12/13/13

Drag artist Vito Marzano: The Full Story on The Denver Wrangler's discriminatory actions

The following is a guest post written by Vito John Marzano who was denied access to a gay bear bar called "The Denver Wrangler". This blog has been following this story since the very beginning when Vito was originally denied access to the bar  and subsequent attempts by representatives of the Wrangler to censor planetransgender and intimidate Vito and the editor of the Transadvocate where these articles are cross posted.. Now as we wait for DORA's ruling Vito would like to set the record straight.

THE FULL STORY
By Vito John Marzano and edited by Carlos Marzano.

On the night of August 30, 2013, I attended a fundraiser in support of the Colorado Rush RFC—a predominantly gay men’s rugby team here in Denver. I had played with this team for one season and my husband was, at the time, an assistant coach and member of the Board. The fundraiser was a drag beauty pageant called Ms. Ruck and Maul and was held at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver. Since it was my husband’s first time in drag, I decided I would dress in drag as well to support him and the event. For the most part, the night was an incredible success and was filled with lots of fun. After the pageant, many participants began to change out of their drag clothes and head to the Denver Wrangler, a short walk down the street. I found my outfit quite comfortable and had no issue remaining in what I wearing. Having a history of wearing gender non-conforming attire, including, but not limited to, Genderfuck and drag, I decided to enjoy my gender-bending attire for the evening.

I approached the Wrangler as I did any other night I had gone—with my ID in hand. The security guard, Pat Steimer, denied me entry. He said I did not look like my ID. My first reaction was to remove my wig. Being from Long Island, New York, my outfit was an homage to many women in that area—think Yetta from the Nanny meets Linda Richman from SNL. We’re talking big hair. Without the wig, the only difference between my ID and my appearance was a light layer of foundation, a shaved face, some lipstick, and some eye shadow. I was not heavily made up and I had just used my ID without incident at Hamburger Mary’s. Pat stated that my gender MUST match my ID. I pointed out that I had been in the Wrangler before and never had an incident. Pat’s response was to tell me that I was from Denver so I should already know about this policy. I made a point of clarifying him on the spot. I am NOT from Denver and I did NOT know about this policy. I had just moved to Denver less than a year ago and I am very proud of my New York background (and my Long Island accent). Pat called the manager, Phil Newland, who reiterated that I was being denied entry because the gender on my ID did not match how I was presenting. Things began to get heated and they threatened to call the police on me.

As I walked away, my blood was boiling. I knew I had to get proof of this. I took my phone out and started to record video. Phil and Pat are much taller than I and the phone was about eye level with them. It was clearly visible. Pat stopped me in front of the Wrangler, on a public sidewalk, in front of the barricade, and told me I would be arrested if I didn’t leave. I asked him to confirm that the reason I was being denied entry was because the gender on my ID does not match how I was presenting. He nodded affirmatively. I started to challenge him on this policy and he, once again, called Phil back outside. Phil appeared and began to engage me, knowing full well I was recording video. We got into a debate as to whether or not the policy is transphobic. He even went as far as to say that the first step for any trans- individual is to update their ID at the DMV. When I said that I could not wait to upload this to the internet, Phil's response was “I have the block on charity in this town.” After roughly four and a half minutes of video, they resumed their threats to call the police on me.

At no point during this incident—and I repeat, at no point—did they say I was being denied entry because of my poor attitude or because I was acting belligerently. This was a debate about whether one of their policies is inherently transphobic.

The following day, I uploaded the video to YouTube and started the Boycott the Denver Wrangler page on Facebook. The response was overwhelming. After the video was released, Phil stated that I had illegally recorded them on private property. That is false. As I said, I made it very clear that I was recording video. I held the phone at eye level and I was on a public sidewalk. The Wrangler staff, however, continued to make a number of false or misinformed counter-arguments in their Facebook responses and revisionist account of the incident. I did nothing illegal that night and I stand by it.

Once the video had circulated through blogs, Facebook posts, and other social media, the Wrangler staff reported it to YouTube and the video was taken down. It was immediately reposted to Vimeo.

The entire video can be seen here

 Boycott The Denver Wrangler Facebook Page.

The public's response was very positive and supportive. I was completely unaware that the Wrangler's ID policy was well-known in Denver and people here simply put up with it. How disheartening. Why have people in Denver accepted such a blatantly transphobic ID policy? Why has no one stood up and challenged the Wrangler about this? Why are people tolerating discrimination? I simply could not wrap my head around the apathy.

