The Black Pearl Tavern on J Street in Hoquiam.

Dispute between tavern owners and LGBTQ group becomes toxic

A conflict between the owners of a Hoquiam bar and the Grays Harbor LGBTQ community has boiled over into an ugly situation with each side claiming the other is guilty of threatening violence.

The Black Pearl Tavern on J Street in Hoquiam has only been open since the first of the year. Owners Johnny and Denise Gallego have owned the property for eight years and finally opened their bar, which they intended to be their retirement. The tavern is known for its live music and has a core of daily regulars.

About four months ago Johnny Gallego was approached by an LGBTQ group about holding a drag show. The owners say they thought of the place as more of a live music venue and declined the event. “It was strictly a business decision,” he said. “Just like I won’t hire a hypnotist, because this is a live music bar.”

Cut to Friday, Aug. 18, and the annual Pride weekend in Hoquiam. One of the main events was a drag show at the 7th Street Theatre, directly across the street from the Black Pearl.

What happened that Friday night depends on whom you ask.

Jen Gillies, co-founder of the Out and Proud Grays Harbor Coalition and current adviser for the Grays Harbor College Gay Straight Alliance, said, “We were made aware of an incident (Aug. 18) where a transgender individual was asked not to be there,” said Gillies. “I reached out to the (person’s) family and they shared what had happened.”

Hoquiam Mayor Jasmine Dickhoff and City Administrator Brian Shay confirmed Johnny Gallego had been at City Hall earlier that day to attempt to get a permit to hold an anti-LGBTQ rally on his property, something Johnny freely admits to.

“I could see this coming so I went to city hall to try to get a permit to hold a pro-straight event but was turned down,” he said. “Mostly I went down there to see what my rights were.” Shay said the permit was not turned down nor even applied for, as there was no way a permit could be approved in that short amount of time. Johnny doubts he would have been granted a permit, regardless of the timing.

Gillies, who did not attend the Friday gathering at the bar, said LGBTQ friends told her the idea of having a “sit-in” at the Black Pearl that evening was presented on Facebook, “to go in, have a drink and show we are all humans.” She said a friend and co-founder of Out and Proud Grays Harbor who did attend the sit-in with several others told her, “they were told if they ever tried to come back they would be shot and taken out in body bags.”

A regular at the bar and Johnny remember it quite differently.

“I was sitting at a table when the group came in,” said the regular, a female who wished to remain anonymous. “A woman in a tutu and her friends started dancing next to our table and asked if they were bothering us. I said no, of course not. Next thing I know the girl starts rubbing her hands up and down my body and kissing my face.”

Johnny himself tells the story shared by his regular.

“There were 20 or 30 of them who came in,” he said, adding it was pretty clear to him that the group had come “with an agenda” to protest the bar not allowing a drag show. He had figured there would be some backlash that evening and had “already told myself I’m going to just smile and pour them beer no matter what happened.” And according to bar regulars, that’s just what he did.

Gillies backed the dozens of posts and reports from her friends, claiming the group was just drinking and dancing when the bar owners yelled slurs at them, including “We don’t serve fags,” and even threatening them with physical violence.

“That’s not what I saw,” said the bar regular. “Even with the woman in the tutu shoving her camera into his face saying we’re filming you. Even with them kissing and fondling women who were not with the group. Johnny just smiled and kept pouring.”

The regular and Gallego claim the woman in the tutu then approached the bar and suction-cupped a large artificial penis to the counter, telling the bar owner, “Sit on that.” Gallego claimed he saw a man performing oral sex on another man near the dance floor.

The woman in the tutu denies all of these claims about her behavior. “I went in and attempted to have a reasonable conversation with him (Johnny),” she said, “and I was shocked from the beginning. He didn’t just threaten me, he threatened the entire community. He said if we came back in Saturday we would be killed, and that his regular patrons would kill us.”

Gillies said her friends claim they were kicked out of the bar, which Gallego flatly denies.

“I had only planned on staying open until 10, but stayed open until 11 because I was making good money. I didn’t close until most of them had left, even with some of my regulars leaving” because of the group’s behavior, he said.

