A Year After a Gay Bar Was Protested for Racism, Activists Say It Hasn't Changed

Preston Mitchum, who organized protests after a student was reportedly assaulted by a bouncer at Nellie's, said the D.C. bar still needs to repair its relationship with Black LGBTQ people.

Sitting on the corner of Washington, D.C.’s 9th and U Streets, Nellie’s Sports Bar is hard to miss. A mural of two rainbow ducks set against a matching backdrop is painted on the side of the two-story establishment, which is unique among the other sports bars scattered along the U Street Corridor in that it caters to a queer clientele. Nellie’s hosts regular drag brunches and bingo nights amid the college sports banners and flat-screen TVs displayed above the bar. 

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One piece of decoration, though, stings with bitter irony: the Black Lives Matter sign that greets patrons upon entry. Last June, Keisha Young, a 22-year-old Black student from Morgan State University, was reportedly dragged down the steps by her hair by Nellie’s security—who claimed to have mistaken her for another Black customer. The violent, shocking footage sparked a string of protests against the business. The bar apologized days after the reopening, pledging to commit to “ongoing diversity sensitivity and inclusion training—with a focus on the concerns of LGBTQ+ people of color.”

“To be clear, we are very sorry that this horrible incident occurred, and we are sorry for what happened to Ms. Young, and we apologize to her for how she was treated,” the statement read. (It’s unclear if Nellie’s followed through on these commitments, as the bar declined to comment on the story.)

In response to the incident, local LGBTQ activists compiled a list of five demands to hold Nellie’s accountable: a community listening session, including apologizing to Young, payment to Black staff during the bar’s closure, and to remain closed until demands were met. But a month after the demonstrations, Nellie’s reopened—even though activists said the bar did not meet the majority of those demands.

Preston Mitchum, former board co-chair for Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and lead organizer of the protests that followed, has been calling out Nellie’s for anti-Blackness that he said he’s experienced in the space since 2017. He said this includes unequal treatment of Black and white patrons and what he alleged was the bar’s dismissal of guests’ concerns when approached about these issues.

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Now a year later, Mitchum said nothing has changed. “I don’t think Nellie’s cares or has ever cared,” he told VICE. “I think they were hoping this would be a moment and that people would get over it. In many ways, people aren’t forcing them to care.” 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

VICE: The incident at Nellie’s wasn’t the first time that you’ve called out the bar for its alleged mistreatment of Black LGBTQ patrons. Does the Keisha Young story reflect historical struggles that you’ve felt in addressing reports of racism within that space?

Preston Mitchum: One of the most frustrating things in pushing back against the anti-Black racism against Black patrons at Nellie’s is that last year’s incident, for many people, was a one-time moment. Many of us who have been actively pushing back against Nellie’s have been noticing this trend for years. I met with the owner of Nellie’s, [Doug Schantz], on a couple of occasions, in addition to writing a pretty lengthy letter back in 2017, which was also at the top of Pride month. 

Many of us have noticed that there’s been this systemic push against this one bar that’s supposed to be a space for queer, trans, non-binary people. The question is always going to be: Space for who?

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Nellie’s reopened last July without meeting the original demands from organizers. How much progress have Nellie’s and its owner made since then to fulfill all five? 

What was particularly frustrating was a community listening session that we wanted to have with Nellie’s. At one point, it seemed like [Schantz] was going to come, but, ultimately, he still did not. He attended virtually, but it had always been the intention that all parties involved to appear in person. [His absence] frustrated a lot of attendees who wanted to hear from him.

“I don’t think Nellie’s cares or has ever cared. I think they were hoping this would be a moment and that people would get over it. In many ways, people aren’t forcing them to care,” Mitchum said.

I have not been back to Nellie’s since. I meant what I said when I said I would never be back at Nellie’s. I know people who have gone back, and they’ve said it looks like there’s more Black bartenders. The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter if you increase the number of Black bartenders. If everyone there is not properly trained on how to communicate when they see anti-Black racism, it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a misunderstanding that if you just increase the number of people of color, without proper training among other things, that’s going to turn the tide. This is not an individual issue. This is a structural and systemic issue. That can only be solved by long-term solutions. 

One of the original demands was reparations toward the Black queer community. What does that look like to you? 

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We definitely wanted to shut Nellie’s down, and it worked for about four weeks. However, we didn’t want to have Black queer people who work there lose money, just because of the establishment [they work in]. As a Black person, I always want to make it possible to make sure other Black people are financially secure. To me, reparations looks like actively assuring that there’s no divestments for Black people. Sometimes it also means providing money for the harm that they have caused. 