Immediately after I posted the video to YouTube, the Wrangler retaliated against the only thing they could—the Colorado Rush RFC. Phil Newland sent them a letter stating that they will no longer offer sponsorship opportunities if they continue to allow their players to actively support the Boycott. Instead of the Colorado Rush RFC standing up against discrimination and in complete fear of losing money for the team, former Board President Nicholas Miller and Board member Kevin Michael Fuller began a witch-hunt to rid the team of Boycott supporters. After receiving the Wrangler's letter, Nicholas Miller posted a message to the Board of Directors Facebook group and asked for my husband’s resignation from the Board and from the coaching staff, as he was a visibly active supporter of the Boycott. They felt that, since he was in two positions of authority and representation, his participation would compromise the neutrality of the team. Putting matters of principle before blood money, my husband resigned to stand by me.

Immediately after, Nicholas and Kevin contacted active players who were supporting the Boycott and explained to them that they have two options, as stated in the Wrangler’s retaliatory letter—either remain on the team and end their support of the Boycott or leave the team entirely. Some team members pushed back and the Board eventually stepped down and ended the witch-hunt stating that active players may support the Boycott but members of the Board and coaching staff could not, lest they compromise the "neutrality" of the team. The Board then sent me a letter demanding that I stop claiming any affiliation with the team. In my response, I pointed out that I had never claimed to be a current member nor have I claimed to speak or represent the team. The only reason why the Wrangler retaliated against the Colorado Rush RFC was because the video description on YouTube said that I was coming from their fundraising event. That’s it. The Wrangler saw that and used it to their advantage. I did not bring the Rush into this, the Wrangler did. Still, I was being blamed for it. I also pointed out in my response that Kevin Michael Fuller had informed my husband that he was in a romantic relationship with Pat Steimer thereby creating another vested interest on the team’s part in the Wrangler. After word circulated that Kevin and Pat were in a romantic relationship, Kevin posted to his Facebook page stating that he had lied to my husband and it was all made up. Is this the kind of person the Rush wants on their Board of Directors? Really? Nevertheless, Board members continued to patronize the Wrangler and show their support. How is this being neutral? According to the Rush’s logic, supporting the Wrangler doesn’t compromise the neutrality of the team. Supporting the Boycott does.

At this point, it was more than obvious that the Rush had picked a side. They chose sponsorship over principles. They chose to sell out their own players for money. Instead of standing up for what is right, they chose to turn their back on drag queens and transgender individuals—the very people who raised money for them at Ms. Ruck and Maul. Is this really the brotherhood the Rush is teaching its players? How is this an "all-inclusive" team? How is this even right?

Keithen Vaughn, an employee of the Denver Wrangler and player on the Colorado Rush RFC, posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook page about how the Boycott was "stupid" and all it has done was cost the rugby team the ability to fundraiser at the Wrangler. I pointed out that it is illegal for any person or establishment to discriminate against a protected class and for the Wrangler to take retaliatory actions, as they have, but Keithen was unconvinced. Screen shots of the conversation were taken and posted to the Boycott Facebook page.

As the Boycott began to grow, more people came forward with their own stories of discrimination, harassment, and exclusion at the Wrangler. Planetransgender was the first to break the story. Phil responded to the article but his comments were incredibly inflammatory. He insisted on using the word “transgendered” as a verb and not "transgender" as an adjective, which many trans- individuals find offensive. I made it a point to correct his misusage. Secondly, he referenced second wave feminism as a way to discredit drag and gender non-conformity. I'm not sure how he came up with that but it was also an incorrect usage. He was also unwilling to listen to trans- individuals who had commented. How is that going to solve anything?

Shortly thereafter, OutFront Magazine, the foremost LGBT publication in Colorado, ran the story.

Once OutFront's article hit newsstands, the revisionism began. Supporters of the Wrangler began to make absurd claims about me, the night in question, and other events that may or may not have taken place.

About a week later, the Denver Post ran the story.

Now that this incident had picked up more media attention and the official Boycott website was launched at denver-wrangler.com, the Wrangler’s lawyers felt it was necessary to send me a cease and desist order. The letter was full of mistakes. They claimed that the video was taken on private property. It was not. They claimed that I was misrepresenting facts and engaging in a “slanderous” campaign. Interesting, considering that if that were true, it would be libelous. I trust their lawyers know the difference. Dismissing this letter as a sloppy scare tactic, I posted photos of it to the Boycott Facebook group and made it clear the Boycott would not end. We have one simple demand for the Wrangler—change the ID policy.