Gillies said members of the group told her they were tossed and that Gallego told them if they ever returned they would be harmed or killed. Gallego said there was no exchange, other than the woman in the tutu telling him she had a relative in the Syrian army who was coming to kill him and his family, and others calling him homophobic, slurs that continued when he left the bar later that night, he said.

“That thing about the (artificial penis) and the threats? Nobody I’ve talked to about it mentioned anything about those things,” said Gillies. The woman who was accused of the majority of those activities flatly denied it. She asked to remain anonymous because she said “Johnny made me out to be a monster,” and she fears for her safety after what she said were very serious threats of violence.

The social media firestorm was intense and instantaneous. The Black Pearl’s Facebook page was riddled with negative comments from the LGBTQ community and their supporters. Denise said their 4.3 approval rating dropped to one within hours. Later, a couple of vulgar messages that were sent from the Black Pearl account as private messages were shared by the recipients online.

“I told everyone no, do not respond to this,” said Denise Gallego. However, a former part-time bartender who had access to the page was being attacked personally online and decided to hit back, Denise said. “I saw some of the things she was posting, language we would never use, and put a stop to it immediately.” Finally, late last Tuesday, when the posts showed no signs of slowing down, the Black Pearl Facebook page was taken down by the owners.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 19, not long after the sit-in had ended, Johnny called Hoquiam Police. The responding officers found that the gate to the Black Pearl’s beer garden had been kicked in. According to the incident report, Gallego told the officer he was not going to open the bar that day.

“My wife and I actually got into a pretty big fight about that,” said Gallego. “She wanted to open, but I just didn’t want to face what I knew would happen. I mean, they threatened me, my family and my business.”

Denise did go to the bar Saturday to clean. Then a relative showed up. And a regular. And another. So about 1:30 p.m. she made the command decision to open the bar for a few hours to serve a few patrons and says she closed about 5. The parking lot of the 7th Street Theater was filling up with participants for the evening drag show. Again, what happened next is unclear.

“I was closing up when a gal came over and asked for change. I said sure, I have change, and let her in,” said Denise. “She was very nice and polite.”

Gillies, who was across the street, tells a different story.

“My friend went to get change and a woman with black hair who had keys to the place started yelling at her, saying we don’t serve fags. I witnessed this myself.” Gillies said she went inside the theater for a bit, and when she came back out the same woman was threatening Gillies’ friend with violence, saying she wanted to beat her up in the street.

Denise Gallego said the opposite is true, claiming it was the crowd across the street that was making threats against her as she locked up.

“I spent eight years and more than $300,000 to get this bar open,” said Johnny. “And now it seems like everyone is out to shut me down — for doing nothing. For not having a drag show in my bar.” He said that every day last week threatening notes were left on the bar’s doors and windows. A windshield wiper was ripped from Denise’s car. Late Thursday the bar’s front door was open to allow for some air. A white car with darkly tinted windows stopped and four men hurled insults and threats to the Gallegos and their customers, they said. Johnny reported it to Hoquiam police and believes one of the men had a handgun. Since last Tuesday, police have taken malicious mischief complaints from the Black Pearl at least four times.

The Gallegos flatly deny being anti-gay. They say they have relatives, friends and regular bar patrons who are openly homosexual and bisexual, and Johnny said he’s only kicked two people out of his bar since he opened, “both young white straight men who showed up drunk and tried to start a fight. I escorted them out the door.”

With the bar’s Facebook page down, commenters have moved to Yelp to take shots at the Gallegos, who say they’ve had negative reviews from as far away as Spain and Australia from “people who couldn’t even point out Hoquiam on a map.”

When asked for comment, Mayor Dickhoff said, “How the community reacts to this will say more about Hoquiam than the acts of one business owner. If the owner of the Black Pearl should decide to hold a protest we will as a city accommodate that right. As it is our duty. We will also respond when reports of threats occur. Citizens also have their right to choose where they spend their hard earned money. Discrimination is not only against the law it is foolish for any business owner hoping to make a living. I will encourage the people in Grays Harbor and anyone visiting to frequent the overwhelming majority of Hoquiam businesses that provide a safe, friendly and community minded atmosphere.”