Gays Call Cover Offensive : Matchbook Tests Bias Ordinance

Times Staff Writer

The first test of West Hollywood’s new ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals has come in the form of a matchbook.

Michael Jenkins, the interim city attorney, has warned the owner of Barney’s Beanery, a restaurant that has been a Santa Monica Boulevard fixture for more than two decades, that a matchbook he distributes bearing the slogan “Fagots Stay Out” violates the new law.

In a letter to Irwin Held, the restaurant’s owner, Jenkins wrote, “This type of written material would seem to be in direct contradiction of the provisions” of the ordinance. Jenkins also noted that the penalty for violating the ordinance is a $500-a-day fine for as long as the violation continues.


Held, who has owned the restaurant for 15 years, said he would not decide how to react until his attorney, Norman Levine, meets with Jenkins. But Held said he doesn’t consider matchbooks evidence of discrimination against homosexuals and added he is reluctant to halt their distribution because “they’re a part of the history of the place.”

Steve Schulte and Alan Viterbi, the two West Hollywood city councilmen who initiated the action against Barney’s, said the matchbooks create an atmosphere that discourages homosexuals from entering the restaurant.

‘Offensive and Unacceptable’

“The whole thing is offensive and unacceptable,” said Schulte, one of the new city’s three gay council members. “It’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s gay. I know plenty of people who won’t go in because they don’t feel welcome.”

Barney’s, a rambling building with a ceiling decorated with old newspapers and a menu advertising 150 kinds of beer and dozens of hamburger combinations, has long been frequented by film industry workers, artists, students, and at one time, according to gay activist Morris Kight, homosexuals.

Kight said that in the early 1960s, homosexuals constituted a growing clientele at Barney’s, then run by Barney Anthony, the original owner. “It was becoming a gay hangout,” Kight said.

That changed, Kight said, when the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission pressured Anthony to keep gays out. “That’s when the sign went up,” he said.

Graham Archer, supervisor of the ABC’s Los Angeles regional office, said he knew of no laws that would have prohibited gays from gathering at Barney’s and added that he doubted that the agency exerted any private pressure to keep homosexuals from drinking there.

“The only way action would have been taken,” he said, “was if there were overt acts being committed in the bar with the knowledge of the owner.”

‘Part of the Tradition’

A sign, reading “Fagots Stay Out,” was placed over the bar, Kight said. Although Kight said he never heard evidence of homosexuals’ being ejected from the restaurant, “the effect was that gays stopped going.”

By the time Held bought the bar in 1969, the restaurant--and its “Fagots Stay Out” sign--had been memorialized in a Life magazine photograph and a sculpture by artist Ed Kienholz, which now hangs in the Royal Dutch Museum.

“The sign is part of the tradition of the place,” said Held, whose six-page menu is liberally sprinkled with the phrase: “We reserve the right to refuse to service to anyone, even you.”

In 1970, Kight, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, joined other homosexuals in demonstrating against the restaurant for three weeks. Gay activists manned a picket line outside the restaurant and engaged in a “shop-in,” occupying tables in the restaurant and taking as long as three hours to drink a cup of cold coffee.

Continuing the pressure, gay activists filed suit four years later in an attempt to obtain a court injunction preventing Held from distributing the matchbooks and selling T-shirts with the anti-gay slogan. The suit was dismissed after Held’s attorneys argued that the slogan was “part of the tradition and decor of Barney’s” and that it was “obviously intended to be humorous and is not coupled with any policy or practice of discrimination.”

Albert Gordon, an attorney who represented the gay activists, filed an appeal but later dropped the case, he said, when Held agreed to take down the sign.

Held hopes his earlier legal victory will help him now.

“If we were legal then, I don’t see why we’re not legal now,” Held said. He insisted that the restaurant serves gay customers and makes no attempt to refuse to serve homosexuals. “How do you tell what a homosexual looks like?” he asked. “You tell me.”

But Viterbi, one of the council’s two non-gay members, said he has received a number of complaints from homosexuals.

“I was getting a haircut the other day and my barber complained,” he said. “It’s a personal sore point with a lot of gays. Whether it’s a silly old tradition or an actual policy, it still indicates to a large segment of our community that they’re not wanted.”

Viterbi and Schulte went to Barney’s in early December and left with several matchbooks as evidence. During the meal, Schulte said, he asked one of the bartenders what the word “fagot” meant. “I was told it referred to a bundle of wood,” he said. “It was a pretty lame explanation.”

(A fagot, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is a bundle of twigs used as fuel. A faggot is defined as slang for a male homosexual.)

With the council’s approval, Viterbi and Schulte asked Jenkins to draft a warning letter to Held. Viterbi said if the restaurant doesn’t comply, the matchbooks probably would be turned over to the county district attorney’s office, which is under contract to handle the city’s criminal cases and has assigned two prosecutors to handle discrimination complaints.

Levine, Held’s attorney, said he plans to meet with Jenkins to discuss the matter. “I want to see a copy of the ordinance before we take any position,” he said.

Voters approved the incorporation of West Hollywood on Nov. 6. In one of its first actions, the City Council on Nov. 29 passed an ordinance banning discrimination against gays in public accommodations, housing and employment.