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Moffies behaving badly

Accusations of racism in Green Point's 'gay village' may prompt a Human Rights Commission investigation, the first of its kind in South Africa

Ahmed Sieraaj | November 3, 2003

CAPE TOWN — Fur is flying in Green Point's 'gay village' as accusations of racism and threats of legal action are flung at club owners. The owners deny the allegations strongly, but Professor Pierre De Vos, Constitutional Law lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, and Zackie Achmat, Treatment Action Campaign leader, are considering calling on the Human Rights Commission to investigate.

The accusations follow an incident earlier this month in which Marcus Pillay, an actuary at an insurance company, and De Vos, his boyfriend, were involved in a scuffle with two bouncers at a new club, Sliver. Pillay, who is coloured, was denied entry to the club, while De Vos, who is white, was allowed to enter. Pillay was told that he was not suitably dressed, after which harsh exchanges - including accusations of racism - took place. De Vos and Pillay were allegedly punched by the bouncers and have laid criminal charges.

Lance Solms, owner of Sliver, insists that racism is not condoned at his club. "There are many non-whites here. Our issue is that we want to keep a smart crowd with a good attitude," he says. "We will resolve this and show the public that this was pushed too far in accusing us of being racist."

Solms and the owners of Bronx have strongly denied accusations of racism, saying that their door policies are based on issues of class rather than race.

The incident has thrown a renewed spotlight onto low-level rumblings in Cape Town's gay community: rumblings that allege that many non-white gay Capetonians have been made to feel unwelcome in certain venues in Cape Town's 'gay village' over the past two years.

"We have a 'Right of admission reserved' sign up, but clearly it may be ambiguous," says Solms. He admits that his club does not have a written door policy yet, but says "we have to do this for everyone's sake."

In interviews with other gay Capetonians, Sliver, which opened last month, was not mentioned, while numerous allegations of racism were levelled at Cape Town's oldest gay bar, Bronx. The club is accused of following a racist entrance policy that has seen non-white gay men and women regularly turned away without explanation. Former regulars at the club say the unexplained 'bouncings' started in 2001, when a change of ownership took place.

"I've had problems at Bronx, dating from the change of ownership. I am a white male in my early fifties, but have been refused entry when with friends of colour, or been allowed in when they have been refused entry," says Howard Smith, architect and Project Manager at the University of Cape Town's Properties department. "Apart from six different friends with me at the times I have experienced problems, I have heard direct or indirect accounts from approximately fifteen individuals of similar experience. It seems coloureds and blacks are the people refused, but also whites who arrive with them."

Jerome *, a third-year commerce student at UCT, says: "Bronx has bounced many - at least ten - of my coloured friends, and none of my white friends. The motivation for bouncing, 'Regulars Only' may as well be 'Whites Only'."

The owners of Bronx deny that their club follows a racist entrance policy. In an emailed response to queries, Jono Isaacs, one of three partners, wrote that "Bronx is a club for gay men and women and their friends. We don't discriminate based on colour or race. Beyond that, what best describes our door policy is "Door Attitude". We know - we sense - who'll enhance the vibe inside and who won't." According to Isaacs, Bronx's door policy is not in writing, and is "constantly" communicated to their bouncers.

Bernedette Muthien, an independent researcher-activist, thinks the claims of seeking a specific 'vibe' are nonsense. "The bouncers at Bronx have turned away women of colour with me, including a friend who is a professional model and actor."

"I feel very uncomfortable about Bronx, says Azaam *, a service consultant manager at Telkom. "My friends and I have been barred from Bronx on more than one occasion. No explanation was ever given, so we remain convinced that it was purely because of the colour of our skin."

"This 'know' and 'sense' policy is not displayed at the door," says Pierre de Vos. "The problem is such a policy depends on the discretion of the doorman, who decides who will "fit in" by using his magical 'sixth sense'. To have a door policy that relies on any human being, who invariably has racist stereotypes in his or her head, to make a call - based on some vague sixth sense - about who fits in, is not only to invite racism, but to sanction it."

Bruno Bronn, also a partner in the closed corporation that owns Bronx, expressed surprise at the allegations that many non-white gay people do not feel welcome at Bronx. "This is very upsetting to me", he said in a telephone interview. "Of course they are welcome here. We have to change that perception. I was not aware of this, and promise I am doing everything I can to sort it out."

According to Bronn, the door policy is in place because many straight people visit Bronx and a policy is necessary to "keep the venue gay".

"The policy is there to protect the gay people inside Bronx. It is generally the young coloured guys who seem to be incredibly difficult; the twenty to thirty-year old tall slender coloured guys." Bronn said that items had been stolen in the past, and that the culprits were usually young coloured men. "We are trying to keep a bad element out of here. But it's not a race thing, it's a class thing. People can call me a snob rather than a racist."