If I had my way, reparations for Black folks in this space, in this moment, would look like the owner of Nellie’s no longer being the owner of Nellie’s. It looks like us tearing down Nellie’s and giving money to Black business owners—in particular, Black queer and trans people, so they can actually build a space that works for them. Currently, there are no queer bars in the city that are owned and operated by Black queer people. That is an issue. Maybe some are managed by Black people, which is good, but we need ownership. 

I get asked all the time: “Are you disappointed with Black patrons who go back to Nellie’s?” My fight is not with the patrons. My fight is for a space where we are treated equitably and with justice. Nellie’s has not been that space for us. I’m not going to pretend otherwise just because we have limited options. 

I noticed on Nellie’s social media page that the bar celebrated Black Pride in late May. Was that celebration done in partnership with queer organizers? Have they traditionally celebrated or acknowledged Black Pride prior to this? 

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I don’t ever remember a time Nellie’s has ever specifically celebrated Black Pride. Celebrating Black Pride means occupying the space with other Black queer people and Black party promoters in spaces that have actually accepted us. It’s about not trying to convince institutionally white spaces to accept who we are in their establishment. In D.C., Black Pride is the weekend before June. So in moving from Black Pride to Pride Month, you have a history of a lot of Black and brown trans and non-binary people actively resisting violence, not only from law enforcement but from ideologies like white supremacy, in movements like Stonewall, Black Cat Tavern, and Cooper Do-nuts. For Nellie’s to post anything related to Black Pride is not only antithetical to what they’ve done, it’s ahistorical to who they are.

(Nellie’s did not provide information about whether it has previously celebrated Black Pride when reached by phone.)

The attack that happened at Nellie’s is a very clear-cut example of how oppression can persist within a marginalized community. Because this was a violent attack, I worry that people will only recognize or publicly acknowledge anti-Blackness unless the incident is extreme. How do you think nightlife can prevent a situation like this from happening before it leads to violence?

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Bars and restaurants will promote all of their events on social media. They will make sure to bring in new bartenders, but rarely do you see them asking, “What don’t you like about our establishment? What harm have you experienced in my establishment? What can we do to actually make sure you feel safe?” These are answers they probably don’t want to hear. [Nightlife] needs more training so that they can spot things like harassment and racism in their establishment.

Nellie’s tried to reach out to me when I was board chair at CASS. We rejected working with them because it was performative. If you genuinely cared, you would have reached out years ago, when people started to call out your actions.

You cited gentrification as a cause for the erasure of safe spaces for Black queer communities. How would you say the developments around the city, even in the last year, have changed where you feel like you are welcome?

The act of displacing Black residents is so old in D.C. that it’s impossible to name. It started around the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams and then into the administration of Mayor Fenty, and of course, Mayor Bowser. A lot of it is deeply connected to more modern administrations who pretend that they care about Black residents, and that’s just not the case. 

Many of us have noticed that there’s been this systemic push against this one bar that’s supposed to be a space for queer, trans, non-binary people. The question is always going to be: Space for who?

I live in Ward 1, which is the same area where Nellie’s and a few other queer bars are located, and it is obvious that you’re seeing the displacement of Black residents but also the divestment in Black businesses. The area where I live is whiter than it's ever been. I live a couple of blocks away from Howard University, and a vast majority of my neighbors are white. That should truly disturb people—that one of the largest historically Black colleges is in an area that is now mostly white. That is an issue. 

Who we elect [as mayor] will continue this tradition of “New D.C.,” which is moving strongly away from Chocolate City and quickly becoming Mocha to Vanilla Latte City.  To know the history of D.C., to intentionally move to D.C., and then to be cocky that you’re taking ownership of the spaces that Black people have occupied for decades is disheartening. 

Given the seeming lack of accountability from Nellie’s, what do you think it will take for things to change?

Nellie’s, and bars like Nellie’s, would have to genuinely be willing to invest their time finding the right people with the talent and patience. I think the owner would have to hire Black queer people who have consulted with organizations and community members who can help them cover issues like gentrification, investments, justice and equity and inclusion. This would help them make better decisions about who they are hiring in their front bar and their back bar. It would cover where people feel safe showing up. 

People like to pretend Pride Month is just about celebration, and it’s not. If that is what we take away from Pride Month, we have not learned anything from our ancestors, who were literally fighting to make a safe space for us. If you’re willing to substitute equity for a $5 drink, then you’ll never care about people who are marginalized. 

Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.

Tagged:

RACISM, gay, washington dc, Race, protest, queer, gay bar, blackness, gay racism

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