Like many a Scottish queer, I’ve drunk a fair volume of vodka and coke and danced nights away on sticky floors in The Polo Lounge. In its own words, “Glasgow’s best gay and lesbian party” has been a stalwart of the city’s ‘scene’ since time immemorial. In recent years, I’ve become more the type who only finds themselves in Polo after being dragged there on a friend’s birthday. It seems I should count myself lucky, though, that I’ve been allowed to step through the venue’s hallowed doors at all. Many punters have complained over the years of the Merchant City club’s crappy door policy, whereby people are turned away for reasons on a sliding scale from annoying to hateful and sickening.
In a latest high-profile incident, Robert Gale and his partner Nathan Gale (pictured) say they were refused entry because the former uses a wheelchair. Ironically celebrating after winning an award for their contribution to equal rights charity work in Scotland, the pair attempted to enter Polo on a Thursday night and were told by bouncers they couldn’t come in because there were “no disabled facilities.” Robert and Nathan, and a friend of theirs who witnessed events, claim they informed staff and a manager they didn’t require such facilities but were still told they couldn’t enter. Agitated at such blatant discrimination and wishing to make a point, states Robert, he proceeded to crawl up the venue’s front steps and into the building. Management called the police, who forcibly removed him from the setting’s floor, where, he says, he had been peacefully sitting, conversing with those around him.
Seasoned equality campaigners, the Gales responded to events by setting up a Facebook group calling for a boycott of Polo, which quickly garnered over 3000 members. They also wrote an open letter to Stefan King, owner of parent company, G1 Group, asking for a statement of policy regarding disabled access, equality training for staff, a public apology, and compensation. The organisation declined to undertake any of these. They have merely issued a statement claiming the reason for refusing entry to all three in the party was that they became “agitated and abusive” after being informed there was no wheelchair access. The three friends suggest it was rather Polo staff that were rude and aggressive.
If G1 employees did refuse entry on the basis of a disability, they would be breaking the law. The Equality Act states that service providers are committing discrimination if they unjustifiably treat a disabled person less favourably than a non-disabled person because of their disability. Given that Robert told staff at Polo he didn’t need any special facilities and that wheelchair users – including Robert himself – have been in the venue before, it’s difficult to imagine their turning him away that night would be defensible before a court. G1’s guilt or innocence in the matter therefore rests on the reason Robert was denied admission that night.
Unfortunately for the company, many stories of bad experiences with Polo’s bouncers and management, which back up the Gales’ claims, are now being regurgitated. There have been various reports of individuals not being granted entry, or being ejected after already inside the club, for having a disability or for ‘looking straight.’ Several acquaintances of mine, all female, have encountered the latter, identifying as queer or lgbt but presumably not matching up to door staff’s high stereotypical standards. Young people expecting to find a homo-friendly, tolerant place where they can feel safe have certainly been adversely effected by this bizarre protocol. Investigating further, I’ve encountered one woman who was asked to leave the club because she was kissing her male date and “offending the gay customers.” I’m not a huge fan of bandying around the term heterophobia in a deeply homophobic culture but this incident seems callous and pointless.
Much more insidious are the several reports, besides Robert’s, of people not being allowed in due to a disability. One witness saw a friend being removed from the club because he has Tourette’s. Another recalls a mate being turned away because he had multiple sclerosis. I spoke to Tommy McHugh, who was knocked back from Polo in February of this year because, the bouncers told him, he was high. McHugh had not taken anything and wasn’t drinking that night because he was driving. He puts the bouncers’ conclusion down to a cataract operation he’s had on his left eye, which means he’s unable to control his eyelid or pupil dilation. McHugh says he tried to explain this to Polo staff but they interrupted him and told him to “fuck off.”
Some are calling for a boycott of not only The Polo Lounge but the whole of G1, which owns about 40 pubs and clubs across Scotland. This comes on the back of another recent scandal at G1‘s The Shimmy Club, which erected a two-way mirror allowing people using female toilets to be spied on unawares. The company has also previously been embroiled in controversy when The Commission for Racial Equality undertook a civil action against King back in 2000, claiming he ordered door staff at nightclub Archaos to restrict the number of Asian people getting in. A former PR staff member at a G1 venue in Glasgow contacted me to say she had more recently overheard a manager telling a bouncer, “No Asian men tonight – they freak the girls out by staring at them.” Another former worker at GHQ, a G1 club in Edinburgh, recalls being told by management she had to wear a tight tshirt because “tits sell pints.” She also witnessed – bearing in mind GHQ is supposedly a queer venue – a group of trans women being summarily evicted from female toilets. There is thus a clear sense that discriminatory behaviour is embedded throughout the company. Possibly the most telling story I’ve been privy to is comedian Julia Sutherland tweeting in response to the two-way mirror fiasco. She claims, whilst working directly for King when she was 19, he called her into his office and told her he was putting her on a diet. Apparently, according to King, Julia being overweight was a “waste” because she had a “pretty face.” I can only conclude that inequitable conduct and a bigoted mindset are emanating from the top downwards within G1.
I favour a boycott as the best way of encouraging a business raking in millions to change its ways. Some within the queer community have voiced concerns about jeopardising Polo’s livelihood when it’s a central meeting point for those marginalised from mainstream clubs. My feeling is that it’s already fairly damaging to queer people to live in a city where the most popular lgbt venue is notorious for its prejudice. It feeds into a mood of disconnectedness and anxiety which non-hetero people are particularly susceptible to. Having received no satisfactory response from G1, Robert and Nathan now plan to pursue legal action. A boycott is a means of supporting them in this, taking a stand against bigotry, and contributing towards a less hostile atmosphere for Glasgow’s queer nightlife. The stories circulating about other G1 venues indicate that the whole organisation could do with improving its equality outlook. Threatening the company’s profit margin might just be an effective way to force their hand and make that happen.