Straight out the door: citing a Minnesota anti-discrimination law, a group of straight men and women say they were unfairly kept out of a gay bar

Casey Trauer

Citing a Minnesota anti-discrimination law, a group of straight men and women say they were unfairly kept out of a gay bar

When Minnesota legally banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1993, few would have guessed that the law’s first high-profile test would come from two lawsuits filed on behalf of heterosexuals. But this is the ’90s. In this case the Gay 90’s, a Minneapolis bar accused of denying entry to the plaintiffs because they were not gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

For its part, the bar insists that it does not discriminate and that the patrons were denied entry for other reasons. Apart from the case’s disputed facts, lawyers for the Gay 90’s are employing a defense likely to attract controversy should the case go to trial: asserting that the Minnesota Human Rights Act applies only to protected minority classes–in this case homosexuals. “If you look at the history of the human rights act and the debate about it when it was passed, you start to see that it really was designed to protect minority members,” says Steven Theesfeld, one of the club’s attorneys. “And that’s why I say, when you find majority members using something that was designed to do something else, you have to use some skepticism.”

Not everybody agrees with Theesfeld’s interpretation. “The legislative history will tell you that the law was designed to apply to everybody,” says Joni Thorne, who coordinates the legal program for the Committee for a Legislative Voice in Minnesota, a gay group. She says the law specifically defines sexual orientation as one’s having an attachment to another person “without regard to the sex of that person.”

What will likely make the defense’s stance controversial is the belief by gay rights critics that such human rights laws actually provide so-called special rights to gay men and lesbians. That argument played a large role in swaying voters last month to repeal by referendum a similar law in Maine. Likewise, how the Minneapolis case is defended could have a profound impact on how most Minnesotans view gay rights.

Denny Lee, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, says he too thinks the bar’s defense sounds too much like a claim for “special rights,” adding, “That’s not what we’re looking for. I would suggest to the lawyers that they reconsider that argument.” Lee says laws intended to protect gay people from discrimination intentionally employ neutral language that applies to all orientations. “That’s how the law has to be written,” he says, “because otherwise, it would be vulnerable to challenges based on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.”

The Gay 90’s lawsuit is not the first case in the United States in which heterosexuals have invoked state human rights laws regarding sexual orientation; it’s not even the first in Minnesota. However, such cases are rare, partly because only ten states and the District of Columbia offer such protections.

It’s rarer still to find claims in which a business has discriminated against patrons because they are not gay. Torence Harris and Greg Krebs allege that on July 29, 1997, a Gay 90’s bouncer told them they couldn’t enter the bar because they were not gay. Two friends of the men corroborated the claim in affidavits.

Publicity for the case led to a second lawsuit a month later by a group of women alleging that in three separate incidents they were barred from entering the club or were asked to leave because they were perceived to be part of bachelorette parties, According to court documents, in one instance a woman alleged that she was told, “You are not gay enough. Get out.”

Gay 90’s manager Robert Parker insists that the bar does not discriminate and that a sign at the front door makes clear its policy welcoming “all lifestyles.” The bar does, however, routinely turn away people for unruliness and intoxication. Aggressive behavior led to Harris’s and Krebs’s being denied entry, says Parker, who claims Harris initiated an “out-of-hand verbal confrontation” after a bouncer started questioning whether a hesitant Krebs really wanted to enter the gay bar.

Bachelorette party attendees are barred when members of the group arrive intoxicated, Parker says. When they are let in, they’re asked to remove all veils, condom paraphernalia, and “penis hats” because those items encourage wild behavior, he says, arguing that more than two years ago, these types of rules were largely unnecessary for the Gay 90’s, a seven-bar complex that takes up a quarter of a city block. But the increasing popularity of its drag show and dance floor, especially among straight customers, has swelled the bar’s draw to 1,500 to 2,000 on Friday and Saturday nights.

Parker estimates that 30% to 40% of the weekend crowd is heterosexual. The manager says the bar’s success in drawing straight patrons, including bachelorette parties, proves the lawsuits are unfounded: “It’s unlikely that we’re going to single out three or four women and not let them in out of 200 to 300 women who are in the bar.”

Timothy Hickman, a Minneapolis lawyer representing the plaintiffs, thinks the bar’s newfound popularity among heterosexuals caused a resentment among gay patrons that could have influenced the alleged discrimination. “The tensions between the heterosexual clientele, who were coming in droves, and the gay community, who had always felt that was the place for them, were clashing,” Hickman says. “And there was hostility to a certain extent.” Parker denies this and says he thinks the plaintiffs are suing in part because they misunderstood the real reasons they were denied entry and in part for the lure of the $50,000 each is asking in damages. (Hickman is quick to point out, however, that $50,000 is the minimum figure for damages awarded under the antidiscrimination statute.)

Most complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation are settled before they reach judgment, and mediation is scheduled for mid March in the Gay 90’s case. While Hickman hopes for a “constructive” resolution, Parker says the club will go to court to prove it didn’t bar the plaintiffs because they were straight: “We honestly never have and never will discriminate at that door.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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