Marching into a gay bar to issue citations feels a bit vintage in 2024. Nevertheless, over the weekend, the Joint Enforcement Team (JET), which is a coalition of Seattle Police, Fire, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB), and others, entered The Cuff Complex and started looking around. LCB officials entered The Seattle Eagle and did the same thing. 

And what did they find? A bartender’s exposed nipple and a few people wearing jockstraps, offenses that law enforcement can cite you for in Washington if you’re also selling alcohol. 

At 12:30 on Saturday morning, a 10-member JET crew filed into Cuff, according to owner Joey Burgess. They came in with flashlights, scaring some patrons who left in a hurry. Inside, they saw the offending nipple, a violation of state law the JET may penalize in some way.

Saturday night, two LCB officials entered the Eagle at 11:30 pm and inspected the premises, owner Keith Christensen said. He’s waiting on a call from them about the jockstraps and a potential citation.

According to a "JET Agenda," officials hit Neighbours on Friday and "observed" a "lewd conduct violation." They hit The Lumberyard on Saturday and registered no violations. Of the 15 places enforcement inspected over the weekend, four were gay clubs, two were hookah lounges, one was a college bar, one was a hot dog stand, one was a music venue, one was a dive bar, another one was a bowling alley, another was a bar & grill, one was a roller rink, another was some weird lounge that has no internet presence, and they strafed the people who sell clothes on Pine Street. 

The City created the JET to address nuisance businesses and criminal activity in Seattle, but neither Cuff nor The Eagle had ever been cited for alcohol- or violence-related offenses. In this case, clothing was the sole issue. An open letter both owners signed calls for a thorough investigation into why the JET inspected two gay bars in as many nights. 

Both bars have been cited for similar reasons before. Christensen said the LCB chased out 70 percent of his business over citations in February 2008.

Burgess has dealt with this problem since Pride of 2022, when the LCB cited Cuff for a customer wearing a jockstrap. Since then, Cuff staff have hall-monitored fashion choices, banning jockstraps and asking patrons to pull up their pants to hide exposed cracks.

He said he's seen a decline in business because people assume Cuff wants to regulate their bodies, despite signage he’s put up explaining the pressure they’re facing from the state. It’s a difficult conversation to have late at night in a crowded bar.

It's also a frustrating conversation to have in general. People can play kickball in their jockstraps at nearby Cal Anderson Park, but they could risk a citation for walking into a Capitol Hill bar.

“You’re allowed to be who you are in Seattle as long as you don’t go into a gay bar,” Burgess said. “They’re not going into the other bars the same way as this.”

“I hate to feel like [it’s discrimination],” he added, “But to me, there is no other answer.”

The Stranger asked the LCB about the incident, and the agency said it was still gathering information. On Tuesday, a spokesperson released a statement saying the agency wanted to acknowledge the alarm and concern its enforcement actions caused but also to assure the LGBTQ+ community that it does not target their spaces. The spokesperson added that the agency contacted letter-signatories to clarify its actions and intent. “There is no emphasis on patrolling activity at LGBTQ+ establishments or any crackdown on lewd conduct violations,” read the statement. “The actions of the weekend were the result of routine work by LCB and other agencies.”

At a Tuesday caucus, LCB Board Chair David Postman disagreed with use of the term “raid,” but he could understand how JET’s entrance to Cuff looked, considering the history of law enforcement busts on queer bars and the LCB doling out citations at the Eagle years before. He called photographs taken as evidence “unfortunate.”

The Seattle Police Department said someone filed a complaint about the situation with the Office of Police Accountability, and so they can't comment while it's under investigation. The Seattle Fire Department and Bruce Harrell’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen wrote in a text message that the LGBTQ Caucus will be discussing the incident at its next meeting and “developing a plan.” State Rep. Nicole Macri said she would look into the matter urgently.

Though enforcement agencies choose how rigorously they crackdown on the laws, we do not have to live in a world where cops bust into gay bars and start citing bartenders for showing nipple. 

A bill in Olympia right now could set a precedent that may loosen restrictions on places that mix adult entertainment and booze. The worker-led group Strippers Are Workers (SAW) drafted a “Stripper Bill of Rights,” which would add security for and cut fees on dancers. Last year’s version of the legislation legalized alcohol service in clubs, but some lawmakers clutched pearls and killed the bill. This year’s legislation removed alcohol legalization, but, if passed, the law mentions that LCB could be asked to draft new rules for strip clubs. So while the bill does not address the problems Cuff and The Eagle are having, it would be a first step and good vehicle for further action.

“These regulations that are so paternalistic, that control people’s bodies and sexualities, pretty much only affect marginalized communities and non-conforming people,” said Madison Zack-Wu, who directs SAW. “I do see the thread here of queer venues being raided and strip clubs being prevented from having a sustainable business model as ultimately authoritarian judgment on how queer people and sex workers are trying to move through the world… Both of our communities should have the right to speak up against this.”

LCB Board Chair Postman said the agency does not oppose SAW’s bill and would welcome changes the Legislature approves, including revisiting this butts and booze law in some way. Lewd conduct is not a priority action for the board, he said.

“When there’s laws on the books, it is really hard to say, ‘Well, we’re just not going to enforce that one,”’ he said. “The Legislature doesn’t like that, and for good reason. We have to figure out how we can do this.”

Board member Jim Vollendroff agreed that the law should be revisited, and thanked people for tuning in.

“This is not a new situation,” he said. This happened 15 years ago. And so here we are 15 years later, unbelievably, in an environment where the LGBTQ+ community is being faced with trans rights issues, issues where the Supreme Court is talking about looking at gay marriage. So put it in that context, and you can really see why there's a lot of concern about this.”

We updated this article. Also, this post originally incorrectly stated that former Mayor Ed Murray created the JET Team, but, as it turns out, Murray only claimed to have created the JET team in a 2014 speech. According to a 2009 report, the City created the JET team under former Mayor Greg Nickels.