Pubs and bars that discriminate against certain social groups are rightly taken to task. In 2011 a London pub, the John Snow, threw out a gay couple for kissing – and found itself on the wrong end of an inspired mass kiss-in protest. But why do we decry forms of prejudice like this while tolerating another?
Brown’s, a bar in Coventry, has been alleged for some years to have refused service or even admission to a number of social groups, such as disabled and minority ethnic people. If it’s true (and the allegations are manifold: see here, here, here, here and here) then of course this is appalling.
This week Brown’s has made the news nationally for refusing service to another group. This time it was a group of soldiers. The story has gathered a lot of traction because at the time, the soldiers were preparing for the funeral of a comrade killed on service in Afghanistan.
This is also appalling. But it’s the product of a form of discrimination openly enforced by thousands of bars up and down the UK every day and every night. It’s a form of discrimination that’s never normally questioned. It’s called a dress code.
I’m sickened by the way Brown’s decided they didn’t like those soldiers’ uniforms and refused them the respect they’d normally extend to most other people. Likewise, I am sickened by the way Jools Holland’s ‘Jam House’ in Birmingham decided they didn’t like my girlfriend’s shoes – and refused to let her back inside after she’d been out to make a phone call.
She’d only just got a drink as well, damn it.
Most of the time this isn’t a problem for me. I’ve been to Brown’s once – getting on for 15 years ago. I had no difficulty getting in or getting served, and I enjoyed the food. (Given what I’ve heard since, of course, I’ll never go back.) And it’s pretty rare for me to step into any licensed premises that operates a dress code, because most of them are vile beyond endurance.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about the principle. True, you can change your clothes, in a way you can’t change your sexuality, disability or ethnicity. But what you wear is still part of who you are. Unless you’re a goth or something, it doesn’t place you In an easily distinguishable group. But that doesn’t make it meaningless. What you wear is still part of who you are.
“It wouldn’t have happened if we had been aware of the funeral,” says Brown’s owner Ken Brown.
Well, that’s not good enough. It shouldn’t happen at all, funeral or no funeral; soldiers, Asians, goths, LGBT folk, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, or people who just prefer to wear particular clothes or shoes. You run a business, you have certain responsibilities – whether they’re covered by the 2010 Equality Act or just the obligation we all share to try and treat people decently. Call that business a bar if you must; in essence it remains a public house. And you should open it to the whole of the public or not open it at all.
Photo: Cast members from John Godber’s Bouncers, staged by the Rosehill Players of Whitehaven, Cumbria, 2008. Alan Cleaver (cc-by 2.0)