Have you heard the one about the angry queers lambasting the Liquor and Cannabis Board for two hours? 

Well, let me tell ya, at the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) meeting Wednesday morning, a mob of seething queers showed up to body the agency during the public comment period. They demanded the LCB scrub antiquated state regulations on “lewd conduct” following local and national outrage over raids at four queer Seattle bars over the weekend. The outcry sent state lawmakers into a flurry and put the LCB on notice as officials mull a response to criticism. Judging by the board’s mood at the meeting, it’s looking like something might happen. 

Board Chair David Postman began the meeting by openly questioning the agency’s participation in the Joint Enforcement Team (JET), a coalition of Seattle police, fire, transportation, and financial officers that work with the LCB to enforce code violations. 

He also questioned the state’s interest in enforcing an old lewd conduct regulation. Nevertheless, he asserted that Saturday’s inspections were not raids, only enforcement of the state’s liquor laws. “When we have a raid, we get warrants, we have law enforcement armed and uniformed, but this is not what that was,” he said. 

After receiving plenty of pushback from the public and from a board member, he ended the meeting apologizing for his statements. He said the agency would have addressed this sooner if they’d known it was a problem. “The question of whether it was a raid or not, it’s not for me to say,” he said.

The raids began early Saturday morning, when JET marched into The Cuff Complex on Capitol Hill with flashlights. LCB officers threatened to cite a bartender for an exposed nipple under the state’s lewd conduct law. 

Saturday night, LCB agents hit The Seattle Eagle and took photos of customers in jockstraps as evidence. Of the 18 stops JET and the LCB made over the weekend, four were at gay businesses–including the Lumberyard in White Center, and Neighbours Nightclub in Capitol Hill. 

The story became national news after bar owners authored an open letter calling for an investigation into the inspections, which The Stranger reported on.

Kevin Kauer, owner of Massive on Capitol Hill and one of the lead organizers behind the letter, said he’s seen enforcement target queer bars in aggressive and passive ways in his two decades of experience in nightlife. He said it was nearly impossible to run an LGBTQ nightlife environment under current conditions, and impossible to know how strictly officers will enforce policy “since we’re such an easy target.” He called for respect during visits–shining flashlights on bodies and snapping photos are not respectful, he said.

“You have the authority to change the lewd contact WACs, why are you telling us that you can’t?” he added. 

During the meeting, Postman said he was open to rewriting regulations, but he wanted state lawmakers to make the policy, not the LCB. This morning, LGBTQ caucus member and Senate Floor Leader Jamie Pedersen said lawmakers planned to reintroduce language to a bill currently in Olympia that would nix the state’s lewd conduct regulations from the Washington Administrative Code. The bill, a “Strippers Bill of Rights” measure from the worker-led Strippers Are Workers, would add security and reduce fees for dancers. He said there was no excuse for the JET and LCB this weekend. 

“In Seattle? In 2024? Are you kidding?” he said.

Before public comment began, LCB Enforcement and Education Director Chandra Wax explained that two LCB officers joined JET Friday and Saturday to respond to a complaint about observed sexual conduct at one of the bars. A stop at another queer bar that night amounted to a follow-up on what police said they’d seen in early January: people leaving with drinks in hand and a customer too drunk to stand. One Saturday, officers inspected one queer bar because “there was an event happening.” At three of the four locations, officers witnessed “lewd conduct violations,” she said. 

Since 2021 to date, Wax said the LCB has addressed 10 lewd conduct violations at nine separate locations, four of which were at gay clubs. Officers are trained on diversity and equity, she added. But LCB Board member Jim Vollendroff asked if enforcement at so many gay bars in a short period was a coincidence, and on a phone call with The Stranger, he said he found it peculiar. 

“By definition these were not raids, but I do want to point out the power differential between us and our licensees,” he said. “With eight to ten people showing up at a given time, it’s difficult for us not to take that into consideration. It probably felt like a raid. And I’m hearing from the community that it felt like a raid.” 

After the meeting, Vollendroff said he is a member of the LGBTQ community who has been to the bars before. He wants to know what the data shows about how the lewd conduct law has been enforced in the past. He’s in a position to “trouble the system,” he said.

“I’m not going to sit back and listen and take what I hear,” he said. “I’m going to poke at things until I feel satisfied that we’ve come up with a long-term solution and make sure this doesn’t happen again.” 

The fierce public comment session that followed the board’s general discussion lasted nearly two hours.

Graeme Schulman said that it seemed ridiculous that he had to advocate for this change in the first place when police choose which laws they enforce all the time.

Jim Rios, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, said back then he could only be himself in the safe and sacred space of the gay bar. He criticized Postman’s assertion that agents were simply doing their jobs when they snapped photos of men with their shirts off for evidence. 

“Your agents are human beings,” he said. “They’re not robots and are subject to their own personal biases. They also exercise personal discretion in the field that may be the result of bias.”

Joey Burgess, owner of Queer Bar and Cuff, said enforcement of these archaic laws has been a historical problem with JET and the LCB for beyond a decade. The raid scared his staff, who he said felt as if they had been investigated for a crime they had not committed. He said his other business, Oddfellows, has never been treated like his gay bars. 

“You have never stormed service [at Oddfellows] at 8 pm on a Friday night,” he said. “The math doesn’t math, and your excuses don’t either.”

Index Media’s Dan Savage said the LCB inspections could not be interpreted outside their national context: Last year, State Legislatures introduced more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills. More than 80 passed, most affecting trans people. With its raids, he said the LCB and JET sent a message to bigots across the country–if they’re raiding gay bars in Seattle, then now is the time to up their game. 

Savage also told the LCB to stop calling what happened over the weekend “site visits.”

“These were raids,” he said. “If everyone at a bar leaves when you show up, ten of you in uniform and with flashlights, they’re not experiencing that as a social call.”

Savage added that if the photos of gay men entered the public record, then they could meet the legal definition of revenge porn in Washington State.

Nico Swenson, aka, Miss Texas 1988, said they were disappointed to see the Board downplaying the raids during a Tuesday caucus meeting. They accused the LCB of shoving off responsibility to the Legislature and using it as an excuse to enact harsh punishments. 

They shared the story of an LCB officer allegedly cornering a go-go dancer a few weeks ago for showing too much butt cheek at a bar, and telling them they had just started enforcing this old policy. 

They also questioned who the nipple hurt. “If you think someone would be driven to an uncontrollable sexual frenzy by the sight of a nipple or a butt cheek, then why find and go after the victim instead of the potential assailants?” they said. These actions “only incite more fear of people in nightlife.”

Though the LCB and JET took a lot of heat today for the raids, the responsibility to change laws lies with state lawmakers, especially in an era where the Supreme Court is actively threatening to nuke the rule-making powers of federal and state agencies. To that end, the Legislature’s LGBTQ caucus is set to meet on Friday to discuss next steps.