A bar that seemed when it opened 18 months ago to be a prototypical San Francisco safe space for queer and transgender folks has been hit with a lawsuit pitting a former co-owner against her former business partner, as well as a social media boycott campaign that claims issues of systemic racism and various abuses by the owner.
Jolene's opened in December 2018, helmed by a trio of queer co-owners: Ashleigh Wilson, Shannon Amitin, and Jolene Linsangan. It quickly became a regular home for the popular lesbian dance party U-Haul, the trans party T4T, as well as other queer-focused events. But over the course of 2019, relations between the co-owners appear to have frayed. As Amitin recently explained on Facebook, "Though I poured my heart and soul into it over the course of the next year, I increasingly felt that I could not achieve my goals at the bar. From operational disagreements to differing political agendas, Jolene and I were unable to collaborate. 'Queer' simply did not mean the same things to each of us. These differences proved to be irreconcilable." Amitin explained that he "initiated discussions with Jolene to withdraw my ownership stake and stepped away from daily operations" back in October, and as Eater reports today, he and Wilson have been trying to get their names removed from the liquor license for nine months.
The campaign to boycott Jolene's — initiated at least in part by staff members — appeared over two weeks ago, and with it a list of allegations against and demands for current owner Jolene Linsangan. Among the allegations are claims of wage theft, verbal abuse, unkept promises to hire more Black and brown people to management, cover-up of a sexual assault at the bar, and discrimination against wheelchair-dependent people.
Now, as the Bay Area Reporter has it, Wilson filed suit against Linsangan and her mother, who took over Wilson's interest in the bar, back in early April. Disagreements appear to have stemmed from Lisangan's claim that Wilson did not do enough work for the businesses, and the suit claims that in one instance Lisangan cornered her in an office and berated her for 10 minutes — bringing a charge of false imprisonment. The bar had also apparently been cited by the ABC for serving alcohol after 2 a.m.
There's also a claim of defamation, with Wilson saying that Lisangan "stated and published information or material that showed Wilson in a false light, including that she was untrustworthy, a cheat, a thief, an extortionist, a bad business partner etc."
The lawsuit, in which Amitin is not taking part, appears separate from but not entirely unrelated to the claims made by staff in posting about the boycott on social media. "We want to support the amplification of voices and stories of traumatized and terrified employees and patrons who fear ostracism and punishment if they publicly speak up," one posting reads. The allegations of harm go on to make claims of silencing Black voices, tokenizing trans employees, and claims that Lisangan tried to refuse service to a disabled patron.
"These are just a handful of the unethical practices occurring at Jolene's," the post says. The group was demanding a formal apology from Jolene's by July 15, as well as the establishment of a "restorative justice circle facilitated by mental health professionals." By way of a symbolic image, the group took the bar's well-photographed neon sign saying "You Are Safe Here" and Photoshopped it to say "You Aren't Safe Here."
Helping to amplify the Queer voices that have been harmed by Jolene's Bar San Francisco that are demanding accountability. These slides were written by former employees at Jolene's.Posted by Bessie Snow on Friday, June 26, 2020
A June 27 statement posted to the bar's Facebook page reads, "We are aware Jolenes has been under criticism recently for very serious allegations and understand the importance of addressing the extensive list of issues brought to light in these call outs. We are taking this matter very seriously and deeply appreciate all those who have spoken up. We acknowledge we haven’t dealt properly with a lot of these issues in the past and we haven’t kept our promise of creating and keeping a safe space for every member of our community."
"As a co-founder, I am truly sorry for the harm that has occurred," Amitin says. "It is my hope that the demands for accountability are heard, concrete actions are developed with input and feedback from those impacted, and all reported harm is addressed by the remaining owners."