Human Resources

Business community reacts to Orlando attack

LGBTQ nightclub owners are paying more attention to security measures.

June 17, 2016
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The mass shooting June 12 at a gay nightclub in Orlando is rippling all the way to the Grand Rapids business community.

Owners and staff of gay establishments in Grand Rapids are confronting what it may mean to become a target for violence simply for who they welcome through the doors.

Beyond the LGBTQ community, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss sent a letter of support to Orlando’s mayor, and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce made a statement encouraging diversity in business and at all levels of the community.

“Without diversity and inclusion, we limit our talent, our resources and the business opportunities necessary to prosper,” the chamber’s statement read.

June 12 was heartbreaking for Grand Rapids’ Bobby Johnson as a member of the LGBTQ community. But as a business owner, his mind was racing with questions. Johnson owns The Apartment Lounge, often claimed as the oldest gay bar in the state of Michigan.

“If it happened (in Orlando), it could happen anywhere,” he said.

“It’s been crazy. Just last week we were just talking about, ‘Wow, it’s so cool we have equal rights. We have the right to marry.’ And then something like this happens, and it shakes you to the core. We’ve come so far, but we have so far to go.”

After seeing the news, Johnson called his manager, Eric Zuniga, and told him they needed to hold a vigil for the community. That night, hundreds gathered in the street outside The Apartment Lounge, 33 Sheldon Blvd. NE in downtown Grand Rapids.

The event was filled with grief and support, and it raised about $2,200 for a GoFundMe campaign for the Orlando victims.

“It gives me goose bumps. It makes me smile, makes my heart warm to see everybody here and listening to the people singing,” said Rickey Penton that night. Penton owns Rumors Nightclub, 69 South Division Ave., Grand Rapids. He shut down his club for the evening so he and his staff could attend the vigil.

“Bobby’s very community oriented, and we’re very good friends, and I wanted to jump on the team,” Penton said. “I wanted my staff and performers to be able to be here, because this is a community event.”

To Johnson, this business is personal. He’s owned The Apartment Lounge for three years, since he took over from Ed Ladner and Milton Lenox, who opened the bar more than four decades ago. It’s not just a company he’s trying to maintain; it’s a mission.

“I bought a legacy. It’s the oldest LGBT bar in the state of Michigan. Milt and Ed trusted me to take it into the future.”

Both Johnson and Penton said their staffs have been discussing tightening security and keeping a closer eye on what’s going on outside the door.

“It’s scary because that’s what I do for a living. I throw those parties every weekend. One of my bartenders came in today, and she said, ‘I feel a little nervous working today,’” Penton said. “So, it really has hit home here. I feel safe here. I really do think it’s an isolated incident.”

Zuniga said The Apartment Lounge staff always acknowledges every person who walks in with a friendly hello, but now that greeting will also serve to check whether someone could be a threat.

Bliss signed her letter to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer “in solidarity.” On her Facebook page, she noted that the police department worked closely with organizers of the Grand Rapids Pride Festival to review security for the weekend.

“We stand behind the belief that there is no place in our society for hatred of any kind,” her letter read.

The chamber vowed support.

“Our work as a chamber will continue to focus on leading the West Michigan business community in creating an inviting and inclusive region that is welcoming to and safe for all people — whatever their socio-economic backgrounds, skin color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifying differences may be,” it read. “We will continue to live out these values through our policies, practices, membership services, and community engagement while also serving as a resource for West Michigan’s employers and employees.”

That the shooting happened means a lot of work is needed before LGBTQ businesses are accepted fully in the U.S., Johnson said.

“If we can educate one person to realize we’re no different than anyone else, … all I can say is our prayer is that the new generation can think for themselves,” he said.

“So, things are changing. Even here in Grand Rapids, things are changing. The whole climate’s changing. We’re accepted more than we’ve ever been, and we’re just people that work every day and love and live.”

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