The recent controversy surrounding Wood Enterprises seems to have quieted down. For those readers who have been in a coma or may not otherwise know, Tom Wood aroused the anger of a significant portion of the leather community earlier this year when it was revealed that he was responsible for the closure of the Phoenix’s upstairs darkroom. A boycott of Wood owned bars was organized, and t-shirts were even printed that admonished “Stay Out of the Woods.”
Lost in the public outcry over one bar owner turning in a rival bar for state code violations was a much more serious issue—gender discrimination. There was a time when gay male bars did not want female patrons and the reverse was true for lesbian bars. Many bar owners required multiple forms of identification from women trying to enter, and / or invoked obscure dree code requirements as a deterrent. There were exceptions, of course—Dixie’s, Up Stairs, Safari Lounge, for example—but gender discrimination was the norm even as recently as the 1980s.
Boycotting gay bars because of gender discrimination is nothing new. One such boycott occurred in 1980—and it nearly destroyed a brand new political organization created to fight for equality. In 1980, Roberts Batson, Alan Robinson, and others formed LAGPAC (Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus). LAGPAC would go on to achieve great things over the course of its 25 plus year history, chiefly the creation of a statewide conference, the demonstration of the LGBT+ voting bloc, and the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance in New Orleans in 1991. But shortly after LAGPAC was formed, it faced a crisis that threatened it very nascent existence.
The issue of what we would now call cis-gay male privilege reared its head when Rich Sacher and Henry Schmidt, representing Dignity (a gay Catholic organization) and another group called GLAD (Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination) proposed to the LAGPAC Board that it boycott Café Lafitte in Exile and the Bourbon Pub for their policies of not allowing women and African-Americans into their bars.
The Board rejected the proposal citing its mission statement only covered sexual orientation. But this was only a guise; the real reason was more nuanced. Some members of LAGPAC felt that at this embryonic and fragile stage of its existence, LAGPAC should not wander into the controversy. Complicating the matter was the fact that the bar owners, Tom Wood (Café Lafitte in Exile) and Jerry Menefee (the Bourbon Pub), were members of LAGPAC (Menefee served on the Development Committee). The board’s decision not to join the boycott almost destroyed LAGPAC. Years later, in a 1990 workshop at the Celebration Conference, Stewart Butler, a charter member of LAGPAC and Board Member, acknowledged the decision was a mistake.
The vote caused a backlash among the general membership and some of the Board of Directors. Melanie Miranda and Pat Denton abruptly departed the meeting and subsequently resigned from the Board. In her resignation letter, Denton chastised the Board for its hypocrisy:
“Having thought that this organization opposed and would stand against discrimination based on sex as well as that based on sexual preference. . . . And being further led to believe that LAGPAC stood for full access to public accommodations as stated in its recently set goals, but finding that in actuality (by virtue of its refusing to take a stand against existing and blatant sexual discrimination being practiced by some gay bars—one in particular going so far as to publicly display a ‘Men Only’ sign—it gives tacit approval to discrimination based on sex, I must conclude that the majority of this Board does not stand for full equality for all people.”
Denton’s seat was filled by the appointment of Liz Simon to the Board, but before Simon accepted, she had a few concerns of her own. Simon had earned a M.A. in Social Work from Tulane University and worked in private practice as a therapist for a primarily gay and lesbian clientele. Simon was not new to activism; she had previously served as Chair of Women Against Violence Against Women and on the Board of the YWCA Battered Women’s Program. She had also been involved in the Gertrude Stein Society and was a founding member of LAGPAC. Simon agreed to join the Board on the condition it conduct a workshop on “Oppression Dynamics.” Simon also formed a Lesbian-Feminist Caucus within the auspices of LAGPAC.
Despite the Board’s efforts to contain the damage from its controversial decision, several LAGPAC members quit the organization over the issue, some writing excoriating letters. As Chair of the Membership Committee, Stewart Butler attempted to do damage control by reaching out to several disgruntled members with limited success. One wrote to him,
“Dear Stew, Thanks but NO thanks, and believe me I’ve ‘carefully considered’ LAGPAC—and discover each time I have only feelings of CONTEMPT for it. I see its members running around changing everyone else’s house—but nothing is done at home. I sincerely hope our rich and powerful Bar Owners support LAGPAC in every way—for staying out of their way. . . . If your membership is down, I feel good. Try C.C.C.—that’s what I tell people—especially if they are black or female. Sorry Stew, but like I said I have nothing but CONTEMPT for LAGPAC—PLEASE remove my name from your mailing list—and be thankful I stay away.”
LAGPAC received letters not only from its own members but also from other organizations encouraging the it to examine its own prejudices and privilege. One such letter came from Louisiana Sissies in Struggle: “By setting goals that will predominantly benefit people of European origins and holding events in gay establishments that are openly racist (Bourbon Pub / Parade Disco) LAGPAC is endorsing the institutions of white supremacists and white racism in America—if not in rhetoric, certainly in practice.”
In retrospect, LAGPAC’s decision not to join the boycott was a mistake. Nevertheless, it survived that mistake by learning from it, and, ultimately, did manage to become an extremely effective political organization.
So if you’re still “staying Out of the Woods,” you’re not the first.