The Wrangler, a well-known Denver bar with strong ties to the LGBT community, finds itself in the cross hairs of two conflicting laws after refusing to admit a man who was wearing a dress, a wig and makeup.
Vito Marzano, a 27-year-old gay man, is heading up a boycott of the establishment because a bouncer denied his admission Aug. 31, which he thinks was an act of gender-identity discrimination.
Meanwhile, the bar and other industry advocates argue that it is a huge risk to serve people whose appearance doesn't match their government-issued ID, because the penalty for serving alcohol to someone underage could be crippling.
While Marzano is not pressing charges, he set up a Facebook page that has nearly 200 members, has filed a civil-rights complaint against the Wrangler with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) Civil Rights Division, and is preparing to file a complaint with the City of Denver.
According to Marzano, he visited the bar many times prior to this particular altercation and never had a problem. But when he showed up that Saturday night in drag apparel — after a fundraiser event nearby — the bouncer said his ID didn't match his
appearance. This, Marzano believes, demonstrated a transphobic policy.
"My picture looked like me just with makeup on, and I didn't have a beard anymore," Marzano said. "Right away, I took off my wig."
When he told the bouncer he had been there multiple times before, Marzano was told, "It doesn't matter. Your ID gender must match your gender appearance."
Pete Meersman, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said he understands the liquor-license side of the law better than the discrimination laws but sees the conflict that businesses face.
"This was a new situation that I had not heard of before," Meersman said. "The ultimate dilemma is doing one thing to stay in compliance with the law that gets you out of compliance with another law.”
Management at the Wrangler could not be reached for comment, but a video of the altercation posted by Marzano to YouTube — which has since been taken down — outlines the bar staff's reasoning: Gender identity must match a person's ID gender.
"The problem here is the application of a blanket rule that discriminates against a particular class of people based on their gender nonconformity," said Mari Newman, a Denver-based civil-rights attorney. "While I acknowledge the bar's legitimate interest in not running afoul of liquor licensing, this, by its term, is not a legal way to accomplish that goal."
Checking IDs is not required by law but is the only way bars and restaurants have to verify a customer's age. Subsequently, there is no standardized method for comparing a person's ID with their physical appearance — those policies are determined and set by the business owners.
"My understanding is that they (the Wrangler) just don't want drag queens, cross dressers and gender queers in their bar. They only want 'bears' in their bar," Marzano contends, referring to a particular type of appearance. "They want a very specific type of person."
Meersman agrees that a serious conversation about these processes needs to take place at the state and local level but says that for the time being he would still advise bar and restaurant owners to err on the side of caution.
Marzano is focused more on spurring the conversation locally than on serious legal action.
"For me, having a boycott is not about impacting their bottom line but is to have the discussion," Marzano said. "Immediately, people came up and started sharing their own experiences; it was enlightening and disheartening. People in the Denver community have known about this for a long time and never done anything about it."