Jeff Compton, a supporter of the Boycott, began to organize a picket of the Wrangler. Phil commented on the Facebook event page and Jeff offered him a way out—meet with us without any lawyers at a neutral location to discuss the matter. Jeff said he would give them one week to respond. They didn't. I then made Phil another offer to meet. I suggested using the GLBT Center as a neutral third party to moderate the discussion. Phil made it clear there would be no meeting even though he has made previous claims that he was willing to discuss this matter at any time with anyone.

The protest moved forward. Daniel Gonzales captured the scene and organized it into a cohesively edited video. He interviewed people at the protest and asked them what they would like to see come out of this action. It came out really well.

You can watch the video here
The story was then picked up by the Advocate and Towleroad.

Celebrities such as RuPaul and Nina Flowers responded on Twitter, reposting links to the articles and commenting on the disappointing behavior within our community. It was a very proud moment for the Boycott.

Phil Newland responded as well on Facebook and claimed he had received death threats because of the media attention. I immediately reached out to Phil, encouraged him to contact the police, and let him know that I will cooperate in full capacity with any investigation. Phil’s response was that the phone numbers were blocked and he suspected that they were not local. Whether or not this actually occurred has been debated.

During the protest at the Wrangler, Brent Heinze, a well-known LGBT event promoter here in Denver, showed up with a counter-protest sign that said, “Protest Gay Marriage Not Drag Queens at Beer Bust.” This led to an immediate backlash against Brent from many within the LGBT, goth/industrial, and leather/kink communities in Denver where his events are heavily rooted. His sign hurt a wide range of people because, as is the case with so many cis-gender gay men, he minimized the fight for trans- equality. He said he was trying to bring attention to the “bigger picture” but it didn't work. I still don’t believe he knows what he did and how wrong he was for doing it. Brent tried to justify his actions by saying he didn’t intend to hurt anyone and he tried to issue an apology but it was very backhanded, insulting, and completely insincere. It took a few days for him to actually muster up something that was somewhat real but, by that time, he had already burned too many bridges. Brent offered to organize a meeting with the Wrangler but nothing ever came of it. He claimed that a certain person from the Boycott was attacking him and preventing the Wrangler from wanting to meet with me. I called utter bullshit on this. There have been many Wrangler supporters who have contacted me or publicly bashed me online and I was still open to meeting with the Wrangler. Nice try, Brent, but this is your mess. You clean it up.

When all of this was happening, Kevin Michael Fuller of the Colorado Rush RFC chimed in and reasserted on Facebook that the team was remaining neutral on this matter. I responded and pointed out how they were not neutral and have never been since day one. This led to an extremely long text message conversation between us, during which he flat out called me a faggot. Yes, a Board member of an “inclusive” gay men’s rugby team thinks it is okay to call people he doesn’t like faggots. Let that sink in for a bit. I find that word incredibly offensive and, under no circumstances, is it appropriate to use—period. Kevin knew this and used the word intentionally to hurt and anger me. Screen shots of the entire conversation were later posted to the Boycott Facebook page to bring more attention to the Colorado Rush RFC's unethical behavior. Many people were horrified including other gay men's rugby clubs across the country. Shame on you, Rush.

Around the same time, it was brought to my attention that the Colorado Rush RFC was holding their annual Board elections. Nicholas Miller stepped down as President and took another position, as did Kevin Michael Fuller. A supporter of the Boycott, who is still a current member of the team, asked to be part of the Board during these elections. He was told that, in order for him to join, he would have to end his support of the Boycott. He refused and, ultimately, was not allowed to join the Board. Interestingly, Keithen Vaughn, an employee of the Wrangler, was given the Board position of Vice President, without condition or incident. Not only does the Colorado Rush RFC condone a Board member calling someone a faggot, they fail to see their own hypocrisy in allowing an employee of the Wrangler on the Board. How is this taking a neutral position? How is this any less compromising than my husband being on the Board and the coaching staff? How exactly does a gay men’s rugby team use drag and gender nonconformity to raise money for themselves and then, when faced with transphobic discrimination, immediately turn their backs on the very people who helped them raise that money? How does this team justify allowing a Board member to call someone a faggot? How do they not recognize their hypocrisy in allowing an employee of the Wrangler on the Board but not a supporter of the Boycott? Again, how is this even right?

