A popular gay leather bar in Chicago celebrated its 45th anniversary with a performance that critics found so offensive that one of the establishment's bartenders quit on the spot and several patrons got up and left the bar.
The famous kink and leather bar Touche hired puppeteer Jerry Halliday to entertain a crowd assembled for the anniversary soiree. Video clips of the performance show jokes that played on stereotypes and racist tropes of Black women and transgender people.
Halliday, who is white, pulled out a black puppet that he introduced as "Sista Girl," which, according to bartender Cris Bleaux, made him immediately uncomfortable.
Halliday changed his voice to sound like a caricature of a Black person. Witnesses tell The Advocate that he made jokes about welfare, watermelon, and having multiple kids. He also belittled the names of Black children, witnesses said, and went so far as to reveal what he called an "afro puff...Brillo pad" beneath the puppet's clothing where human genitalia would be.
"Everyone in the crowd thinks this is a little weird for 2022," says an unidentified patron to Halliday, who is sitting on a stage facing the crowd with the puppet to his side.
"Everybody who wants this man to shut up, make some noise [and] clap," Halliday replies through the voice of his puppet.
One can hear multiple people clapping and booing the patron, who appears to leave the bar.
Several audience members also walk out mid-performance, including Bleaux.
In fact, Bleaux tells The Advocate that he quit then and there. He says that he got to work shortly before his 10 p.m. shift, and within minutes of Halliday's performance beginning, he recognized that something was off.
Bleaux says that because his chosen family includes people of color and transwomen, he was getting extremely uncomfortable being in the space while many in the audience cheered on the puppeteer.
"And to be honest, like, like 45 minutes or so in my shift, like I started to feel nauseous because I'm not here for racism," the 37-year-old says.
"I'm not here for transphobia or jokes about raping women, which was also happening," he says. "And so I texted my roommate, and I said, 'I think I need to leave.'"
He says he took his key off his keyring, tossed it onto manager David Boyer's desk, and quit.
Touche has been in operation since 1977, and that's the year where the bar should have left its featured entertainer on Tuesday night, according to Philip Smith, who captured the incident on video.
Smith says Boyer sat in the audience throughout the performance and even participated in a bit at the conclusion of the show, collecting tips for Sista Girl's five kids. He adds that he posted the video clips online because he was so disgusted by what he had witnessed and felt that others needed to see what blatant racism looks like.
"Too often people talk about how somebody might have perceived something as racist, and even when you try to explain it to those people, they claim they don't understand," he says. "Now it's right there for everyone to see. It was shocking."
Outraged people took to Twitter and Facebook after the performance and complained on the social media pages for the bar.
After the performance video began trending online, members of the international leather community began pulling their support for the bar on social media, while Touche's management initially remained silent.
Halliday's website and YouTube page appear to have been scrubbed of references to Sista Girl. However, an archive of the site shows all of Halliday's theretofore current characters, including a gay character called Twinky Boy, Granny Goodtimes, and a Not So Holy Nun, in addition to Sista Girl.
The Advocate reached out to Jerry Halliday to discuss his performance but did not receive a response.
American Brotherhood Weekend announced on Facebook that the group had removed Touche from its website.
The Chicago Hellfire Club also suspended its affiliation with Touche until further notice. The group issued a statement on its website.
"There is no place for racism, transphobia, and other bigotry at a bar like Touche, which we rightly expect to serve as a home for all in our diverse community," the statement reads. "Our brotherhood is founded on the values of mutual respect and passion for growing and improving our community. The behaviors Tuesday violate both of these values and will not be tolerated by the Club. We have decided to remove our colors from Touche. Until further notice, the Club will not be scheduling official events at Touche."
Late Wednesday, Boyer posted a statement on Touche's social media pages.
"We deeply regret not vetting the entertainer prior to the event," he wrote. "We apologize for not reacting and stopping the show. People were harmed by his words. Racism and transphobia are wrong, we need to do better. Touche will continue to upgrade our awareness of and responses to racism, sexism and transphobia. We are currently exploring ways to address the harm was caused."
Bleaux rebuts Boyer's statement as being disingenuous.
"There's no way he didn't know what the show entails because they were familiar with the [puppeteer] and had a rehearsal earlier in the day," Bleaux says. "And David sat in the audience, in the first row, during the show."
Boyer says the bar will hold a community listening session at the Leather Archives and Museum next Wednesday at 7 p.m," where members of our community can express their concerns and help us explore ways to do a better job."
The Chicago Hellfire Club's statement demands concrete action from the upcoming meeting.
"We demand an ongoing response from the ownership and management of the bar, including a frank acknowledgment of the harm inflicted and any restorative action they plan to perform. We plan to attend the event and to listen to voices that need to be heard."
Smith and Bleaux agree that Boyer's statement appears to "be a canned response" without substance.
"It should not be up to Black people to take uncompensated time out of their day to attend a meeting and share with the white bar management why a racist show was clearly harmful," Smith says. "This conversation is not new. We are past the 'we hear you, we see you' phase."