Midtown Nightclub Accused of Discriminatory Practices

Three Houston attorneys who tried to visit Gaslamp says the nightclub is using discriminatory practices to determine who gets to come in for free and who has to pay a $20 cover fee.
Three Houston attorneys who tried to visit Gaslamp says the nightclub is using discriminatory practices to determine who gets to come in for free and who has to pay a $20 cover fee.
Photo by Brandon Ball

Three Houston attorneys who attempted to enter The Gaslamp at 2400 Brazos on Friday night say the club is charging minority males a $20 entry fee while letting in whites at no charge.

Brandon Ball says he and two friends, Dan Scarbrough and Ken Piggee, tried to enter The Gaslamp between 11 and 11:30 p.m. They were each asked for a $20 cover charge and declined to pay. They went to neighboring bar The Dogwood, where they stayed for about 30 minutes. When they came out, Ball claims, he and his friends observed white males entering The Gaslamp without having to pay cover, while African Americans, Hispanics and Asians were either asked for the $20 or told they were inappropriately dressed.

Ball detailed the entire experience in a Facebook post that, as of Sunday night, had been shared more than 8,850 times.

Scarbrough says The Gaslamp was only one of several clubs the trio visited that night. They started out at Howl At The Moon for another friend's gathering. From there, they went to Celtic Gardens, Pub Fiction and 3rd Floor. “We were just going all over the place because I’d never been to that part of Midtown," he said. "We were just kind of exploring.” Scarbrough says his group wasn’t treated differently from other patrons at any of the other clubs they visited that night.

This photo, taken Friday evening, shows Dan Scarbrough (left) and Brandon Ball (right) in the attire they wore when trying to gain entry to Gaslamp.
This photo, taken Friday evening, shows Dan Scarbrough (left) and Brandon Ball (right) in the attire they wore when trying to gain entry to Gaslamp.
Photos by Brandon Ball and Dan Scarbrough

Tim Sutherland, attorney for The Gaslamp, says the men were charged cover not because of their race but because there were no females with them. “Our club doesn’t allow multiple males with no females, so our policy is to charge a cover for that group.” Sutherland says there is no specific defined ratio of females to males that would be needed to gain free entry, but “you’d want at least one for a group of three and a one-to-one ratio is better.” He also says females are asked for a cover charge from time to time. When asked under what circumstances this would happen, he said, “That’s a discretionary thing for the bouncers. I honestly don’t know that.”

Sutherland says “regulars” get into The Gaslamp for free, as well as people the bouncers know personally and people who hold VIP memberships. He claims that Ball and his party were trying to access the third-floor rooftop terrace area and says that to get in, “You have to pay a cover. Everybody does.” Ball denies the claim and says they were simply trying to gain entry at street level. In fact, Ball says he wasn't even aware there was a terrace. "None of us had been in there before so we wouldn't have known to ask for any specifics," he explained. 

Much is left to the discretion of the bouncers working the door, including whether the clothing would-be patrons wear is in compliance with the club’s dress code. Ball, Scarbrough and Piggee all says they were nicely dressed in business casual clothing appropriate for lawyers to go to work in on a Friday.

Bouncer Mike Ross, who was working the door on Friday night along with Jacob Johnson, apparently didn’t think much of the trio, who described them in a Facebook post as “3 old, out of shape, with no girls dorks lol.” (The post has since been deleted, but Ball has a screen capture of it.)

This photo shot by would-be Gaslamp patron Brandon Ball shows the bouncers working that night. Jacob Johnson is on the left and Mike Ross on the right.
This photo shot by would-be Gaslamp patron Brandon Ball shows the bouncers working that night. Jacob Johnson is on the left and Mike Ross on the right.
Photo by Brandon Ball

Sutherland says that the definition of “nicely dressed,” as defined by Gaslamp, isn’t what others might think. “There are different standards for what looks ‘nice’ in a nightclub. Trendy, hip and well-tailored is what you’re looking for in the patrons’ dress. The girls are in dresses oftentimes and skirts. If you’re wearing something that doesn’t fit you properly and you have on work boots, Wrangler jeans and an oversided sport coat, that’s not technically what we’re looking for as far as how our patrons are dressed.” He agrees that Ross’s comment on Facebook about the men was not tactful. “There’s better ways to do it than insulting people and I told him that,” says Sutherland.

Interestingly, Ross posted on Facebook that he actually has a mixed-race family — his stepfather is black. 

One point everyone agrees on is that there is no signage in place telling patrons what, exactly, the cover fee amount or entry policy is. “I think we have a sign saying there is a cover fee but I don’t know that it says the exact amount,” said Sutherland. 

According to Ball, a Harris County Sheriff's Department deputy named Jojo Flores was providing door security at Gaslamp on Friday evening. The officer seemed to have no qualms about the club's admission policies. In his Facebook post, Ball wrote: 

I finally went and spoke to the cop [...] who was working the door (who is a minority himself) and asked him if he was aware and comfortable with how the door guys were conducting business. His reply was basically..."I just work and do my job and those guys over there do their job." I told him he was complicit but he blew me off.

Flores deleted his personal Facebook page soon after Ball's post began receiving widespread attention on social media. 

It’s not only black men who are claiming that Gaslamp has discriminatory policies. Kyle Nielsen, a white male, says he first observed people of color being charged a cover fee and white guys entering free of charge over a year ago.

“In May of 2014, I stood outside the bar for several hours watching the way things operated. It was definitely a racist door policy,” he told us. “They were letting all white guys in for free and charging minority men a cover fee.” He never saw whites being charged a cover fee, even when dressed in shorts and jeans. “It never had anything to do with dress code,” he continued. “They were letting black men in, but they had to pay to get in.” He also says that he’s seen single white men entering the club with no women companions. “If a minority male showed up with a bunch of women, sometime they’d let them in.”

Nielsen posted on Twitter that when he was caught observing the club by their employees, “an employee kicked me into street and mystery person threw ice on me from roof patio.”

Since Ball’s Facebook post, more people have claimed to have been discriminated against by Gaslamp. So many complaints have been flying around on social media over the weekend that they even caught mayor Annise Parker’s attention, indicated that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which is coming up for public vote in November, is key to investigating claims of discrimination by private businesses.

There has not yet been any communication — and therefore, no resolution — between the accusers and Gaslamp’s owners. Ball says he and his friends are still discussing whether or not they intend to take legal action against the club. 


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