Meanwhile, a pseudo-LGBT activist group, calling themselves the Pink Panthers and claiming to be part of Queer Nation, performed their own investigation of the Wrangler in conjuction with Phil Newland and found no discrimination whatsoever—hmmm, curious. No one in Denver has ever heard of this group and they did not have much of a presence on Facebook. They have not done a single action in the entire year of their existence EXCEPT to criticize the Boycott and use language that was pretty close to Phil Newland's—hmmm, interesting. I wanted more information so I contacted their founder, Todd Hailey, and asked him why we were not invited to participate in this investigation. It seems very strange that Phil Newland was all of a sudden open to discuss matters at the Wrangler, even though he had turned down several attempts by the Boycott organizers to meet. All of this just seemed a little too orchestrated and staged. When Todd responsed to me, his answers were very misinformed and completely biased. We were then informed that he had supported the Wrangler from the beginning and, once this news cirrculated among the Boycott, people dismissed the Pink Panthers as armchair activists who had little to contribute to this cause.


THE LAW AND LEGAL ACTION

The Civil Rights Commission has published rules based on the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Law. Rule 81.1 states, “The rules in this section have been adopted to contribute to the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, inclusive of transgender status … in public accommodations…” Rule 81.2(B) states, “The term ‘transgender’ means having a gender identity or gender expression that differs from societal expectations based on gender assigned at birth.” Rule 81.2(D) states, “The term ‘gender expression’ means external appearance, characteristics or behaviors typically associated with a specific gender.” This wording implies that people who cross-dress and those in drag would fall within the category of transgender protections. It is my belief that the law is on our side. The Wrangler did not deny me entry because of attitude or attire, but because my gender did not match my ID. I did not meet societal expectations of gender that night. Under Colorado law, that is tantamount to discrimination.

A formal charge of discrimination has been filed with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) - Civil Rights Division. The Wrangler has had thirty days to respond and I will be given the opportunity to respond after that. I requested mediation through DORA, which the Wrangler denied. To be clear, the Wrangler has thrice denied our attempts to meet and come to a resolution.


WHAT IS THE POINT OF IT ALL?

The objective of the Boycott is for the Wrangler to change their ID policy. That is all we ask. Throughout this entire ordeal, it has become clear that we’re addressing the issue of hypermasculinity and the disdain of anything that is feminine. We are challenging the Denver LGBTQIA community to confront their desire for hypermasculinity. In doing so, we are challenging ourselves to use our cis-gender privilege to speak up for those who are often overlooked. As Brent Heinze demonstrated, many in our community tend to minimize the plight of our trans- and gender non-conforming brethren when comparing it to the civil rights for gay men and lesbians (in this instance: marriage). Fighting for one cause in our community does not diminish the need to fight for another. Having years of activist experience, I have fought for marriage equality in my home state and was at the Colorado State Capitol the day civil unions passed. The Wrangler has been steadfast in their right to discriminate. They have tried to twist well-documented facts around in order to benefit their perception. We want to put an end to that so everyone may feel included in their establishment.


HOW HAS THIS AFFECTED ME?

I come from New York and I have pretty thick skin. I am very direct and speak my mind as often as I can, especially when I see injustice and inequality within the LGBT community. In Colorado, my personality has been interpeted as abrasive and I have had issues with people here because of it. I believe that the Colorado Rush RFC chose to stand against me because of their past experiences with my direct behavior. Earlier in 2013, when I was an active player, I was not afraid to speak up at a general team meeting and point out that the Board President and Vice President at the time were mismanaging funds. I was not afraid to point out their financial inconsistencies and challenge what was being presented to the team. I felt we had a right to know exactly how our team's money was being handled and where every cent was going and, because of this, I became an outcast.

I had a lot of hopes when I moved to Colorado with my husband. We both did. But, with everything that has happened, I have begun to loathe living here. I deeply yearn to to return to the Northeast but I will remain here and continue to fight for what I believe in. This includes standing up for trans- rights.


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

At the moment, we are in the middle of the State’s investigation. While we’re waiting for that to wrap up, we felt the need to do something more positive for our community. Last Saturday, December 7th, we held a Beer Bust at the Compound Baxix in Denver to raise money for the trans- programs at the GLBT Center. We called it “Queer Bust: Come as Queer as You Are.” Our idea is to see if this can grow into a monthly event to continuously raise money for trans issues. This is completely separate from the Boycott but was conceived by Boycott supporters. Everyone was invited and will be invited to future Queer Busts and I hope people will come to support trans- rights.


1 comment:

Christian said...

Marzano is a well-spoken, educated, and civil-minded man, and the ONLY people who consider his "abrasive" or "rude" or "too outspoken" are those operating from a position of guilt and wrongdoing. People like Marzano are often vilified because of their non-conformist views and unwillingness to remain silent in the face of discrimination. The Wrangler and its staff have shown themselves to be nothing but grade school bullies who don't like it when they're caught discriminating against their own community. Good for you, Marzanos, and shame on everyone who believes discrimination is appropriate in the 21st century.