The decision by Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign to nix a fundraiser planned at a gay club in Providence — which the venue says is over a dancing pole the owners refused to remove — is angering some LGBTQ people, including male pole dancers who say the decision was unwarranted.
Among the pole dancers critical of the decision was Steven Retchless, a gay male pole dancer who made the semi-finals on Season 6 of “America’s Got Talent” and won the title in 2010 of American Pole Fitness Champion.
“The pole stigma is associated with sex work, but sex workers whether they’re on a pole or not are humans, too, and shouldn’t be discriminated against for providing a service as old as time,” Retchless told the Washington Blade. “Get over it and support the whole gay community — not just the picture perfect, ‘masc for masc,’ fit-into-a-box and label-me-conservative side.”
Retchless, who studied dance as a youth at the Las Vegas Academy of Perfoming Arts & California Institute of the Arts, has toured internationally and taught at Body & Pole studio in New York City.
Denouncing both Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, Retchless indicated his support instead for Bernie Sanders.
“I don’t believe in politics,” Retchless said. “I think it’s all carefully orchestrated by corporations and conglomerates fueled by greed. Pete and Warren are just in it to divide up the Democrats and the only one with a history of fighting for human rights is Sanders.”
News broke over the weekend that Buttigieg had cancelled at the last minute a fundraiser at the Dark Lady, a popular LGBTQ nightclub in Providence, R.I., last week as a result of a dancing pole at the center of the club. Instead, the event was held at the nearby Hotel Providence.
Buck Asprinio, the general manager of the Dark Lady, is quoted by local affiliate WPRI as saying the Buttigieg campaign asked staff members to remove the pole, but the owners refused.
“It’s been here since we opened and it’s not going anywhere,” Asprinio is quoted as saying. “The dancer pole is part of who we are ─ if you want to dance on a pole, we’re the place to be.”
Asprinio is quoted as saying the Buttigieg campaign was aware of the pole prior to the event — which was widely publicized on social media — because owners sent images of the interior well before the event had started.
“We had sent pictures of the club, they knew exactly what the place looked like,” Asprinio reportedly said. “We thought the fundraiser was going forward at full force.”
Tess Whittlesey, a Buttigieg campaign spokesperson, didn’t dispute the account of the cancellation, but emphasized the candidate — the first major openly gay candidate in the presidential primary — has hosted events at LGBTQ venues.
“Our commitment to LGBTQ+ spaces is strong and we always strive to hold events in inclusive spaces,” Whittlesey said. “Pete and Chasten know first-hand how important it is for members of the LGBTQ+ community to have a safe space to gather and our campaign would never do anything to intentionally disrespect such a space.”
The Buttigieg campaign provided a list of dozens of LGBTQ venues where the candidate has held events, such as the Human Rights Campaign gala in Houston and the Las Vegas LGBTQ Center, and places where the candidate has had a presence, such as the annual Creating Change conference hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force taking place now in Dallas.
None of the venues listed, however, seem comparable to a gay nightclub.
According to a news statement from “Queers Not Here for Mayor Pete,” staff arrived four hours early to prepare for the fundraiser. The cancellation, the group says, came just 12 minutes before the expected start time, cost the bar an estimated $1,000 and workers were unable to receive tips they had anticipated.
The Dark Lady, according to the group, has hosted a variety of LGBTQ community events and political events without issue, hosting senators, members of Congress, governors, mayors, Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank.
Anthony Derose, who’s known as the drag queen Jacqueline DiMera and performed at the Dark Lady for 13 years, said in a statement he won’t support Buttigieg as a result of the cancellation.
“All of the sudden our club is not good enough,” Derose said. “I was so excited to get to meet Pete and Chasten a month ago, but now I’m going to have to find another candidate.”
A Buttigieg staffer said the campaign had offered to compensate the Dark Lady for the event after cancelling at the last minute.
Asprinio told the Blade “it’s very true” the campaign made that offer, but it wouldn’t have covered the cost of expenses.
“The [campaign] offered the $400 base fee,” Asprinio said. “I had to pay they entire staff for four hours. I lost over $1,000.”
Philip Deal, a queer-identified pole dancer who founded Mr. Pole Dance America, told the Blade the decision to nix the fundraiser was “shameful,” suggesting LGBTQ people should look to another candidate.
“In a way, this validated an important point about leadership,” Deal said. “Voting for someone who has lived long enough to experience American history does make a lot of sense.”
A native of Virginia Beach, Va., Deal was a featured dancer at the Chasers nightclub in North Carolina and won medals in national pole dancing competitions.
Deal said the cancellation demonstrates a point about leadership, indicating voters should instead consider either Warren or Sanders.
“If Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders were invited to visit the Dark Lady, I don’t think ether one would bat an eye about it,” Deal said. “This points to a bigger issue in the LGBT community which is young gay people don’t know our history and that’s a serious problem. LGBTQ people died for the right to walk into a bar, dance, and hold hands with their lovers without having to fear police brutality. If Pete Buttigieg does not want to embrace our glorious gay culture, he doesn’t need the gay vote.”