The LGBTQ community in Montgomery, Alabama, has been left with more questions than answers after a drag show was shut down by authorities Saturday night, during the 50th anniversary weekend of the historic Stonewall uprising.
“We've been running for weeks trying to raise money for a gay club in Montgomery, because we don't have one,” Victoria A. Jewelle, a local drag queen who serves as the show’s director, told NBC News. “We were trying to raise money for a new establishment so we can have a place to feel safe.”
Officials with Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board canvassed a dozen local bars, restaurants and nightclubs June 29 for what they call a “minor buy.” Essentially, the board sends a young person under the age of 21 into the establishment to see if the business will sell alcohol to them. It was assisted in this effort by the Montgomery Police Department and the Montgomery Fire and Rescue, in addition to other agencies.
At 10:45 p.m., officials arrived on the scene at A Touch of Soul, a soul food restaurant that was hosting a drag show to raise funds for the opening of a new LGBTQ nightclub in Montgomery. The city’s only full-time gay bar, Club 322, closed in May.
According to Jewelle, the fundraiser has gone on for weeks with absolutely no backlash from local authorities. All of that changed when performers say officials with the agencies came into their dressing rooms while they were putting on their makeup, shined flashlights in their faces and even went through their laptops.
Authorities ordered A Touch of Soul to close at midnight, giving everyone about an hour to pack up and leave. The fundraiser, which also served as the after party for Montgomery’s LGBTQ pride weekend, was essentially over before it even started.
Ambrosia Starling, a drag queen and community leader in Montgomery, said the scene was reminiscent of the bar raids at the long-closed HoJohns, the city’s premiere gay nightclub during the 1980s. She claimed that police would typically visit the bar at the end of their shifts to “practice the dogs” on its LGBTQ clientele.
“They used to raid HoJohns continuously,” Starling said. “The city of Montgomery has a history of harassing some of the older community LGBTQ spaces.”
‘NEVER HAD THIS PROBLEM BEFORE’
A second establishment experienced issues with authorities while hosting an LGBTQ event on Saturday night, the same day as the city’s LGBTQ Pride Month celebrations. Montgomery officials showed up at Club Reset, which was formerly known as Envi Ultra Lounge, at 2:00 a.m. and ordered patrons to “pour out their drinks” and vacate the premises immediately.
T’Chelle Monroe, a party promoter who has been organizing LGBTQ events at Club Reset for a year, said the bar typically stops serving drinks at that time and allows clubgoers to file out in a leisurely fashion.
Monroe said she’s “never had this problem before.”
“I've been in other clubs before, and I know they shut their bar down at 2 a.m.,” she said. “I've never heard that you actually had to be out of the club at that time.”
As LGBTQ people filed out of Club Reset after it was shut down, Monroe said many went over to nearby Club Ciroc, which shares a building with an auto supply shop and a hookah lounge. She said officials “followed” them to Club Ciroc, despite the fact that it had already passed its regulations check earlier in the evening.
A representative with Club Ciroc confirmed authorities did show up a second time at 2:30 a.m. but did not know whether they had followed patrons of Club Reset there.
“It made me feel like they’re targeting us,” Monroe said. “We already have enough to deal with being gay, but we’re here trying to celebrate each other on our weekend. They were tarnishing what we were trying to do. We’re just trying to have a good time amongst each other.”
NBC News contacted two other businesses that Monroe said were visited by police Saturday: Xscape Tapas Grille and Sky Bar.
A representative with Xscape confirmed that authorities were at the business for a half hour on Saturday, rigorously checking the lights, inspecting identifications and looking at liquor receipts, though the representative had no complaints about the interactions with city officials that night.
While Club Ciroc, Xscape and Sky Bar all confirmed authorities had visited their businesses, representatives from each declined to be quoted in this story.
Montgomery officials maintain that everything that took place Saturday night was completely by the book.
Dean Argo, the government relations manager for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, said the board didn’t initially intend to scrutinize A Touch of Soul this weekend. However, he said an inspector approached the restaurant after he observed “people outside sitting on stools collecting money at the door,” as a board representative would later write in an incident report.
Argo read NBC News the report in its entirety.
“Upon entering the location, we found there was no food in the kitchen, no cook on duty,” the report states. “A restaurant license is issued for this location and that is described as habitually and principally used for the purpose of preparing and serving meals for the public to consume on premise.”
“Speaking only for the ABC Board,” Argo added, “we did not instruct anyone at this business to shut down.”
Jason Cupps, a captain with the Montgomery Fire Rescue, added that city authorities “verbally reminded the restaurant that, under the terms of its business license, it is required to close by midnight.”
Geri Moss, the restaurant’s owner, said that explanation doesn’t hold water. Since opening A Touch of Soul in 2016, she said it has regularly stayed open Fridays and Saturdays until 2 a.m. without incident. A Google search confirms those hours. According to Moss, the restaurant doesn’t shut its doors before that time unless business is slow.
“I was told that I could stay open until 2 a.m. on Saturday,” she said, adding that the city authorities who came to the restaurant over the weekend didn’t mention its hours being an issue.
While the ABC Board inspector noted in his report that there was no cook in the kitchen at the time of the visit, Moss claimed that is not true. She said she got up that morning around 4 a.m. to prepare the menu for the show, which was steak, potatoes and salad. There was another cook onsite ready to assist patrons in the meantime, should they want to order a hamburger and fries, she added.
“My kitchen is never closed unless the cafe’s closed, and there is always a cook,” she said. “If I’m not there, there’s a cook.”
Others confirmed there was a cook onsite.
Moss also said despite claims that A Touch of Soul was “collecting money at the door” for the fundraiser, she claimed there “weren't any customers at that point.”
"The only persons that they saw were workers that I hired to work the party," she claimed.
When NBC News approached the ABC Board and the Montgomery Fire and Rescue with the discrepancies between their official statements and what those present at A Touch of Soul said occurred Saturday, they could not offer an explanation. Both Argo and Cupps say they had been offered no additional information on the subject.
Several members of Montgomery’s LGBTQ community said what upsets them most about the weekend incident is that it seems to be a departure from the improving relationship between LGBTQ residents and city authorities. That relationship, they maintain, has improved greatly since the 1980s, when police harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people was the norm.
Montgomery, Alabama’s second-largest city, hired its first LGBTQ liaison officer two years ago, and now it has two: Bianka Ruiz and Devin Douglas.
“We thought that we had gotten on such good footing, and that was one of the things that was so confusing for us,” Starling said. “We’re trying to build a good relationship with the police department. We thought that was being accomplished.”
Starling credits the Montgomery Police Department with being responsive to the community’s concerns about how the drag show was handled. Police Chief Ernest N. Finley addressed the matter in a speech to the LGBTQ community Sunday. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Finley claimed the action had been planned for weeks but admitted the timing was “unfortunate.”
"You have my word that this shouldn’t happen,” he said, promising “more communication” in the future.
But even if the intentions of local authorities were benign, those present during the incident at A Touch of Soul wondered why officials couldn’t have chosen any weekend other than Pride to do a sweep of bars and nightclubs in Montgomery.
“If you knew for months, why didn’t you switch the day out of respect?” Jewelle asked.
When NBC News reached out to the Montgomery Police Department for comment, it deferred to the Montgomery Fire and Rescue’s statements on the matter.
Despite the controversy, A Touch of Soul has no plans to cease holding drag shows at the restaurant. Moss promised members of the city’s LGBTQ community they could keep putting on events until they raise enough money to “get their home,” and she doesn’t intend to break that pledge.
“If they got to shut me down, then they’re going to have to come with something not bogus and not made up,” she said.