Nineteen years ago, many Americans first learned Matthew Shepard’s name when he was brutalized and murdered. Almost one year earlier, Chris Dawkins and his then business partner opened the Denver Wrangler. Those two events are not easily seen as relevant to each other. However, this month the foundation created in Matthew’s name and the gay bar widely known for its controversial Gender Matching ID & Dress Code policy come together for a charity event.
While discrimination within the LGBT community isn’t as isolated as media coverage might indicate, the Denver Wrangler’s discriminatory ID policy received national attention. This made the partnership with a nationally known LGBT social justice foundation like the Matthew Shepard Foundation more noteworthy.
This unprecedented relationship centered around the foundation’s largest annual fund raising event. Bear-lesque to Make a Difference has become an annual part of the weekend preceding the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s gala Bear to Make a Difference. The pre-gala event was hosted by Colorado activist, political staffer, and adored entertainer, Anthony Aragon.
On the Matthew Shepard Foundation Facebook Bear to Make a Difference event page Judy Shepard writes,
“You may know that my husband Dennis and I started the Foundation in 1998 to honor the life of our son Matt, with a mission to "replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance." Since then, steady progress has been made towards a future where equal rights prevail for all, and we won't stop until they do.
An important piece of the Foundation's work each year is joining together with you at our annual Gala to recognize the work of individuals and organizations alike that have made significant contributions to promoting those core values of understanding, compassion and acceptance in their work and in their lives.”
Many online posts questioned how the ideals of the Matthew Shepard Foundation could reconcile partnering with an LGBT business they felt discriminated against transgender and lesbian community members. The announcement that the Matthew Shepard Foundation scheduled an event at the Denver Wrangler received some strong reactions. Citing an unsigned email he received, Matthew Shepard Foundation Executive Director Jason Marsden recounted, “… ‘I was shocked to see you would hold the event at the Wrangler. This disregards the hurt in the community that resulted from their policy, and if that’s the kind of partnership you’re comfortable with then I’m not comfortable supporting your organization anymore,’ which is a painful thing to hear.”
During a September 9th conversation, Matthew Shepard Foundation Communications Manager Sara Grossman and I confirmed the Wrangler’s website still posted the ID policy in question. Wrangler owner Chris Dawkins had also committed to posting an apology about the ID policy as part of the plan for the event. Both the apology and the policy update were finally posted on September 11, 2017.
With the Bear-lesque to Make a Difference event agreed to early in the summer, why wasn’t the apology posted, or the ID Policy updated on the Wrangler’s website until a few days after I asked the Matthew Shepard Foundation about them? To get clarification and a bit of background, Chris Dawkins, the owner of the Denver Wrangler, agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview. We met at the Matthew Shepard Foundation offices in Denver.
When the plans were made to hold the event at the Wrangler, the Matthew Shepard Foundation understood the need to address the community perception of the Wrangler as a gay bar that discriminated against trans women and lesbians. They also saw this as an opportunity to encourage healing in the community.
Matthew Shepard Foundation Communication Manager Sara Grossman explained that the foundation advised the Wrangler to make a public statement about the ID Policy change in advance of the event. She added, “so in a way not only is this a fundraising event for us it's a coming-out party for them. And it's my hope,. and I would say the Foundation's hope that it leads to some form of healing in the community. And like Jason said, we're not telling anybody anyway to feel, but we have planted this tree now and we're hoping that the fruits of this tree eventually pay off.”
Those hopes for the event faced an additional hurdle when even after the Matthew Shepard Foundation event was announced, and the Denver Wrangler website still posted the Gender Matching ID Policy they claimed to have dropped.
So I asked Chris Dawkins about the timing of the Id Policy change and his public apology for 20 years of a policy that was seen as discrimination.
In many communities LGBT business have a long tradition of giving back to their own community. Whether hosting fundraisers, providing meeting space, or other direct actions. The Denver Wrangler has made supporting LGBT community charities part of the business model for the entire twenty years. The busiest days have consistently been the Denver Wrangler Sunday Afternoon Beer Bust. A different local charity comes in each week to pour beer. Chris Dawkins explained, that “a lot of that money we collect, goes back to them.” And he described it as the charity hosting the party. This set up a disconnect in the minds of many seeing the potential for being a leader in the LGBT business community, yet the discrimination within the same community of the Gender Matching ID policy, and a reputation of being unwelcoming to lesbians. Over the twenty years complaints, protests, regulatory action, and even Wrangler staff repeatedly called out the business for the policy. Chris Dawkins called it “difficult policy to uphold” while also saying, it “wrecked a couple of careers and a couple of people's lives”. So I had to ask again, What took so long?
The Matthew Shepard Foundation slogan “Erase Hate” has touched hearts and minds for 19 years. That work is usually thought of as facing outside the LGBT community, yet this new opportunity to address hate, intolerance, and division within the LGBT will test their supporters as much as the skills of the staff. Will the partnership between the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Denver Wrangler become a positive example of change and healing, or will co-signing an untested apology and commitment for change prove to be a mistake? Overcoming intolerance, division, and hate will require more than a single post and a special event. It’s a long game, and many are watching and counting on the result.
Funds raised during Bearlesque at the Denver Wrangler: $14k
Funds raised during the Bear To Make A Difference Gala: $101,553
An abbreviated version of this coverage first ran on the Advocate.com https://www.advocate.com/video/2017/10/20/gay-bar-finally-apologizes-its-hurtful-door-policy