LGBTQ+ Miamians Say Door Policies at Bars and Clubs Lead to Discrimination

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
The night of May 22, Felipe Wallis and four friends wanted to find a place to listen to music and dance. The COVID-19 pandemic kept them away from nightlife venues for longer than they would have liked, and all they wanted was to find a good spot para perrear.

They made it to Centro in Wynwood, a club known for hosting urban Latin music acts, shortly after midnight. Dressed in a collared sleeveless shirt, black pants, high-heeled boots, and a black bag, Wallis waited in line with his friends to get in. But when they reached the front, Wallis says a bouncer looked him up and down and told him his clothes weren't up to par with the club's standards.

"At first glance when he sees me, he says, 'You can't come in,'" Wallis tells New Times. "He said tank tops weren't allowed."

Wallis tried to explain to the bouncer that he wasn't wearing a tank top — he was wearing a sleeveless dress shirt. But according to Wallis, the bouncer insisted that he wasn't dressed up enough for the club. He and his friends went elsewhere, but Wallis couldn't help but feel that the rejection had nothing to do with his wardrobe choice.

"They were using their dress code to mask their homophobia," he says. "You know how many times I've experienced a guy projecting his frustration and toxic masculinity onto me? I get my masculinity questioned on a daily basis from the way I dress, paint my nails, and act. I know when a guy feels threatened by me without even knowing me. It's a very familiar feeling."

Recently, Wallis and others have been using Instagram to share stories of negative experiences and instances of discrimination they say they've faced at Miami nightlife venues as a result of door policies that can lead to the exclusion of queer people. Wallis' Instagram video recounting the Centro incident logged more than 20,000 views, and scores of people reached out to him relating their own experiences of queerphobia in Miami nightlife — incidents of public humiliation based on what they were wearing, who they were with, or how much body hair they bared.

Wallis says he didn't expect such a response to his video, but he's glad it's encouraging other people to share their experiences and name the venues they feel treated them unfairly.

"Honestly, I was calling them out because how is it fair that I have a shirt on that's sleeveless and can't come in, but a woman can come in here with a bikini top because you want to oversexualize her? When women aren't coming in heels or dresses, or how women are 'supposed' to dress, will they be turned away?"

A number of queer Miamians tell New Times they've faced similar treatment at nightlife hotspots. One man says he was denied entry at a Wynwood bar because his short-sleeve top showed his underarm hair. One couple says they were cuddling and acting affectionately in the line to get into the bar but were told they couldn't go inside because they seemed "too drunk." Another woman says she was told by a bouncer, "If you're gonna act like a man, I'm gonna treat you like a man."

Toxicity, queerphobia, racism, machismo

Daniela Molina, Nathalie Perdomo, and Sabrina Diaz of the perreo party collective Out of Service say many mainstream nightlife venues in Miami are steeped in toxicity, queerphobia, racism, and machismo.

"It's very normalized," Molina says. "That's why I think people have had to, unfortunately, make their own spaces, because they're not welcome in the majority of places."

With Out of Service, Molina initially wanted to put on a party where she and her friends could dance to old-school reggaeton. As the party grew, it became a symbolic safe space where people could grind without being judged, objectified, or discriminated against.

Perdomo says she believes that creating inclusive spaces means having conversations with the people they're trying to serve, being open to feedback, and being willing to implement changes and address problems.

"I don't have all the answers as to how we can make this the most inclusive we can," Perdomo says. "People might still feel a certain way. But making room and space for the community to speak up is important. So is being open to feedback and accountability."

"How is it fair that I have a shirt on that's sleeveless and can't come in, but a woman can come in here with a bikini top because you want to oversexualize her?"

tweet this

The managing partners of Centro, Riste Sekuloski and Jose Estrada, dispute Wallis' account of being discriminated against for his sexuality. They contend that the issue had to do with a dispute about the club's cover charge.

"He didn't want to pay," Sekuloski says.

Wallis denies that. He says he wasn't given the chance to pay because the club's bouncers didn't think he was dressed up enough to go inside to begin with.

Sekuloski and Estrada say they have their own following within the LGBTQ+ community and that all people are welcome at Centro. They acknowledge that Centro has a dress code that doesn't allow clothing such as cargo shorts, flip-flops, and sleeveless shirts. But that's standard across nightlife, they say.

"You wouldn't want to go out all dressed up and see the person next to you is in sandals and socks," Sekuloski says. "We feel we need to have some kind of standard. If you're not dressed right, you're not dressed right. This isn't something done in a way to discriminate against anyone."

But for those who have been turned away at the door, the sting often feels personal.