He also said that, because Bronx was a small venue, the owners "cannot afford to fill our room with non-spenders" who did not at least buy a drink or two. He added that he had shared a home for many years with a black woman while living overseas. "We work so hard to make everyone feel welcome. The industry in general has a problem with people shouting 'racism' too quickly. But we want to deal with this and sort it out," he said, and suggested that he would be interested in meeting with members of the non-white gay community in order to discuss ways of resolving this issue.

Nomfundo *, a parliamentary researcher, feels that race is definitely taken into consideration at Bronx's door. "I have lost count [of number of friends bounced at Bronx]. I have so many gay friends, and 99% of my black friends have been barred from Bronx. 100% of my white friends are always welcomed with a smile," she says. "Most gay venues in Green Point are either hostile, unfriendly or blatantly racist to black gay people. I am saying this out of personal experience."

Nomfundo is preparing to lodge a complaint with the Public Protector. "I am complaining that as a member of the public, I am barred from going into places supposedly meant for public enjoyment. The policy of Bronx says it's meant for gays, and I am a gay woman. If the Public Protector's response is positive, I will take Bronx to court."

Funeka Soldaat, a senior field worker at Triangle Project, the Western Cape's gay and lesbian service organisation, says that she has been barred from Bronx before and has never returned to a gay club in the city. "Such incidents are happening all the time to black gays and lesbians. You can interview the black gay community and you will hear very recent similar incidents that have happened," she said on Wednesday.

From talks with Solms following the alleged assault at Sliver, De Vos feels that the owners of Green Point's gay clubs are going for an 'upmarket' crowd and that their vague door policies leave the way open for claims of racism. "They seem to believe their clientele do not want to attend places where they will have to rub shoulders with 'low class' people. Lastly, they believe once you allow 'low class' people inside, they will steal and 'make trouble'. As Lance Solms told Marcus [Pillay]: 'It's not a race thing, it's about class'. What this seems to mean is that only those black people who can convince the bouncers by their attitude and dress that they are not poor or uneducated have a chance of gaining entrance to such a place."

Jono Isaacs of Bronx is adamant that race is not an issue. "We allow in those who are going to "fit in" more than those who won't. It's not race that's at play, it's who and what they are in terms of their energy, their style. If the energy doesn't jive with what's going on inside, we'd be idiots to let them in."

He also says that when the club gets full, people are kept waiting or turned away - "especially if they're not recognisable, regular patrons."

According to Howard Smith, even the definition of what a 'Bronx regular' is has changed. "After three years of attending almost weekly with a coloured friend, we arrived together and my friend was refused entry because he 'was not a regular' - and I was let in. Is a white person who attends 30 times a year a regular and a coloured person who attends 30 times a year not? If he claims overcrowding, how come fifteen people were let in past us, while his bouncer argued with us on the pavement?"

According to Isaacs, however, Bronx has already been cleared of previous racism charges. In February, says Isaacs, "a respected non-white journalist [formerly of the Cape Argus] 'cleared' us of all 'racism' charges. And he should know - he's a regular". (Andrew October, the journalist involved, has said that he stands by the findings of his investigation).

Isaacs feels that it is time to raise the level of discussion. "Only the non-whites who are turned away ever cry racism," he says. "Its never a white crying hetero-phobia when he's turned away. Why do you suppose that is? An exploration of this curious but important paradox might raise the level of discussion here - how to get beyond the cries of racism and homophobia."

De Vos, Jerome, Azaam, Funeka, and Nomfundo say they have never seen or heard of a white person being bounced at Bronx.

Shaun *, a white, 26-year old lawyer, says that he too has been bounced at Bronx. "I have also been shown the door, but do I play the racism card? No! I am white, but have to accept that I can be shown the door. South Africans must stop playing the race card. It's boring and irritates everybody. It is no longer a race thing, but a class thing. Just as I will not mingle with someone from Mitchell's Plain, so I will not mix with someone from Kraaifontein. I stick to my class."

Duncan Andrew, Public Education and Training Manager at Triangle Project, says that Triangle normally takes action when a pattern emerges. "We have no problem with businesses trying to attract a particular crowd as long as its code is applied consistently. It would be nice if those codes were public though, otherwise it seems arbitrary and leads to suspicion. Businesses that are inconsistent are inviting suspicion and difficulties."

De Vos and other members of Cape Town's gay community are currently gathering more information as they consider requesting a Human Rights Commission inquiry into racism in gay clubs. "The problem is that this happens all the time to people who are less economically and politically empowered and owners get away with it," he says.

Zackie Achmat, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign and a former leader of the National Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Equality, is considering widening the request. "I think we must officially ask the Human Rights Commission to investigate racism in the clubs and gay media," Achmat said on Wednesday.

Behind The Mask

* Many people would only speak to the writer after guarantees of confidentiality. Names have been changed to protect identities.

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