by Dave Kolpack
FARGO, N.D. — A worker-owner of a Fargo coffee shop who instituted a tongue-in-cheek ban on North Dakota lawmakers for opposing an anti-discrimination bill says the response has been “99.9 percent positive” and that he made his point, even if a few people didn’t like it.
Joe Curry, one of the worker-owners of the Red Raven Espresso Parlor, posted a newspaper page in the shop earlier this month that showed the 55 Republican state House members who rejected a bill that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace. It was accompanied by a sign saying the legislators were banned, “Unless accompanied by a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, queer, intersex or asexual person.”
The stunt got a lot of attention, with Republican-led legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas having just rolled back their new religious objections laws under pressure from critics who considered the laws invitations to discriminate against the LGBT community. Curry said he wanted to use humor to make a serious point and to show support for his customers, whom he describes as mostly “lefties” in a conservative state.
“The ban was, I thought, very tongue in cheek, requiring them to be escorted by someone from the LBGT community,” Curry said Wednesday. “I hope that they thought about it, at least, and I hope some of them giggled. But in the end, they are all welcome here.”
Not everyone giggled.
State Rep. Josh Boschee, a Red Raven regular and the state’s only openly gay lawmaker, said he didn’t like the tactic.
“I understand what they are trying to make a point but I would have done it differently,” the Fargo Democrat said.
Republican state Rep. Jim Kasper, a local who voted against the legislation, said he’s never been in the coffee shop because he doesn’t get downtown much. He also took the ban seriously and went as far as to support the premise.
“They have the perfect right to refuse anyone they want,” Kasper said.
The ban got attention on cable news shows. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry described it as her “favorite thing that happened this week” and wondered aloud if Fargo was a “center of LBGT rights.”
Curry said the coffee shop received an outpouring of love on social media. One of his customers baked him a cake and another made him a patch with the message, “Solidarity forever.” The three Democratic state lawmakers who represent the Red Raven’s district sent him a gift basket.
The few critics that came forward were vocal, Curry said.
“It was just a handful, but some of them were talking about militant gay agenda, which I hadn’t heard of,” he said. “A few phone calls telling us that we were hypocrites and using some language that was slightly hurtful, but nothing that will affect us long term.”
The Red Raven caters to a younger crowd that includes high school and college students and young professors in an area that has three four-year universities. It has an art gallery and a stage for poets, musicians and comedians. It is one of the few establishments in town that holds all-ages shows.
Albert Whitcomb, a 69-year-old regular who describes himself as a “genuine hippy and activist,” joked with Curry during a recent visit that he stopped in to get Curry’s autograph for the “awesome adventure” over the anti-discrimination bill.
“It will cost you,” Curry joked.
Curry took down the sign and photos a few days ago, but he hasn’t ruled out posting them again. He believes the display served its purpose.
“I think the statement was made and I think it a chord with a lot of people,” Curry said. “I think it encapsulated a lot of the anger and disgust with all the people who shared it. It did its job. It opened the doors to a lot of discussion and I think a lot of that discussion, at least what I was hearing, was positive.”