Jeff, a Miami resident who asked that his full name not be published, remembers a time in August 2019 when he and his husband went out with a large group to celebrate a friend's birthday. Once they reached the front of the line at Dirty Rabbit, Jeff says, a bouncer told him he couldn't go inside because his black sleeveless top, light-wash jeans, and red pleather boots didn't fit the dress code.
click to enlarge Miami resident Felipe Wallis says he was discriminated against and barred from entering a Miami club in late May. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF FELIPE WALLIS
Miami resident Felipe Wallis says he was discriminated against and barred from entering a Miami club in late May.
Photos courtesy of Felipe Wallis
"He looked at me head to toe and said I couldn't come in," Jeff tells New Times. "He saw my boots and laughed and said short-sleeve shirts were not allowed. This place is like a backyard in the Miami summer. I looked inside and the people were in bathing suits, basically. Guys with short sleeves, girls in shorts. It didn't look like there was a dress code."

Then, Jeff explains, the bouncer made a comment that transported him back to his younger years, when he was bullied for his sexuality and called slurs by his peers. He says the bouncer told him that if he was going to come to the bar looking like that, he needed to at least shave his underarms.

"Just talking about it again, I get the urge to cry," Jeff says. "I feel a mix of sadness and rage. I spent the first 21 years of my life hiding myself and saving myself from bullying in school. It's something you carry for such a long time."

Jeff says his feelings can be difficult to express to those who've never experienced discrimination based on their sexuality. He says it's easy for people to say you should dress better when you go out to certain places, but it's about far more than that.

"It's about having the freedom to be you," he asserts. "I was just looking to have fun, and what happened was sad. I don't know how this will translate to another person who hasn't lived that. But any form of discrimination is painful. When talking about this, my body reacts. My blood boils."

"Too drunk"

Another Miami woman, Maria, described a similar incident at Dirty Rabbit. Back in December 2019, she and her girlfriend kissed, cuddled, and hugged while waiting in line to get inside. They were out with friends and agreed to split the cost of a table with a few other couples. [Maria asked New Times not to publish her full name or that of her partner because they are not out to their families.]

They didn't know it until they reached the front of the line, but club security had been watching them through cameras at the front of the venue. The couple was barred from entering because, according to a bouncer and a manager, they were "too drunk" and would present a danger to other customers.

The women say they carried on a conversation with the bouncer and manager, letting them know that Maria was sober because she was the designated driver and that her girlfriend had had one or two beers at most, hours earlier. They offered to walk in a straight line or perform a sobriety test of the venue's choosing.

"We know each other very well and know what drunk behavior looks like," Maria says. "We're not 21. We weren't being disruptive. We were being affectionate."

"I was trying to explain how their actions had deeply hurt us that night, and there was no sincerity, no apology, no acknowledgment of what we had to say."

tweet this
Maria says that when the bouncer and manager started changing their stories, she figured something else was going on. First, Maria says, the bouncer claimed both the women were too drunk. Then they said Maria was too drunk, although she says she was sober. Then they changed the reasoning again and said her partner was too inebriated.

Maria's girlfriend chimed in and told the men that, from her point of view, it felt as though they were being denied entry because they were a same-sex couple being openly affectionate.

"After a while, the pieces came together," Maria's girlfriend says. "I wasn't even trying to get in anymore. I was trying to explain how their actions had deeply hurt us that night, and there was no sincerity, no apology, no acknowledgment of what we had to say."

After being turned away, Maria and her group went to Gramps, an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where she and her girlfriend had their first date. They say it felt comforting to go to a place where they felt welcome and safe.

Joey Vega, director of operations at Dirty Rabbit Group, tells New Times that the club's door policies are in place to protect its customers and staff. In the case of Maria and her girlfriend, Vega says the women did appear to be intoxicated, which could have presented a risk to the club.

"When we allow someone to come into our establishment who's already showing signs of intoxication, they're now a huge liability," he says. "We have to do our part as well in making sure we're providing a safe environment not only for our staff members but for our guests."

At the same time, he acknowledges that those decisions made at the door can leave people feeling rejected, which he regrets.

"When you're not allowed to get in, you're upset," he says. "In reality, it was never our intent for you to feel like that."

Like the partners behind Centro, Vega says Dirty Rabbit's dress code has to be applied evenly across the board in order to be fair.

"The dress code is strict for everybody," he says. "After a certain time, after around 8 p.m. when the sun comes down and it isn't as hot, we are very, very strict about dress code. It doesn't matter how fashionable they are, it doesn't matter how great they look — if you're a male, you have to have the sleeves on."

Nevertheless, Vega apologizes for the comment an employee made about Jeff's underarm hair and says that person no longer works for Dirty Rabbit.

"If that employee did make that statement, that is completely against our policy and doesn't represent us in any way, shape, or form," Vega says.

Vega adds that Dirty Rabbit Group is always updating its door policies to provide a better experience for patrons. It's now mandatory that a manager be stationed at the door alongside bouncers to mediate any disputes, and he says employees are trained on proper door policies on a monthly basis.

