Most of the time, not much slows down Tess Raunig. And that's fortunate, considering the wheelchair-bound University of Montana student, who was born with cerebral palsy, has a lot to do. Raunig, 23, sings in a band, is the reining Ms. Gay Missoula and dons a mustache every so often for drag shows around town.
When Raunig goes out in the evening, the bars she frequents are usually wheelchair accessible. If not, Raunig says staffers generally go out of their way to give her a hand getting in and out of the club. But that isn't the case at Missoula's unofficial gay bar, AmVets, and it's put Raunig at the center of a dispute that speaks to the very identity of the establishment.
"AmVets is the most blatant issue I've had to deal with as far as access goes," says Raunig. "They're denying people with disabilities the right to go into their establishment."
Even able-bodied patrons sometimes have a tough time navigating the steep stairs to the basement bar on Ryman Street. But Raunig isn't one to be put off. In the past, she's had friends carry her down AmVets' stairs, much to the bar's dismay. She says during the course of two years, staffers increasingly tried to limit her alcohol intake and time spent inside the bar. Presumably, she says, they were concerned about her safety.
Though irritated, Raunig initially didn't make waves. But the discrimination got worse, she says. During an incident last winter, an AmVets employee stopped her as friends carried her down the stairs, saying she was a fire hazard and couldn't enter the club.
"The bouncer comes up and he's like, 'You can't be down here.' And I'm like, 'I'm halfway down the stairs, okay? Just let me come down.'" Raunig recalls he then said, "'Well, you can get up as easily as you came down.'"
Friends hoisted Raunig back up the stairs, and she tried a different approach.
"I walked down the stairs with the help of a drag queen," she says.
Once inside, AmVets staff told her she needed to leave early, Raunig says. She hasn't gone back since, and has called for an all-out boycott of the bar.
"It makes me really mad that we still have that kind of blatant discrimination going on," she says.
Legally, AmVets is not required to be handicapped accessible. The building was constructed before Congress passed the Americans with Disability Act in 1990, which means it doesn't have to follow the stricter accessibility standards in new construction, says Disability Rights Montana Attorney Beth Brenneman.
But Brenneman says AmVets enters dangerous legal territory if it forces a disabled person to comply with a different set of rules—like limiting servings or leaving early—than able-bodied individuals.
"That's a whole other bag of hammers," Brenneman says.
If a black person or a woman were told they had to leave by 10 p.m., while everyone else was allowed to stay, the case for discrimination would be cut and dry, Brenneman says.
"If you start talking about it in terms of gender or race, it's absolutely outrageous," she says. "And it really is not very different, frankly. She's an adult, for goodness sakes."
Mike Might, AmVets' owner, says he's not aware of specific incidents involving Raunig. Ultimately, though, he acknowledges his bar just isn't equipped for wheelchairs. And, as is usually the case, alcohol complicates the situation. Might points to incidents involving groups of friends who brought mobility-impaired people and left them at the bar. That, he says, puts his staff in a tough spot.
"What happens is we have drunk customers hauling them out of there," he says. "I think the big thing is, who's going to haul her back out?"
Might, who has a prosthetic leg himself, says he'd like to make AmVets accessible for everyone, but doing so would be prohibitively expensive.
"If she wants to give me $200,000 for an elevator, then we'll do it," he says. "I wish we had a ramp. I wish we had an elevator."
More importantly, Might maintains his business doesn't discriminate. In fact, he thinks that's not the real issue. He says Raunig's complaints are just the latest in an ongoing battle for AmVets' identity. Might says his bar is and always has been a veterans' establishment, and that doesn't sit well with the queer community.
"We are not a gay bar," he says. "They want it as theirs exclusively."
Raunig acknowledges she's seen bad blood between the proprietor and members of the local queer community. But she says that's not what this is about. It's about providing the same opportunities to all people.
"My issues with him are strictly based on the access," she says. "It's not because I'm gay...It's not accessible. That's the point. And I don't know if the gay community necessarily wants his bar."