- Courtesy photo
- Kate Pierson of the B-52's
After only a few months of operation, Winooski's Mister Sister — the only official LGBTQ bar in Vermont — might not be long for this world. Last Thursday, the bar's owner, Craig McGaughan, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise some money. His goal: $100,000. Yup. You read that right. This is not pay-back-a-loan-or-two money, nor is it upgrade-one-or-two-things money. This is my-business-is-about-to-tank money. McGaughan writes on the GoFundMe page, "There's no longer any working capital or any sort of reserve to pull from."
So what the hell happened? After all, it had been more than 10 years since Vermont even had a gay bar when Mister Sister opened. You'd think that business would be booming. However, a series of unfortunate choices seems to have led to this juncture.
In February, McGaughan announced that his wine bar, Oak45, was to close its doors and reopen as an LGBTQ bar called Mister Sister. Almost immediately, an outspoken contingent of trans people and their allies declared the name an offensive, transphobic slur and demanded that the bar's name be changed. Much of the discussion took place in comment threads on Mister Sister's Facebook page and has since been deleted.
Additionally, it seemed that many people had never even heard the term "mister sister" and were confused about how and why it was a transphobic slur. I admit that, despite being gay myself, I was one of those people. I launched into research mode to understand the term's history. I found that it's currently used in a number of ways. For example, there's an annual leather event in Los Angeles and a weekly drag show in San Francisco with that name. A DJ in Seattle uses it as a moniker. An adult entertainment store in Providence, R.I., is called Mister Sister Erotica. In other words, the term seems to be used with some frequency in conjunction with queer entertainment. But does that make it OK?
What seemed most relevant was an incident from late 2014 involving Kate Pierson of the B-52's. She announced a new single from her debut solo record, Guitars and Microphones, called "Mister Sister." She told Huffington Post via email that the song "is inspired by all who are transgender and LGB, multidimensional and still transcending." She went on to write that she hoped it would become a trans anthem.
The comments sparked a firestorm, because Pierson is not transgender. HuffPo contributor and trans woman Jamie Cooper Holland wrote an open letter to the singer, pointing out that it was not Pierson's place to pen a trans anthem and that the term "mister sister" is "a reminder of the constant water-torture drip that trans people endure day in and day out when we're addressed as the wrong gender. Getting it half right by using a title with both genders is not inclusive, it's marginalizing."
And there you have it. While McGaughan is openly gay and a member of the LGBTQ community, he is not transgender. If we follow the logic presented in Holland's open letter, the only way for a bar to even have a chance of successfully reappropriating the term in question — as has been done with words such as "queer" — is for it to be owned and operated by trans people.
Meanwhile, the Pride Center of Vermont stepped in to mitigate the issue, though not without internal turmoil. The organization requested a meeting with McGaughan, but he refused. Days later, the center held a town hall meeting regarding the name and trans issues, after which it issued a statement rebuking the name and declaring that it would not support the bar in any way.
Then things sort of died down. The bar opened, and that was that.
In May, the issue resurfaced. Mister Sister was set to participate in Waking Windows, the three-day indie-music festival in downtown Winooski. According to both McGaughan and Paddy Reagan, a festival cofounder, several bands set to perform at Mister Sister refused to play at the venue in solidarity with the trans community. When McGaughan discovered that bands wanted out, he cut ties with the festival entirely, forcing its organizers to scramble to relocate dozens of bands and create a new performance space on short notice.
In a message to Seven Days, McGaughan wrote, "As always, Mister Sister is for the misters and the sisters, those who identify as both, neither and everyone in-between. We love, accept and support everyone in the LGBTQIA community."
Back to the GoFundMe campaign. Shortly after it appeared, the comments began to roll in. (They were later deleted, and the page was reconfigured to not allow commenting.)
"Do you regret alienating part of your target demographic by choosing a slur against trans women as the name of your establishment?" read one comment.
"What if ... now stay with me. You change the name?" read another.
The third, and most inflammatory by far, read, "You're reaping what you've sown. I hope you'll eventually come to understand that you've chosen — with full knowledge and many opportunities to learn — to walk a path of divisiveness and harm. You deserve to lose your shirt, Craig."
By Monday afternoon, the fund had reached just more than 1 percent of its goal. At that rate, it'll take close to a year and a half to raise $100,000 — assuming donations remain consistent.
In his outline for how the money would be spent, which includes the repayment of loans to friends and family as well as paying off outstanding bills, McGaughan plans to build a DJ booth and purchase a pool table, TVs and a full sound system. In other words, a mix of necessities and luxuries.
The language used in McGaughan's plea is fairly desperate. Here are few choice excerpts:
"And if you can't contribute via this platform, please ... just continuously showing up at Mister Sister is a huge help!" All you have to do is "continuously" patronize the bar. No breaks!
Here's a particularly tone-deaf statement: "We're sadly lacking the support of part of the community we've promised to be here for." To which part of the community is he referring? The one he alienated by repeatedly digging in his heels?
Another chestnut: "If folks don't show up, we can't pay the bills ... When people don't show up, we struggle." Um, no shit. That is how all businesses work.
But here's the kicker: "I've never been one to ask for help, but I feel if this business fails, and I don't do absolutely everything in my power to preserve it, I'm failing my community."
To borrow a joke from Seth Meyers: Really? Was it not in McGaughan's power to change the name? Was it not in his power to meet with the Pride Center when asked? Was it not in his power to graciously remain a part of Waking Windows? Was it not in his power to take a minute to think about the possible repercussions of his actions throughout the greater LGBTQ community of Vermont?
My summation: Mister Sister is a privately owned business. Therefore, McGaughan can keep the name and do whatever he wants. But to disingenuously purport himself as a helpless victim by presenting a sob story about his failing business is just plain tacky. Wouldn't it just have been easier to say, "OK. I hear you. These words are hurtful, and it's more important for you to be heard than it is for me to prove I'm right."
If I were a superhero, my superpower would be the ability to get songs stuck in other people's heads. Here are five songs that have been stuck in my head this week. May they also get stuck in yours. Follow sevendaysvt on Spotify for weekly playlists with tunes by artists featured in the music section.
Prince, "Little Red Corvette"
Carly Rae Jepsen, "LA Hallucinations"
Khruangbin, "White Gloves"
Connie Stevens, "Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)"