Fed vs State Powers (George Freeman)

Private Clubs: Civil Rights Exemption or Sanctioned Discrimination

Member Career, Discrimination

NBC Tomorrow Show (George Freeman) - Galaxy 21, New York

NBC Tomorrow Show (George Freeman) – Galaxy 21, New York

As a civil rights supporter, when it comes to creating an air of acceptance for all individuals, George resembles a full time activist. As owner of the famed New York nightclub Galaxy 21, he played an important role in providing a safe space for people of different races and sexual orientations to come together in the late 1970s.

Galaxy 21 was a place to celebrate life with music and dance. Although there was some acceptance of homosexuality in 1970’s, society at large had still not afforded LGBT individuals the level of acceptance that they are given today. A club like Galaxy 21 ensured that they found solace, community and equal treatment within his establishment.

The distinct position that the club held at the time brought it to the attention of NBC’s “Tomorrow Show” producers. Host Tom Snyder interviewed George at the Galaxy 21 club via remote studio link where he asked questions about running a gay-owned business. George confidently answered Mr. Snyder’s questions about the challenges of running an establishment like Galaxy 21. These challenges, including  legal issues, meant cooperation with law enforcement to ease tensions among neighbors when club patrons brought the party into the streets. Yet, in terms of its internal culture, the inclusive nature of the club brought few issues to bare within the walls of Galaxy 21.

The interview ended with a debate between George and fellow panelist Robert Moberg, who ran the New York Club Baths, about opening up gay businesses to a broader clientele. Today, a number of membership-based businesses maintain a wide variety of discriminatory practices, as is the case with all-male organizations. George felt at the time, as he still does today, that discrimination from both sides of the gay-straight dynamic — along with any other discriminatory practice — should end.  This is not just a matter of being on the correct side of history, it’s a contemporary civil rights issue.

In the 1960s, while assessing ‘freedom to associate’ the Supreme Court interpreted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (preventing slavery) as applying only to public acts of discrimination, which it would later extend to private acts. However, the 1866 Act does not contain an express exemption for private organizations. In the tug-of-war between state and federal powers courts still included vague legalese into rulings around membership discrimination. 

“…while it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race or national origin in hotels, restaurants, theaters, public transportation and public parks, the Federal civil rights laws do not make it unlawful for bona fide private clubs and religious organizations to discriminate on whatever basis they choose” (Source)

Mr. Moberg insisted in keeping the spaces exclusive to gay people. The debate ended in a stalemate as George, steadfast in the assertions, noted that people should not be deprived of spaces that offered freedom and liberation.

Acknowledging a variety of sexuality in the spectrum, George told Mr. Snyder “We, here, view people as just ‘sexual’”.  The implication of George’s response was both inclusive and widely applicable to a range of social causes but it was lost to the salacious style of prime time TV.