The Central Arkansas Pride Festival is typically a unified celebration of the region’s LGBT community. So, when a group of Black Lives Matter protestors interrupted the event in October to publicly denounce Little Rock’s Club Sway, many of those in attendance were left bewildered. The protest, however, was the culmination of a 10-month conflict over accusations of cultural appropriation, racism and transphobia against the venue.
Since it first coined the term “#GlitterRock,” Club Sway has developed a statewide reputation for its come-as-you-are willingness to embrace any kind of eccentricity that graces its dance floor, but recently that reputation has been overshadowed by a schism regarding inclusiveness and racial sensitivity. Sway’s troubles began last year, after Queen Anthony James Gerard, one of the club’s headlining drag queens, was coming off the high of a great weekend: solid performances at the club and, more importantly, solid tips. She decided to treat herself to a new wig, and there was no changing her mind when a lace front box braid caught her eye. “It was right there on the mannequin head and I was obsessed,” Queen said in a recent interview. “It made me feel fabulous, it made me feel beautiful. It was one of those things where you see it and you just have to have it.”
Outside of drag, Queen identifies as a cisgender gay white man. The pronoun her indicates Queen speaking in the drag character.
A short time later, in September 2015, Queen posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing the wig. Queen’s outfit was inspired by the character Noxeema Jackson from the cult film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” in which Wesley Snipes plays a drag queen and refers to himself as an “ebony enchantress,” a phrase Queen used as a hashtag for the photo.
The allusion, however, was lost on social media. In January, Savannah Rayne, a gender nonconforming youth activist at the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR), pointed out Queen’s box braid photo on Facebook. Rayne says that in a private exchange, Queen called her an “it” as a transphobic slur.
“People would send me these articles [on social media] about why it was so offensive for me to wear these braids,” Queen said. “I wanted to create a performance that spoke to that.”
The resulting performance, which took place in late April, was an homage to the comedian Leo Anthony Gallagher, whose shtick was busting open watermelons with a large mallet. Queen wrote the words “racism,” “transphobia” and “ageism” on the watermelons before smashing and eating them. The symbolism was spelled out explicitly with a spoken statement before and after the performance, though only a partial video of the event seems to exist, and it doesn’t include the artist’s statement.
Performance art, of course, is overly reliant upon context, and social media outrage is often dependent upon a lack of context. When Club Sway posted the partial video to Facebook with the title “A Message to Queen’s Haters,” the anger over Queen’s performance spread from the performer to the venue that was now viewed as supporting her.
“The watermelons weren’t well thought out,” Queen admitted, “but it really hurt me that my art was being interpreted this way that was the total opposite of how I meant it.”
A protest of the club was organized via Facebook, though it was later canceled after an individual not associated with the staff or management of Club Sway threatened violence against anyone who protested. Rayne, in a public Facebook post, stated that her issues with Club Sway were that it “mimics black culture, use black language, and exploit black people, but I don’t hear yall yelling black lives matter, or justice for [black communities].”
In an attempt to quell the furor, Jason Wiest, one of the co-owners of Club Sway, released a statement on July 3 crafted with the help of the Human Rights Campaign. The statement acknowledged the accusations and apologized for “any unintended ill will” that may have been caused.
The controversy didn’t go away. Rayne and another activist approached the leadership of Central Arkansas Pride, of which Club Sway is a presenting sponsor. They threatened to approach other Pride sponsors about the allegations surrounding Club Sway in hopes of convincing those companies to revoke their sponsorship of the festival.
Hoping to broker a deal between the two groups, the leadership of Pride arranged a meeting in late July between the activists, Rae Nelson, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters of Little Rock and Jose Gutierrez, the executive director of the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR); along with Sway’s ownership; Queen; and two moderators from Just Communities of Arkansas. One of the moderators was Dr. Denise Donnell, the senior faith organizer for the Human Rights Campaign in Arkansas who is also involved in the local Black Lives Matter chapter.* Queen made a direct apology to Rayne, but the activists made two demands of Club Sway: voluntary abstention from the 2016 Little Rock Pride celebration and a reissued public apology that was more sincere and that named specific groups who were offended.
“We weren’t going to sit out Pride,” Wiest said. “We celebrate pride 364 days of the year, and it was important for us to be there.” Sway did agree to reissue an apology, even agreeing to let the activists read the apology before it was made public. The activists countered that in order for Sway to participate in Pride, the public apology must be read from the festival stage in October, and all of Sway’s employees and owners must attend racial sensitivity classes provided by CAR.
“We went to that meeting to resolve [this issue], so we weren’t going to read a statement three months after the fact,” Wiest said. The entire staff of Sway agreed to take classes, except for the club’s second co-owner Marcus Pinkney, who is himself black. The activists deemed this unacceptable and informed Sway that their next step would be direct action.
The activists gained the support of the Little Rock chapter of Black Lives Matter and began to organize a protest centered on October’s Pride celebration. Black Lives Matter had already registered to walk in the parade, and they chose to march directly in front of Club Sway’s float, holding signs urging bystanders to boycott the club. Later, during the entertainment portion of the festival, Black Lives Matter protestors took the stage at the end of a dance performance by a group from CAR. Though the protestors had CAR’s permission to use part of their allotted stage time, festival staff was unaware of the planned protest, and volunteers quickly rushed the stage attempting to physically drag the protestors away.
A video of the protest shows Nelson announcing to the crowd that the protestors “have three demands” before her microphone is shut off. As the crowd began to chant “let them speak,” the microphone was turned back on and the crowd chanted back and forth with the protestors, affirming that black lives, black queer lives and black trans lives matter.
The crowd seemed to turn on the protesters, however, when one of them began speaking about Sway. “Club Sway has perpetuated nothing but violence against black people, as well as taken from our culture, and just completely disregarded everything we had to say,” a protestor can be heard saying over a chorus of boos from the crowd. The microphone was cut off again before the protestors could finish listing their demands.
The protestors were then escorted from the stage by festival staff and police. “As soon as we were off the stage, we were surrounded by police officers,” Nelson said. One of the officers brandished a Taser at the protestors. “It was very traumatizing … to have a police officer in my face treating us like we’re the aggressors.”
Zachary Miller, one of the protestors and another founding member of Black Lives Matter of Little Rock, said he didn’t think there had been any change in the culture of Club Sway, though he believes the protest was successful in bringing to light issues that LGBT persons of color face in Little Rock.
“If at any time [Sway] had accepted accountability and, you know, done the training, we could have solved this,” Miller said. The Black Lives Matter chapter is leading a boycott of the club until its list of demands is met, including anti-racism classes for all staff, performers and owners; a personal apology to Rayne; a public apology; and a donation, made to local organizations, equivalent to the money that Club Sway has earned from the appropriation of black culture.
Wiest said that, as of yet, the protest has had no impact on business.
*This story has been updated.