Two New Orleans leather bars known for their cruising scenes have been hit in recent months with charges, fines, and a shutdown in sexual activity (which is barred in public venues by Louisiana State Laws). Some have assumed that the impositions on Phoenix and Rawhide 2010 have been politically motivated, perhaps the result of a homophobic witch hunt (“an attack on one of us is an attack on all us,” read a message posted by Phoenix management on the bar’s Facebook in February), but a recent article in New Orleans LGBTQ magazine Ambush paints a more nuanced picture of investigations arising from direct complaints that are the result of community in-fighting and sexual discrimination.
Journalist Frank Perez’s impressively deep dive into the issues at hand hypothesizes that the investigations were kicked off as a result of disgruntlement after women were turned away at the door of Rawhide. Perez reports that Rawhide, the first of the two bars to be investigated and fined, was reported to the New Orleans Police Department on September 6, 2018, in a complaint that claimed the establishment allowed “lewd public sex acts,” sex work, and drug use. That was days after last year’s Southern Decadence weekend, a notoriously libidinous annual multi-day celebration in New Orleans. That weekend found multiple instances of women being turned away from Rawhide. In the early hours of September 2 (a Sunday), a woman who was not allowed entry was heard shouting outside the bar by patrons, “I will call and have this place shut down.”
Then, on Sunday afternoon, a group of three women weren’t allowed entry when they tried to attend a leather and kink demonstration the bar was holding. The event was put up by Crescent City Leathermen and had been advertised as open to all. One of the members in that group, whose name I won’t print here in an attempt to spare her future Google results, wrote on Facebook that she had been denied entry “because of my genitals, which are covered by clothes by the way. The only excuse I was given was ‘Well…it’s Southern Decadence’ which makes no sense at all.” In a follow-up message to former Rawhide manager John Breaux, the woman, a member of the leather community, said she had formerly performed a rope demonstration at Rawhide and “not once did my vagina or breasts affect a single one of the patrons.” (This woman is not the assumed whistleblower—Breaux theorized that it was one of her friends.)
Louisana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Deputy Commissioner Ernest P. Leiger, Jr., would not provide the name of the person who filed the initial complaint (the NOPD referred the case to the ATC, which took over the investigation). Perez was unable to confirm exactly who lodged the complaint, so connecting it to the incidents of women being turned away is informed speculation (Perez admits as much in his piece).
Soon after the Rawhide complaint was filed, the ATC performed a compliance check, in which an underage operative was sold a beer without being carded, and several undercover investigations, in which agents witnessed (and recorded with hidden cameras, which is legal and according to protocol, said Leiger) sex acts, hardcore gay porn on multiple TV sets, pup play and popper use. At a December 19, 2018, hearing, Rawhide was cited with 12 violations (eight counts of pornography on television, four counts of sexual activity on the premises) and fined $6750. The bar was made to close for a week and put on a 60-day probation.
The investigation of rival bar Phoenix, the result of a complaint filed on December 4, 2018, was a direct result of Rawhide owner Tom Wood’s inquiries at his hearing. Leiger told Perez:
“Prior to and following the hearing, the ownership of Rawhide complained of similar activity in neighboring clubs, including the Phoenix. More specifically, he felt his business interests were suffering because the clientele felt more comfortable patronizing the Phoenix. Commissioner [Juana Marine-Lombard] accepted his statements as a complaint and assured Rawhide’s ownership that the agency would investigate. Obviously, Phoenix was investigated and violations were cited.”
Wood did not deny this. He told Perez:
“At the ATC hearing, we inquired about why the Phoenix was given a courtesy call and we were being shut down. We were informed that the Phoenix had no violations and there were complaints about us for prostitution, drugs, and serving minors. When I realized they were giving the green light for the Phoenix to take our business and my employees’ jobs, I cried foul. I am responsible for the employment of almost 100 people and will always do what’s best to protect them as we have for almost five decades.”
Phoenix underwent a similar series of investigations (again a compliance check found an underage operative able to buy beer) and was charged with three counts of porn, 14 counts of led acts, and two of serving alcohol to minors. The bar was fined $3,000 and given a 60-day probation period. Additionally, after Wood’s initial inquiry, Phoenix was visited by various officials six more times because of complaints called in that called out smoking, pornography on screens, and fire safety issues. Perez reports that “a source close to the investigation confirms that at least one of he complaints came from a rival bar owner.”
Via his investigation, Perez concludes that the bars were not targeted as a result of a homophobic agenda. Among the reasons he believes this he cites are that the ATC cited 15 heterosexual bars for similar violations, and that these bars could have been shut down as the result of all of these recent charges but were not. Additionally, the city has exhibited a relaxed sort of attitude toward them: “Earlier in September of 2018, during a routine compliance check at the Phoenix, ATC authorities strongly suggested they remove the sling from upstairs because of potential health code violations, but no citations were issued to the bar.”
Perez writes that an upside to this scrutiny is that ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard “is willing to open a dialogue to hear and address the concerns so many in our community have,” and that Both Phoenix owner Clint Taylor and Vincenzo Pasquantonio, executive director of the mayor’s Human Relations Commission, are convinced that Commissioner Lombard is open to exploring possible solutions to the dilemma both bars are now facing.” Both bars’ business has dropped after the investigations, presumably because they can no longer the sexual atmosphere that they once did.
Perez’s story is not just well-researched procedural journalism, it’s a straightforward narrative that acts like a Russian nesting doll of several hot-button issues within the LGBTQ community—women in gay bars designated for men, community in-fighting, public-sex spaces (and their continued illegality). Well worth a read (it starts here on Page 24).