A bar owner in the predominantly gay Castro neighborhood of San Francisco violated numerous city civil rights codes by discriminating against black patrons, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission has found. The case has been closely watched by the city's gay community, many of whom said they were incredulous that an establishment in what's considered one of the country's most progressive and socially liberal neighborhoods would actively keep black customers out of the popular nightspot Badlands.
In particular, the commission said Tuesday that club owner Les Natali referred to blacks as "non-Badlands customers" who should be discouraged from patronizing the club. "The Castro should be a place of homecoming for gays worldwide, and this was a betrayal of everything this community stands for," said Don Romesburg, organizer for the community group And Castro for All, which filed the complaint. "That's why it's so important that we hold them accountable."
After a 10-month investigation, the commission found that the club required multiple forms of identification from some black customers, used discriminatory hiring practices, applied a dress code only to black patrons, and denied entry using other policies rarely applied to whites. The 11-member commission, which was formed in 1964 to protect residents' civil rights, has no power to punish privately owned businesses, said Larry Brinkin, who works as a compliance officer for the commission. But Brinkin said the report could support a complaint asking state regulators to pull the club's liquor license. He also said the report sends a "strong message that discrimination in our city and businesses is abhorrent."
John Carr, spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, confirmed that the Badlands investigation is ongoing. If the club is found to have violated state discrimination laws, Carr said, penalties could range from a warning to the loss of a liquor license, depending on the severity of the charges. He did not say when the probe would be complete.
Natali's lawyer, Paul Melbostad, disputed the findings and said recent Badlands ads solicit black customers. "[Natali] has many very satisfied African-American customers, and he welcomes
every racial and ethnic group," he said. Melbostad said Badlands has served 500,000 customers during the cited period between 2001-2004, and many of those customers were black.
Marvin Miller, 38, remained unconvinced. He said he was elated by Tuesday's commission decision. Miller, who is black, said Natali badgered him for several pieces of identification at Badlands in 2003. When he finally showed a press pass for an independent cable access show, he said Natali relented and let him in. Miller left the club and has not returned since. "I was humiliated," he said. "I felt alone and helpless and angry."
The commission interviewed about 60 people before reaching its conclusions. For years Badlands has been a hot spot for young single gay men, including those visiting during gay pride weekend. Romesburg said he hopes the findings will show the club's practices are "not only hurting our own community but reflecting poorly on our community to the rest of the world."