Bar owner Geno Zaharakis sat one busy evening at the window of his gay nightclub, watching as groups of straight women celebrating bachelorette parties made their way along a strip of bars in Chicago's gay-friendly "Boystown" neighborhood.
That's when he made a decision now posted for all to see: "No Bachelorette Parties."
Though the small sign has been there for years, it's suddenly making a big statement amid the national debate over gay marriage. While most gay bars continue to welcome the raucous brides to be, Zaharakis's bar Cocktail is fighting for what he sees as a fundamental right, and his patrons -- along with some peeved bachelorettes -- are taking notice.
"I'm totally losing money because of it, but I don't want the money," Zaharakis said. "I would rather not have the money than host an event I didn't believe in."
Gay bars are popular with bachelorettes, both for the over-the-top drag shows that some offer and for the ability to let loose in a place where women are unlikely to be groped or ogled. Some bars welcome the women and their free spending, even advertising weekend shows.
Zaharakis, though, instructs his bouncers to turn away groups of women sporting beads, boas, tiaras and phallic plastic necklaces. His customers say they like knowing they're not going to encounter such displays.
"It is throwing it in our face that they can get married and we can't," said Dion Contreras, a 29-year-old Chicago litigation manager, while having a drink at Cocktail with friends. "I just think they're ignorant to our situation. I want women to think twice about this issue."
When Zaharakis posted the sign in 2004, it got a little local attention, but it was mostly the surprised bachelorettes turned away at the door who took note. The November passage of California's gay marriage ban Proposition 8, though, helped sparked chatter about the ban on Internet blogs, which in turn attracted more media attention and debate.
The California Supreme Court upheld the state ban last month. Six states have legalized gay marriage.
Some of the biggest proponents of gay marriage aren't on board with Zaharakis' approach.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said while he agrees with Zaharakis' stand on marriage equality, he would express it differently.
"I'd rather invite people in," Wolfson said. "Celebrate their happiness and ask them to take a stand for us by helping change the law."
And Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois -- well-known for fighting for the legalization of gay marriage -- says the ban may violate state anti-discrimination laws.
"The way is not to bar or discriminate against or harass other people," Yohnka said.
In Washington D.C., when bachelorette partygoers enter the gay bar Town Danceboutique they're asked to sign a petition in support of gay marriage. Owner Ed Bailey sends the petitions to the customer's representative in Congress. Bailey says in the year he's had his petition policy, no one has refused to sign.
"That's the way to handle it instead of alienating all these people," Bailey said. "You have to get the consensus built out there. Why not try to convince people, 'Hey, why wouldn't you support this?"'
Down the street from Chicago's Cocktail, another gay nightclub, Circuit, welcomes bachelorettes. Owner Jeff Binninger doesn't think the women's antics are meant to hurt anyone.
"The girls want to come and see the dancers," Binninger said. "I don't think it's on their mind at all, 'We can get married and, oh, you can't.' I don't think the girls are malicious in their intent."
Where Zaharakis took offense, Binninger saw a market niche and started producing the male revue "Sinzation" on Saturday nights, advertised specifically to bachelorette parties.
One recent Saturday night, 25-year-old Tiffany Casto of Canton, Mich., and eight girlfriends waited for the male dancers to start the show. Casto wore a hot pink feather boa, while her friends had matching white sunglasses, reflecting the dozen disco balls spinning from the ceiling as Beyonce's "Single Ladies" played.
"I wouldn't think I'm flaunting it at all," Casto said.
But Zaharakis is standing firm. At Cocktail, where about once a month staff turn away bachelorettes, the sign will stay. And for those who ask about it, he's ready with a written statement: "Until same-sex marriage is legal everywhere and same-sex couples are allowed the rights as every heterosexual couple worldwide, we simply do not think it's fair or just for a female bride-to-be to celebrate her upcoming nuptials here at Cocktail."
"I'm not going to tell anybody about how to run their business," Zaharakis said. "This is just how I run mine. The political climate has made it more charged. We're standing up in our factions and groups and making statements about how this should stop."
On the Net:
Cocktail Bar Chicago: http://www.cocktailbarchicago.com/
Circuit Night Club: http://www.circuitclub.com/
Town Danceboutique: http://www.towndc.com/ source