, making it all the more disgraceful that targeted dress codes and similar policies pervading to this day are often designed to keep black patrons at a minimum.
A Smear Campaign
In the days following the events at The Monster, Davenport’s manager Mitch Ferrino posts more screenshots between him and the bar’s owner, Charlie Rice, in which Rice blames Ferrino for the texts going public.
Rice then does an interview with legendary nightlife reporter Michael Musto for NewNowNext, in which he says:
Rice cancels our interview as the situation escalates, but over a phone conversation, he relays similar accusations against Ferrino, including that he’s using Honey Davenport as a pawn.
“This is stacking up against Mitch probably because [Rice] doesn’t think I’m capable. This was all my idea,” Davenport tells me as she leans against the ice chest in the basement of Boxers.
When these allegations arise, bar owners and managers often dismiss the accuser as a disgruntled customer or employee, hell-bent on seeing the doors shuttered. Some owners accuse them of exploiting the growing unease around issues of race in America.
“Everyone uses it,” Friendly tells me outside of VSBU. “You can’t get into the club. ‘They’re racist.’ You can’t do this. ‘You’re racist.’ ‘You’re kicking us out, you’re racist.’”
“I think that’s complete bull crap,” Powell tells me in her dressing room the next night. “Never have I come across anyone saying, ‘okay well you kicked me out because I’m black.’ No. You know who to look at and once they do something that you think could be wrong, you’re just like ‘No, I need you out’ with no explanation. That’s what makes people think ‘You were watching me from the first moment I walked in here.’”
“Vodka Soda/Bottoms Up and the Monster are not addressing this issue and letting it die down,” says Davenport, “To the point that people going through these issues feel like they’re actually crazy.”
Rock and a Hard Place
Over the years, a queer bar can become more of a living room than a business to those who frequent it. The relationships forged over thousands of nights can grow to feel more indestructible than blood relations. When accusations like these arise, those bonds are subsequently tested.
“Those are my friends,” said Davenport. “Those are my family. I feel like what this means for the bartenders there, this is taking bread out of their mouths. For the go-go dancers there...I feel like I’m taking money out of their hands. It’s the most terrible feeling ever, leaving somewhere I consider home.”
“It definitely put a lot of people between a rock and a hard place,” Adriana Trenta tells me at a Starbucks on 125th Street. Zarria van Wales Powell was supposed to perform as a guest at Trenta’s VSBU show the night of the altercation with Friendly. Trenta arrived after the incident and continues to perform at VSBU while remaining close with Powell.
“That is my sister,” says Powell of Trenta.
“It was a lot of private conversations where she and I really had a heart-to-heart moment about how we felt about certain situations and...she knows it was something that was honestly beyond my control,” Trenta tells me.
“I’m not in a fight with Charlie Rice. I’m not in a fight with the Monster. I’m in a fight with the fact that people of color are being treated differently in a queer community,” Davenport says as she takes off her heels.
Each time allegations like these emerge about one of Manhattan’s queer bars, a pattern that infects many issues in American culture seems to form. There are calls for boycotts and beginnings of dialogue that decrescendo into silence, then the silence fades into forgottenness. Many believe people find the road to a solution too winding and treacherous to take a first step. Davenport elaborated on this:
Rebar in Chelsea had a tumultuous opening weekend last year. Fresh off a reopening in the space once occupied by G Lounge (a queer bar owned by the same people which also received allegations of discrimination), several patrons of color were told that the venue was at capacity. After a friend who worked there let the patrons in, they saw the venue was only a little over half full.
As backlash ensued, the owners acknowledged that guests were made to feel unwelcome.
“To be quite honest, I work there,” Davenport says, “and I work there for a reason...When this all went down [with the Monster], the owner of Rebar said, ‘Girl, I don’t care if this is a night for people of color, you can have it here’...They’re trying to make the steps it takes to heal from this hurt, even if it’s a misunderstanding. They’re still like ‘This happened. People are hurting. Let’s address it.’”
The owners of Rebar wouldn’t go into specifics for this article, but gave this statement: “The misunderstanding that happened on our opening weekend does not reflect who we are.
We feel that everyone is always welcome at Rebar.”
“There wasn’t no class we went to,” says Richie Friendly regarding the steps VSBU took following the incident with Powell. “We just said, ‘nonsense is nonsense,’ it has nothing to do with your color, it’s about your attitude. We don’t want bad energy, and it’s been really great here since all the drama subsided.”
“I personally have spent most of my time after the incident booking queens of color who are sort of up-and-coming,” says Trenta, “to sort of show that it doesn’t reflect on the queens that work there...I believe that steps can always be taken to show goodwill toward the community.”
“We have the entire world against us,” says Powell, “We don’t need to be against each other. If you see injustice, speak up, because sometimes the other person might be afraid...We have an entire nation that’s against us in the Trump era, just fighting us and wanting to kill us for no reason. Tina Burner says, ‘We’re stronger as a community than we’ll ever be as a nation,’ and that’s entirely true.”
In the weeks following the incident at Monster, Honey Davenport has been attempting to do a live dialogue with Charlie Rice to address these issues and what can be done, insisting that she doesn’t think Monster—which has been open since 1981—should close its doors. Rice has previously said he wouldn’t be amenable to a dialogue in his interview with Michael Musto: “We’re still doing sensitivity training, but I can’t go to a meeting they want me to have at the Stonewall because they’re so heated and my mind is a little bit of a mush.”
Italo Lopez has since been fired and replaced as general manager by longtime bartender Julius LaCour, who said in a Facebook post announcing the decision: “With NYC hosting World Pride in 2019, I believe now more than ever, the LGBT community here in NYC must come together as a unified front. We must show the rest of the world that we will continue to be trail-blazers like we did back in 1969. That starts with inclusivity in our community and progressive values.”
Needless to say, discrimination isn’t isolated to Manhattan, nor is its navigation an easy one, which is why racism still reverberates in every facet of American culture despite legislative actions to offset it. While some may say these allegations don’t hold water or shouldn’t be acknowledged, if all parties are at least in agreement that racism is still existent and vile, then the very perception of a queer space being regarded as racist should be enough to merit a discussion.
“If I say this is okay,” Davenport tells me before going onstage in the packed bar, “then that means I would see the faces of every queen of color who I’ve seen treated differently. I’ve got a lot of sisters and I’ve played token in a lot of bars. I’ve seen the mistreatment and I felt like it was saying to them this is okay. It is not okay.”
Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at www.evanbrechtel.net. @EvanBrechtel.