"We can do a better job, absolutely. That's something we work on every single day. We don't want anyone to feel neglected if they can't get in for whatever reason," Vega asserts.
click to enlarge “He looked at me head to toe and said I couldn't come in," Jeff says. "He saw my boots and laughed and said short-sleeve shirts were not allowed.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF
“He looked at me head to toe and said I couldn't come in," Jeff says. "He saw my boots and laughed and said short-sleeve shirts were not allowed.”
Photo courtesy of Jeff

A question of values

Adam Gersten, Gramps' owner, feels proud that his bar has a queer-friendly reputation in the community. But he knows that no place is perfect and the work that goes into creating an inclusive environment is never done — he says it's entirely possible that someone out there has been to Gramps and had a bad experience.

"I think the key to making people feel comfortable and safe is a spectrum of how hard you try and how attentive you are," Gersten says. "Like with anything, if it's something you care about, you nurture it. I don't know any place that's labeled a 'safe space.' Every place has a diverse staff, and you can't guarantee that everyone holds the exact same point of view. But if you work here, these are my values. I want to hear what your values are. We have to have those in common if this is going to work out."

Another aspect is screening and training new hires to understand the business' values, Gersten says, as well as being prepared to have tough conversations and hold people accountable when problems arise. Gersten says he views discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in nightlife venues as a human-rights issue.

"You're basically saying that person is a non-person, even by saying that you don't acknowledge what they're wearing and how they express themselves," Gersten says.

Marta Merino-Benchimol and her girlfriend, Yasmin Garcia, say they felt that type of dehumanization when they partied at Centro one night in early May after flying in from New York for a wedding. The women say they were subjected to repeated stares from one bouncer who made them feel uncomfortable for most of the night.

"From the moment we got there, I just felt this hatred coming from him," Garcia says. "I can't forget how he looks, and I'll never forget his eyes on us."

"If you want to dress like a man, I'll treat you like a man."

tweet this
Merino-Benchimol says she had on sneakers, black jeans, and a button-down short-sleeve shirt with a black tank top and a sports bra underneath. When the club got hot and crowded, she took off her short-sleeve shirt, just like some of the men in the club had done.

"The bouncer looked at me and told me, 'N-word, put your shirt back on,'" Merino-Benchimol recounts. "I'm wondering why I have to put my shirt back on when there are lovely ladies around wearing booty shorts and bras, pretty much. But I didn't want to ruin the night, so I put my shirt back on."
click to enlarge “The key to making people feel comfortable and safe is a spectrum of how hard you try and how attentive you are," says Gramps owner Adam Gersten. - PHOTO BY MARTA XOCHILT PEREZ
“The key to making people feel comfortable and safe is a spectrum of how hard you try and how attentive you are," says Gramps owner Adam Gersten.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
Not long after, Merino-Benchimol says, a couple of guys hanging out behind her friends started getting drunk and pushing members of her group. She asked them repeatedly to stop, but when the men continued pushing, someone from her group threw a drink at them and an argument broke out.

Club security broke it up and started kicking out members of Merino-Benchimol's group, she says. The same bouncer who said she needed to keep her shirt on approached to remove Merino-Benchimol and Garcia from the club, they say. Merino-Benchimol says the bouncer called her a man, pushed her by the chest, and squeezed one of her breasts. She yelled at him not to touch her and says he responded with, "If you want to dress like a man, I'll treat you like a man."

"I've had my fair share of people treating me wrongly because of the way I dress and my sexuality," Merino-Benchimol says. "I'm usually used to it, but for someone to put their hands on me like that was disgusting. I felt like a piece of garbage."

Then, the women say, the bouncer lifted up Merino-Benchimol and dropped her outside the door of the club.

"He literally threw me like I was a doll," Merino-Benchimol says. "When I went to catch myself, I landed on my wrist and knee. It was a weird fall."

The Centro managing partners dispute Merino-Benchimol's account. Estrada and Sekuloski say her group was being rowdy and needed to be removed from the club for the safety of other customers. They also deny that one of their bouncers touched Merino-Benchimol's breast and dropped her outside the door of the venue.

Particularly during Pride Month, Jeff — he of the sleeveless shirt and red pleather boots — says he hopes nightlife spots will reconsider their dress codes and other harmful policies that could exclude LGBTQ+ people.

"You can't celebrate Pride and make money off Pride but not let certain people through your doors," he says. "It's hypocritical."

Diaz, from Out of Service, says part of the problem with nightlife is that many bars and clubs see customers as dollar signs rather than people.

"People are treated as profit margins rather than living, breathing human beings that have certain needs and want to be respected and treated with dignity," Diaz says. "This needs to be an entire culture shift. The entire nightlife community needs to feel responsible for this shift, feel responsible for making people feel safer, and want people to feel connected with their most authentic selves. We need people to be on board."