Mister Sister in Burlington, Vt., is set to open March 10 but has already hit a snag: its name. There are some in the local LGBTQ community that claim the name is offensive to transgender people.
Debate among the gay community about whether to support the bar continues, but one thing is settled: The owner has no plans to change the name.
Craig McGaughan, the owner and a gay man, took to the bar’s Facebook page to address the criticism: “I have chosen to name my new business Mister Sister specifically for its inclusiveness. Like all names, Mister Sister will have different associations and interpretations and will be perceived differently by each individual.”
He goes on to say, “A small part of our community has chosen to attack me for this in a way that has felt extremely divisive in a time when it has never been more important to support the LGBTQ community. These sorts of attacks do not lend themselves to productive dialogue.”
Dusti Parker, a trans woman and activist, is one of McGaughan’s critics. “I marched back in the early ’80s, late ’70s when those words and names were thrown out. I had sticks and stones stabbed. I was beat. That name was there. Do I want to see that name up on the sign? What does that bring back?” Parker told WCAX in an interview.
The name Mister Sister may be a reference to an episode of Will and Grace, the 2000s sitcom featuring openly gay characters. In one episode called “,” a character, Jack, has a testy exchange with the actress and singer Cher, whom he mistakes for a drag-queen Cher impersonator.
“I had never heard the term before Will and Grace,” said 61-year-old Bob Bolyard, a gay Burlington man. Bolyard also performs in drag under the name Amber Lemay. “I grew up being called all kinds of names,” he says. “‘Mister Sister’ was never one of them.”
Fault lines throughout Burlington’s LGBTQ community continue to form with those labeling the name hate speech and those defending it as a term of endearment or reclamation. An example cited by most Mister Sister supporters is how the word “queer” has lost some of its stigma after being embraced by some as a social nom de guerre.
When reached by Yahoo Beauty, representatives of Mister Sister pointed to their press release and declined to comment further.
The Pride Center of Vermont has come out against Mister Sister, labeling the name “hate speech” in a press release. It held a town-hall-style meeting on March 3 to discuss the issue. McGaughan did not attend, but a representative for the bar was present. Two board members of the Pride Center have resigned in protest of the organization’s not taking a stronger stand sooner.
“I could no longer be part of an organization that wouldn’t take a stance against hate speech directed at the community members it was claiming to support, so I was forced to resign. I’m really sad to have had to do this — I loved being a board member at the Pride Center,” one of the resigning members told the Burlington Free Press.
Dan Mclaughlin, a Mister Sister supporter, attended and describes the meeting as one that quickly devolved into chaos. “I thought it was a failed opportunity to unify the LGBTQ community,” he says. “They lost control of the meeting almost immediately.”
A very vocal group of trans supporters “bullied and coerced the pride center,” according to Mclaughlin, and labeled anyone who disagreed with them as “trans-misogynistic.” He says they also claimed that the local gay community was “systematically oppressive” against transgender individuals.
Vermont has been without a gay bar since the last one, 135 Pearl in Burlington, closed 10 years ago. Robert Toms, its former owner, described the controversy as “an interesting clash of cultural terminology” in a telephone interview.
Toms, who attended the meeting and is against the name of the bar, told us “the gray area is very real because there are two strong arguments here.”
Toms believes McGaughan’s intentions are sincere but that the argument that people who disagree with the name should “get over it” is not enough. “I do believe there’s a lack of understanding and not enough education about trans people in queer culture,” he said.
Toms points out that opening a gay bar is not like opening any other kind of bar or lounge because its marketing goes hand-in-hand with the community’s values. Without consensus on those values, however, a dark cloud has formed over Mister Sister, formally known as Oak45.