Jamez Smith was new in town. He didn't know the scene. So one night, he went to the 19 Bar in Loring Park. It's known for a good jukebox, excellent pinball, and a casual atmosphere in which gay men can relax.
It didn't take long for another guy to notice Smith. He has a muscular build (he's a former Air Force flight simulator technician), a Mohawk that fades down his neck, and a knack for bringing up interesting trivia.
The guy sat down next to Smith and the two began talking. As the conversation and liquor flowed, the other man made his move, inviting Smith back to his car to listen to music, then to his apartment for a nightcap. Smith agreed.
But then the story takes a dark turn. While smoking a cigarette, the man looked him face-on, took a dramatic drag, looked back at Smith, and said, "Don't steal from me."
Smith's eyes went big. "What!?"
The guy suddenly got sober. "What? Oh my god, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It's just what you're wearing."
"What I'm wearing?"
The guy continued to plead, but Smith had heard enough. He got up to leave, but he was new in town and didn't know where he was. He chose to stay the night, sleeping in the guy's bed fully clothed. He left in the morning.
"It wasn't my jeans he was looking at," Smith says in conclusion. "It was my genes."
For Smith, it was the start of another cycle. He had left the left coast because he was sick of the scene and needed to change his environment. In San Francisco, he had felt the sting of racism at a gay bar just blocks away from the spot where Harvey Milk gave a speech for equal rights.
In another Bay Area incident, a gay co-worker told him to fly back to Africa. After running out of work at a nonprofit in L.A., where he helped conduct a research study exploring the connection between crystal meth use and rising HIV infection rates in young gay men, a friend told him about Minneapolis.
"My friend said, 'Dude, come to Minneapolis. You won't find any of that racist bullshit here.' I actually believed him."
It didn't take long for Smith to notice that the local gay scene was almost universally white, and that some wanted to keep it that way. In a Twin Cities chat room on Gay.com, he observed the following conversation, which we've edited for clarity:
too many blacks have the i hate the white man thing going on, and im not into that
and a 15yo black dude should not have that kinda hate
its taught to him
pop a cap in his ass
Smith has a hard time understanding how any gay man can be racist. "They know what oppression feels like. How could they turn around and be this way?" he says. "It's white privilege. The only mark against them is they're gay. Other than that, the world is their oyster."
Last summer, Smith found his way back to the 19 Bar. It had become his favorite spot in the city. The people were welcoming and the service was generally friendly.
But one Sunday afternoon, he walked to the bar and waited patiently as two white customers were served their drinks before him. The bar was pretty empty, yet the bartender walked over to a new customer without ever acknowledging Smith.
After getting the bartender's name, Smith walked out. He rode home on his bicycle and wrote a letter to the owners and managers of the 19 Bar. He told them of his experience and reflected on the reason:
I can't say why he would not serve me, but it seems glaringly obvious: I'm a black man.
Smith went on to say he had never experienced rude treatment from the staff prior to that day. He also asked that the bartender receive some sort of education to learn the pain he'd caused. Toward the end he wrote, "And to make matters worse, the majority of the racism, sexism, classism, and straight-up cultural insensitivity I've encountered since moving here has come from the gay community."
Smith says the 19 Bar never responded to his letter. But when City Pages called Jason Defreitas, the current manager and the bartender who was on duty at the time of the alleged incident, he responded to the allegations in disbelief.
"That is crazy," says Defreitas. "He never sat at the bar right away. He was walking around the bar like he was looking for something. He wasn't even in this place for more than three minutes."
Defreitas says the 19 Bar has a very diverse clientele, and says he wasn't in any way trying to overlook Smith. "Again, he was only there for two, maybe three minutes. Look, I apologize that he felt that way, but there was no dialogue between us."
Another incident soon after at another local bar cemented Smith's feelings that the Minneapolis gay community has serious racial issues. He had gone outside with about eight guys to get some fresh air. When they headed back in, the bouncer let everybody pass but Smith.
"The bouncer presses against my chest and asks for my ID. He didn't do this for any other of the guys. But none of the others were black," Smith says. "We all really want to believe it's innocent, but fuck that. Am I being too sensitive? No. My sensitivity makes me aware. I say to them they are being too insensitive. As for gay being the new black...it can't be the new black. The old black is still here."