Regardless of what you think of booty cams and drunken hookups, Toad’s Place set a new standard in tastelessness last Tuesday when it proceeded with the second of two performances by dance-hall artists who have been roundly condemned for their violently homophobic lyrics. Despite protests outside of both performances and a threatened boycott, Toad’s went ahead with the shows without any sign that the owners had considered the implications of their actions. Repeated attempts to contact Toad’s proprietors were rebuffed with suggestions that the problem was the protestors’ attitudes, not the club’s poor decision. The choice to book these acts and to continue with the shows — especially on the anniversary of one of the most vicious anti-gay crimes in recent memory, the murder of Matthew Shepard — reflects shamefully on the decision-makers at Toad’s, who have earned themselves an ignominious place on the roster of New Haven’s homophobes.
The club’s pathetic responses to the objections that have been raised are as follows: We have gay and gay-friendly performers like Melissa Ferrick and Dar Williams at Toad’s, we believe in free speech, and besides, we already paid the deposit. The first excuse is suspiciously similar to the “Some of my best friends are– ” defense, an excuse for bigotry that is no excuse at all. In my two years at Yale, Toad’s has only brought in two or three gay performers or artists with followings in the gay community. Unlike many other New Haven clubs, Toad’s does not have any gay-themed events or nights. While it may be true that these needs are filled by other venues, it is laughable that Toad’s is now claiming any real affinity with or support for the gay community.
The free speech argument is similarly specious. Toad’s is not simply a forum for self-expression that should be accessible to all views; the artists who are booked there are paid, presumably well. When it brings in artists with homophobic, racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory lyrics, Toad’s is not simply providing a free-speech zone: It is paying people to express themselves. Toad’s should refuse to financially support any group that advocates the torture and murder of gay people in its lyrics, even if in jest. The First Amendment is not a defense the proprietors can use in response to pressure from patrons.
The final objection about deposits is both ridiculous and offensive. If the proprietors of Toad’s were truly committed to combating homophobia, they would accept their financial loss as an appropriate penalty for poor judgment and a lack of sensitivity. If they are desperately worried about the club’s finances, they might consult with other clubs who have canceled performances by dance-hall artists with homophobic lyrics; surely these venues have found some way to recoup their losses. Financial gain is not, and never will be, an acceptable reason for tolerating and supporting homophobia.
The solution is clear: Avoid Toad’s until it apologizes, publicly and sincerely, and commits itself to avoiding such insensitivity in the future. With all New Haven has to offer, do we really need Toad’s? Use the boycott as an opportunity to explore other parts of the city — go to a concert at Artspace, or head up to Hamden for an evening of tea and music at The Space. And if you haven’t been going for the music, Toad’s is definitely not the only place to get picked up in New Haven. Gay and gay-friendly artists should break engagements at Toad’s and refuse to schedule new ones until the proprietors’ attitudes change. Other club and venue owners should see this as a golden opportunity to schedule better acts and dance parties that will siphon off the Toad’s customer base.
But as effective and exciting as such a boycott would be, the chances of its coming to pass are virtually nonexistent. Despite changes in the Board of Aldermen and the mobilization around the domestic partnership amendment a year and a half ago, the will does not exist in either the political or the business communities to forcefully and decisively confront homophobia whenever and wherever it appears in New Haven. Anti-gay attitudes may have moved slightly up the ranks of things to consider when vetting candidates for state and local office, for example. But when it comes to taking real action to defend gay rights or oppose homophobic behavior, other alliances, other political balances and other calculations always seem to prevent anything from actually getting done.
The students who are organizing around the decisions of Toad’s should be commended for their efforts. Students certainly have a critical role to play; many of us vote in New Haven and consider ourselves citizens. During the fight over the domestic partnership amendment, Project Orange, an organization that I helped to found, brought together both students and New Haven residents to fight homophobia. But those events don’t seem to have spurred any major changes in the city. Given their commitment to other kinds of social justice, why don’t any of Yale’s unions have gay and lesbian caucuses similar to the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work program? With the attention the national party is giving to the gay community, why don’t the New Haven Democrats have a subset of gay Democrats and their straight allies? Where has the Green Party been, publicly, on gay rights issues? It’s a bad sign for a city when even the Greens aren’t unified and outspoken advocates of gay rights.
So no one should be really surprised by Toad’s idiotic and offensive decision. Vigils will be held, a limited boycott will proceed, and they’ll get away with it, mostly unscathed. Disappointing as it may be, that’s just the way business gets done in New Haven.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.