Normally, Thursday night plans are a no-brainer for Borrego: Georgie's Alibi is her go-to destination. But on March 1, she and her friends decided to shake up their routine and check out bars they wouldn't normally frequent. Her group included local luminaries Jaeda Fuentes, 2011 Ms. St. Pete Pride, and Judah and Levi Love, transgender men whose familiar faces are mostly likely recognized from their doling out drinks at the popular Emerald Bar.
The group, which doesn’t normally leave the 500 and 600 blocks of Central Avenue, home to the likes of the Emerald, Fubar and Sake Bomb, made its way from bar to bar downtown, first stopping at the Garden Restaurant, then Mandarin Hide. They didn’t have any problems until they reached the Bishop, and Borrego, as well as Fuentes in full drag, attempted to obtain one of the pink cups designating that, as women, they could drink for free.
Even after Borrego showed the bouncers her license, which denotes that she’s legally a woman, she was refused. “They didn’t care,” she said. “All they said to us was, ‘You’re just dudes.’”
The bouncers also became increasingly confrontational and aggressive, using inflammatory language, added Levi Love. “They were three times the size of us.” The manager eventually came out to talk to them, but, Borrego said, “He insinuated we were just trying to capitalize on their promotion and that it’s their discretion who they let drink for free.”
After the verbal scuffle, the friends turned their vitriol to the Internet by way of a Facebook group calling for a boycott of the Bishop. Just a few hours after being created, the group already had attracted nearly 300 members — from the Tampa Bay area and beyond — who shared its outrage at the obvious discrimination and mistreatment of a transgender woman.
Not long after, the bar’s owner, Dean Marshlack, issued an apology on its Facebook page, reading: "Bishop strives on being one of St. Petersburg's premier nightlife destinations for everyone, without prejudice. We really appreciate the fact that we live in such a diverse community. This event has given us the opportunity to better educate our staff to ensure everyone has a pleasant experience regardless of who you are."
In an interview, Marshlack said his bouncers’ actions stemmed from being misinformed rather than intentions to discriminate. “It’s more about their just not knowing or understanding about” the transgender community, he added. He spoke with his staff and the bar’s new policy is that anyone representing themselves as a woman can drink free on ladies night.
“It was an elegant apology, which is not something [our community] often gets,” said Michael Keeffe, executive director of Trans*Action Florida, though he acknowledged that some in the community considered the apology to be trite and dismissive.
But rather than holding a grudge, Trans*Action Florida sprung to life, choosing to use the incident as an opportunity to create awareness and to educate the public — straight, gay or otherwise. Dozens of businesses from downtown St. Petersburg and the Grand Central business district, as well as local leaders, have been invited to attend tonight's meeting. (And yes, Marshlack plans to attend, or at least send a representative from the Bishop, business permitting.)
Downtown St. Petersburg attracts people from all walks of life, from hippies and the homeless to businessmen and bartenders. So the bustling hub, brimming with creative souls and independently-owned restaurants, retail shops, and galleries, takes on the facade of an all-inclusive, somewhat progressive promised land, especially for the area's vibrant LGBT community.
But the truth is that despite all of its appeal and seeming open mindedness, St. Pete is still just a mid-sized city in the middle of conservative Florida. And though the Tampa Bay area has evolved into an enclave for Florida's transgender community — the oft-forgotten "t" in LGBT — this kind of discrimination is seen on a daily basis, said Keeffe. “You see it with people not getting a job because they’re transgender,” he said. “Within three miles of the Bishop you have people being discriminated against just walking down the street, walking to the bus, trying to get to work.” And at the heart of the matter is the fact that local laws offer no protections to the community.
What’s most frustrating for Keeffe, though, is that it took an incident like the one Borrego experienced at the Bishop to serve as a catalyst for change. “It took an event at a popular establishment involving people who are popular in the community,” he said. “Trust me, I’m not trying to take away from their experience, but would we be having this discussion if it happened to one of my homeless clients? Would the community have rallied so quickly?”
Tonight’s meeting, co-sponsored by Pinellas Stonewall Democrats, St. Pete Pride and Equality Florida, will take place at the L Train bar at 900 Central Ave. at 7 p.m. Panelists include Mariruth Kennedy, president of the Tampa Bay Business Guild; Robin Rowland from Stonewall Democrats; Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida; Chris Rudisill, executive director of St. Pete Pride; and Rev. Jake Kopmeier, from King of Peace MCC and Trans*Action Florida. There will also be a special address from Dr. Kathleen Farrell, a local gender therapist. For more information about the event, go here.