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Words can hurt

A community comes together after an incident spurs a boycott of a SLO night spot

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WHAT HAPPENED?:  Customers and employees of Cielo Cantina gathered to discuss what happened on a recent weekend night and why some people were boycotting the business. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • WHAT HAPPENED?: Customers and employees of Cielo Cantina gathered to discuss what happened on a recent weekend night and why some people were boycotting the business.

On a gloomy Saturday morning, as the early crew lugged crates of oranges and other supplies to the kitchen at Cielo Cantina in downtown San Luis Obispo, about 40 people sat awkwardly waiting for someone to speak.

“Joe”, a slender younger guy, opened with a joke.

“You can vote on whether you want to hear this in the voice of Maya Angelou or Elton John,” he said.

A few relieved laughs echoed through the room. It was an odd beginning to what was an undeniably tense meeting. Everyone had gathered that morning to break down what happened on June 10 and why a boycott was enacted against a restaurant that had shifted in reputation from gay-friendly nightspot to perhaps less than open—and at worst, homophobic.

“From being called a Chinaman, a chink, queer, or homo, I know the power of words,” Joe, who asked not to be identified by his real name, read from a prepared statement.

The meeting was held in response to an incident at the restaurant and night club: Two gay men were forcibly separated from each other while dancing and were ejected from the club, as were others in their party.

Soon after the incident, Joe made a Facebook post encouraging his friends to boycott the business. Admittedly, he said, the message got out of hand and quickly spread to a full-blown online campaign against the restaurant, hitting other sites such as Yelp.

Though Joe said he didn’t intend such a massive reaction, backlash from the incident hit hard and it hit fast. The boycott expanded from a few friends to an online ban of the restaurant. That reaction, however, hit its breaking point when one person posted on the Cielo Cantina Facebook page, “I attended Saturday night and two men were thrown out for dancing with each other and called ‘faggots’ by the manager. I can assure you I will see to it that the business falls to the ground, either financially or
through arson.”

The restaurant contacted SLO police, who opened an investigation. As of press time, no formal charges had been made. Soon after, owner Sean Faries organized a quick “Open Public Forum” to discuss what happened the night in question. Restaurant employees attended the meeting alongside customers, a mediator, and representatives from the Cal Poly Pride Center. The two men involved were unable to attend the forum.

“We really wanted to set the record straight,” Faries told New Times before the event.

Several people at the club that night allege that the two men—regular customers who were throwing a going-away party for one of the men—were “violently separated,” and a club manager used the word “faggot.”

A few people at the June 18 forum also said they heard a club manager use the word and act overly aggressive when she removed the men.

Bouncers, employees, and the club manager accused of homophobia, however, say the slur wasn’t used. In fact, several of the manager’s friends, who noted they were gay, defended her, saying she would never have used the word—or, if she did, that she wasn’t homophobic.

There was a lot of talk about dress codes and appropriate behavior for patrons and who said what. Really, though, the question wasn’t one of violating the rules of a posh downtown dance spot, but rather: Is Cielo as open as its reputation indicates and, indeed, is it OK to be openly gay there?

Restaurant employees said that while the two men were separated and kicked out, the men were clearly violating the club’s rules of etiquette because they were removing clothes while dancing. People in the party that night were granted some leeway on the club’s dress code because they were regulars. But the same people had previously been given tacit approval to get a bit out of control when the location was known as Native Lounge, a night club that characterized itself as a Los Angeles-style hotspot.

The club would regularly host glitzy events, like fashion shows in which local artists painted semi-nude models, but it made a switch in March to a family-friendly Mexican restaurant. The establishment still shifts to a bar and dance club in the evening.

The worry expressed by a few forum attendees wasn’t over a single incident, but whether all customers are treated the same way no matter their sexual orientation.

“It is my hope that Cielo will reiterate its commitment to the LGBT community,” Joe read from his statement, later emphasizing that he and other regular customers would like to see the restaurant enact more formal diversity training and perhaps set the standard for SLO businesses by drafting a non-discrimination policy.

Though the mood following the forum seemed upbeat and people left feeling that some resolution had been reached, there’s still some skepticism. One person who witnessed the incident but didn’t attend the forum said her friends were uncomfortable attending a forum at the restaurant they were speaking out against, and others were unable to attend because of the short notice.

“It’s a big question mark at this point,” she said of whether the boycott will last, adding that the way the men were kicked out “seemed excessive and inappropriate to me.”

At the closing of the forum, Faries told the attendees he thought it went well.

“We do apologize for anyone who felt hurt or wronged in this situation, whether the word was said or the word wasn’t said,” Faries said. ∆

 

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

 

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