On Friday, LUSH, a fixture in Minneapolis’s gay bar and drag scene, posted an announcement on Facebook.
First off, the bar would be closed until further notice, both given “the constraints of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” and “recent listening sessions with BIPOC [Black and Indigenous people of color] community leaders.”
This came as some surprise. For a while, LUSH had seemed on track to reopen after months of forced closure to prevent the spread of disease. Furthermore, Pride Weekend was an odd time for the gay bar to suddenly announce its indefinite withdrawal.
But the real bomb dropped later on in the post.
“When LUSH reopens it will be better than ever, with a redesigned concept, a new leadership structure, a reimagined entertainment program, and an enhanced commitment to diversity and equity,” it said. “As part of this redesign, all positions across our organization will be re-hired in a transparent and equitable process.”
In the comments, staff members and performers communicated without mincing words that this was news to them.
“Thank you for the complete disregard of my humanity by [firing] me via fb,” one commenter said.
“Maybe you should listen to your employees on how to improve things,” one added. “Oh wait… you just literally up and fired them all.”
Some LUSH employees are claiming the abrupt “redesign” announcement was inspired by a letter from employees detailing "a list of expectations, changes and demands," including mandatory diversity and cultural sensitivity training, more diverse staff, directors, and performers (both in terms of race and gender); and a zero tolerance policy on "inappropriate touching," which the letter says several employees and patrons have experienced from "those in positions of power" at the bar.
The letter also mentioned repeated instances of racism or cultural appropriation during performances, which has been a topic of public discussion several times in the past.
Performer Damien D'Luxe posted the letter in its entirety on Facebook, saying mere hours after laying eyes on the demands, management cut them all loose via social media. Here's that post in its entirety.
“Since you like to boast about ‘equitable opportunity, pay, and representation,’ would you like to address why your employees were fired hours after they presented to you a list of points to make their work environment better?” one commenter asked LUSH. “Why is this being left out?”
Two days later, Ken Darling, one of LUSH’s co-owners, issued an apology, also via Facebook, that employees had to find out this way. He explained he’d been out of town until recently, and that his partners, James Nelson and Brian Johnston, had a much more active role in the bar’s management and ownership.
That is, they used to. Darling said he’d since accepted their resignations.
“I know that’s not an excuse, and I am truly sorry,” he said. “I was led to believe that the staff were on board with the need for a redesign, were fully aware that we would not be reopening anytime soon, knew that not everyone would be called back, and understood that we were going to concentrate on building a more diverse staff.”
They weren’t. They didn’t. And he was “deeply sorry” for not digging deeper and asking more questions.
He went on to say that he would like to turn over the bar’s ownership to “a group of leaders who are not cis, white males.”
“I have already begun to speak to some people who might help make that happen and hope to have more details soon,” he said.
Darling doesn’t have much to add at the moment, he says. He clarified that, contrary to what some have rumored, LUSH is not closing for good.
“My goal is to reopen as soon as COVID-19 allows us to,” he says.
He also wants to reaffirm that by the time the bar does open, he wants it to be well on its way to new ownership – that it should belong to community members, and not “an absentee owner in California [Darling].” There may be a transition period to get there, but that, insomuch as a plan exists, is the plan.
Darling, a gay activist and former vice president of the Minnesota Chapter of National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, took ownership of LUSH back in 2015, from the estate of former owner Kelly Phillips. You can read the entirety of his statement here.