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Seattle LGBTQ Bars Just Won a Major Victory After Liquor Board Raids Sparked Outrage

A regulation on “lewd conduct” that critics say was outdated will no longer be enforced, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board announced Thursday

A wall with a sign that reads “the Cuff” surrounded by copies of a letter.
The exterior of the Cuff covered with copies of a letter to the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Harry Cheadle
Harry Cheadle is the editor of Eater Seattle.

LGBTQ bars and nightclubs in Seattle are celebrating a victory this week. On Thursday, February 1, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) announced that it wouldn’t issue violations for any of the potential infractions observed by officers during raids conducted over the weekend of January 26. The LCB also ended its collaboration with Joint Enforcement Team (JET), a coalition of law enforcement agencies that monitors bars, nightclubs, and other venues for illegal activity, and said that it would be pausing enforcement of the lewd conduct regulations.

The group of club owners of celebrated this decision with a statement that said, “This is a huge victory for queer people, queer spaces, and queer self-expression.”

LGBTQ clubs and their patrons were put on edge last weekend, when JET performed unannounced inspections at several LGBTQ establishments, sparking outrage in the Seattle queer community. At the Cuff Complex on Friday night, LCB officers entered with flashlights, owner Joey Burgess later told the Stranger, which spooked some patrons into leaving; according to reports, officers also took photos of patrons.

The potential violation these officers witnessed, the Seattle Times reported, was a bartender’s exposed nipple.

The following night, LCB officers entered the Seattle Eagle, another gay bar, and did much the same thing, finding patrons who were in jock straps, another potential violation of the same regulation prohibiting various types of “lewd conduct” at venues with liquor licenses.

On January 29, owners of the Eagle and Cuff wrote an open letter about these “unjust raids,” which they said conjured up memories of past homophobic actions by Seattle cops, like when authorities threatened to shut down gay bar Tugs Belmont for hosting underwear parties in the ’90s (Cal Anderson, the first openly gay state legislator in Washington, showed up at one of these underwear parties to intervene).

“These recent events not only compromise the community’s sense of safety but also threaten to reverse progress in improving relationships between the LGBTQ+ community and law enforcement,” the letter read.

Kevin Kauer is the owner of Seattle LGBTQ club Massive and one of the signers of the letter. He tells Eater Seattle that the targeting of LGBTQ spaces by law enforcement has “ebbed and flowed over time” but that lately, authorities seem to be monitoring these places especially closely.

Kauer says that one problem is the conduct of officers when they perform these checks. “They definitely don’t need to be coming up with flashlights and inspecting people’s bodies, they definitely don’t need to be taking pictures,” he says. Instead, he’d prefer officers to talk directly to the business owners about what the problem is. “We try very hard to not do anything wrong, but because of the way the lewd content [regulation] is written, it really is up to [cops] to decide if we’re doing something wrong.” For instance, there’s confusion about whether being shirtless in a bar is okay if the person in question is nonbinary, Kauer says.

The regulation in question, WAC 314-11-050, bans many types of nudity in venues where alcohol is served. Efforts to strike it from the books have largely focused on its impact on strip clubs, which can’t sell alcohol because of it. But it also restricts what can be worn at other bars or clubs — even though in Seattle, there aren’t otherwise restrictions on public nudity. So you can play frisbee in Cal Anderson Park wearing only a G-string, but you can’t wear that same G-string to the Eagle.

The attention drawn to the raids both online and at an LCB meeting Wednesday morning seems to have spurred the board into action — prompting the changes to enforcement and the end of participation in JET.

“We have power when we come together to fight back,”a statement from a group of club owners including Kauer reads. “We have power when we come together to celebrate. And we really have something to celebrate this weekend. Come join the party!”

The Cuff responded to the LCB announcement with this cheeky Instagram post:

In Olympia, there’s a parallel effort to purge WAC 314-11-050 for good. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the majority floor leader, told Eater Seattle that legislators are working to amend a bill he co-sponsored to repeal that regulation. “LCB could repeal its own regulation and if the legislature were not in session, that would be the fastest path,” Pedersen said in an email. “But since we are in session, the repeal can happen quickly and effectively.”

In a text, Kauer told Eater Seattle that “It’s not all resolved yet” and there will still have to be rule-making and legislation done around this issue. “But for now, it’s definitely great.”