When Briana Sandy stepped into Tempe Tavern over the weekend, the local transgender woman was eager to watch Saturday's historic Belmont Stakes horse race on the bar's televisions over a drink.
That, however, didn't happen.
Instead, the 55-year-old was refused service and asked by Tempe Tavern's employees to immediately leave the bar and music venue, on Apache Boulevard near McClintock Drive. According to Sandy, she got the boot because of the fact she's a transgender woman.
"I actually got thrown out of an establishment just for who I am and for looking like I do," she told New Times. “I was like, really? It was quite shocking.”
Sandy, who legally became a woman last year and has been undergoing sex-reassignment procedures for the past 18 months, posted about the incident on her Facebook account on Saturday evening, including alleging that a female bartender told her that “We don't serve your kind drinks.”
The post went viral on social media over the weekend and set off a maelstrom of outrage directed at Tempe Tavern, including vitriolic posts to its Facebook page, rallying cries for boycotts and protests, and reportedly a few death threats to the bartender who denied service to Sandy.
Despite the fervor over the matter and allegations of discrimination aimed at Tempe Tavern, the bar's management claims that its employees and business are not transphobic, nor do they discriminate against members of the LGBT community.
A statement was reportedly posted to Tempe Tavern's Facebook page on Sunday responded to the controversy:
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In regards to the internet mob mentality that has happened in the last 24 hours....We reside next door to an adult book store establishment, that creates a ton of problems. Drugs, prostitution, and overall riff faff. A person of the LGBTQ community came into the bar and was denied service. Unfortunately, the new bartender over reacted and assumed she was from said establishment. We have burlesque shows that feature many members of the LGBTQ community. We welcome everyone. This is unfortunate, and we completely understand our part in it. And we are sorry. But to paint with a broad stroke and say that we are a terrorist, hateful organization, is both inappropriate, and a lie. And furthermore, posts that share people's addresses, threats of violence, and 'anarchists' that threaten violence towards children, is over the line.
Although the message reportedly was deleted shortly after it was posted, New Times got an official response from Tempe Tavern manager Robert Tasso regarding the incident.
Tasso says that while it was “unfortunate and regrettable that this happened,” he chalks up the incident to a young female bartender erroneously assuming that Sandy was one of the prostitutes known to work that area of Apache Boulevard.
"Honestly, it was a simple case of mistaken or misplaced identity," Tasso says. “In no way are we looking to bash the gay community, and that's not what happened here. A person was refused service because my girl thought they were somebody else.”
Sandy says his explanation is “completely ludicrous.”
"They knew that I was not a hooker. They knew that. So that's a bad excuse, that's called a CYA/Monday morning quarterbacking excuse, because that's not what happened,” she says. “I was kicked out of there because I was a transgender, not because I was a hooker."
Sandy says she was neither dressed like a prostitute nor acted like one when she visited Tempe Tavern on Saturday afternoon. She was in the area getting her car fixed and considering hopping aboard the light rail at McClintock and Apache to catch a Diamondbacks game in downtown Phoenix when an ESPN app on her phone alerted her that the Belmont Stakes was about to begin.
Sandy, a lifelong sports aficionado, decided to head for the closest bar, which happened to be Tempe Tavern. The staff seemed friendly at first, she claims, until a male employee quietly conferred with the female bartender on duty. Then things started to get decidedly unfriendly, Sandy says.
I walked in the door and they welcomed me. There were probably five people in the bar at the time and I was about to ask for a Coke or a mixed drink or something and I was going to watch the two-minute race and then leave,” Sandy says. “Everybody was polite to me in the bar, and she was polite to me, before the guy walked around the corner and told her not to serve me. And then she totally turned her whole attitude and her smile turned to a frown.”
According to her Facebook post, Sandy says she was informed by the bartender they couldn't serve her.
“[When] I asked why, she said, 'We don't serve your kind drinks.'” Sandy wrote. “Then the guy came over and said, 'You can't stay here' and all but forced me out the door. As I was leaving, I said, 'Is this because I'm transgender?' and he said, 'No comment.'”
Afterward, Sandy was aghast.
“I was like, 'Are you kidding? What did I do? Did they just say they didn't serve my kind? Does that really happen?” she says. “Honestly, all I have ever wanted to do is just peacefully co-exist, but this went beyond that because of what happened.”
After leaving – and searching in vain for another bar nearby to watch the race — Sandy phoned the bar and spoke with the bartender regarding the matter.
"I called back and spoke to her and said, 'I'm not a hooker. You threw me out because I'm transgender. Are you sure you want to do that?' And she said, 'Yes.'” Sandy says.
Tasso disputes that Sandy was kicked out because of her gender identity and denies that his bartender said, “We don't serve your kind drinks.” He maintains that his employees believed she was one of the prostitutes who occasionally prowl near his business and Modern World, a neighboring adult bookstore.
While the portion of Apache Boulevard was a notorious hot spot for street-walkers and drug-dealers in the early to mid-'90s, increased enforcement by the Tempe Police Department, massive redevelopment, and the construction of light rail over the years substantially eliminated such woes. Tasso, however, says that prostitution and drug-dealing still occurs near Tempe Tavern.
“Tempe's really cleaned it up. I mean, 10 years ago it used to be a Wild West out here, but unfortunately, we're still dealing with those issues. Not that this person is a prostitute. They're clearly not,” Tasso says. “So that's what we deal with around here, and there's a handful of them that come around that are not welcome in our business, because basically, prostitution's illegal. And there's some drug-dealing that goes on [and] we also don't allow drug dealers in here either. And unfortunately, my 20-year-old bartender mistook this person for somebody that's not supposed to be in here and told her, 'Sorry, you can't be in here.'”
Tasso reiterates that it was a case of mistaken identity compounded by the naivete of his bartender, even when confronted with the fact that Sandy wasn't provocatively dressed when she was at Tempe Tavern.
"If you'd like, I'd love for you to come out here, hang out on my back patio, and look what goes on in my back parking lot. And I'll tell you what I tell the girls that work here, 'These [prostitutes] are dressed like they're going to a business meeting,'” Tasso says. “You should take a look at them. They're fantastically dressed. You would never know.”
Sandy says she doesn't buy Tasso's reasoning and points to the selfie she took after the incident and later posted to her Facebook.
“Look at that photo. Did I look like a hooker to you? If so, I couldn't have picked a less-sexier dress than that,” she says. “If I was going to do something like that, I would've had a plunging neckline or something like that or I would've worn some stockings or some heels or a lot more makeup.”
Tasso, who was in Mexico over the weekend, told New Times that although no disciplinary action will be taken against his employees, he's willing to meet with Sandy and rectify the matter. While he regrets what happened, the Tempe Tavern owner says he was concerned by the online rancor over the incident, as well as the threats against his staff.
"Its unfortunate that this happened, and we clearly don't want this to happen again, I just wish it would've been settled a different way through an e-mail and I could've made a phone call afterwards,” he says. “It would've never blown up to this proportion."
Sandy says she hasn't spoken with Tasso as of earlier today but plans to file a complaint with the Tempe's Diversity Office over the incident, which she believes is in violation of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. The law, which was enacted last year, makes it illegal to “exclude individuals from an opportunity or participation in any activity” due to their race, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or other reasons.
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Sandy says she's also been speaking with representatives from such pro-LGBT organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal — as well as local civil rights activist, the Reverend Jarrett Maupin — regarding further action.
“I just felt this was so wrong, not just for me but for the community as a whole,” she says. “And I felt like I had to share this, and now I have to try and keep this from happening again."