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Suspected arson attack strikes at heart of New York’s queer-friendly club scene

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Show caption Rash, a five-month old queer bar and nightclub in Bushwick, was leveled by a blaze on Sunday night, injuring two people. Photograph: Club handout/Rash Club NYC New York Suspected arson attack strikes at heart of New York’s queer-friendly club scene The club was beloved by young partygoers and felt like a ‘very safe space for queer people of color’ Wilfred Chan Fri 8 Apr 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It was supposed to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. Then someone set the nightclub on fire while they were still inside.

Rash, a five-month-old queer bar and nightclub in New York’s Bushwick, was leveled by a blaze on Sunday night, injuring two people in what police are investigating as an intentional act.

About 9.20pm, before a show was about to begin, a man entered the venue, poured a bottle of flammable liquid on the floor, lit a match and ran out as a blaze ignited, police said. Two people were hospitalized with burns, and have since been released.

Jake Sillen, Rash’s 26-year-old co-owner, said that the venue was not yet full when the fire started. “It could’ve been a lot worse if it was in the middle of the event,” Sillen told the Guardian. But the bar has been “completely charred on the inside” and will need to be demolished.

The interior of Rash night club after a suspected arson attack. Photograph: Courtesy Rash night club

Rash was a relative newcomer along the Myrtle Avenue strip, a popular nightlife district in Bushwick, a historically Hispanic and industrial part of Brooklyn.The club saw itself as a launchpad for up-and-coming acts, especially queer artists who “maybe hadn’t had bookings like this before, haven’t performed at this scale before”, said Sillen.

Before it burned, the club was organizing seven shows a week, some shows with up to six DJs. “It’s possible some weeks we were paying 30 to 40 performers,” the co-owner said. Now many of those performers could lose work. “There’s a whole community and ecosystem that relies on this place, and I don’t know what all these people are going to be able to do without it.”

Sillen said that they’re determined to rebuild the venue. But their current priority is to raise money to help with the victims’ medical costs on GoFundMe, where a statement from Rash called the fire “a cruel act of violence”.

Terri Moise, a 27-year-old resident of Bushwick who lives five blocks from Rash and frequently saw shows there, said he felt “heartbroken” and shaken after the fire.

Moise said that Rash had felt like a “genuinely very, very safe space for queer people of color. They were really good about making sure people weren’t harassing anyone. Everyone there was super friendly. The bartenders, the security – if they even got a hint of someone not feeling well, they would go check on them immediately.”

Despite its short existence, Rash had become quickly embraced as a go-to spot for young queer partiers. It had a dimly lit back room that was able to create “a large rave feeling at a small venue – very hard to accomplish,” said Moise.

Rash was among one of several well-known queer-friendly venues in the area, including Mood Ring, Happyfun Hideaway, and the Bossa Nova Civic Club. But even before the fire at Rash, some clubbers were already on edge.

Last August, another Brooklyn queer bar, C’Mon Everybody, had a brick thrown through its window. In September, there was a stabbing at Bossa Nova that injured a 43-year-old man and rattled partygoers. Afterward, the nightclub announced it had “updated [its] security protocol.”

In January, Bossa Nova was heavily damaged and forced to shut down when a fire started in an apartment above it, seriously injuring the tenant and killing the tenant’s dog. That fire was not deemed suspicious by investigators, but the closure left a void in Bushwick’s queer clubbing scene. Then in February, Nowadays, in neighboring Queens, was hit by what appeared to be a mace bomb, burning attendees’ eyes and throats at a club night that celebrated its all-Black DJ lineup.

After Bossa Nova closed, many artists that had performed there started doing shows at Rash, which was vocal in calling for support of Bossa Nova on social media.

Rash’s co-owner Sillen said they didn’t want to draw conclusions about the attack yet, but acknowledged there were “definitely a lot” of other recent troubling incidents in the area.

Bossa Nova Civic Club did not return the Guardian’s requests for comment.

With one of the largest LGBTQI populations in the world, New York City has long been a global mecca for queer culture. Bars, dance halls and nightclubs have played an important role as a space for the community to express itself without fear. They have also been the birthplace of art, music, fashion, and political movements that have had an outsized impact on the rest of popular culture.

With one of the largest LGBTQI populations in the world, New York City has long been a global mecca for queer culture. Photograph: Marie Le Ble/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

This week, New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, positioned the city as a welcoming place for queer people in contrast to places like Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis just signed a “don’t say gay” law. The policy prohibits teaching students between kindergarten and third grade about gender identity and sexual orientation.

“We are going to loudly show our support, to say to those who are living in Florida, ‘Listen, we want you here in New York. Want you right here in New York City,’” said Adams at a press conference Monday. “We are in unison with you and your right to have a self-identification, your right to live the lifestyle, live the life that you choose to live, without any form of harassment.”

The mayor tweeted on Tuesday after the fire at Rash: “While this incident is still being investigated, make no mistake: anyone who comes into my city looking to spread fear and hatred will pay the consequences.”

Queer spaces have faced violence for as long as they have existed. New York City’s most well-known incident is the police raid at Stonewall Inn that sparked the 1969 Stonewall Uprising – and helped launch the modern gay rights movement. There have been countless other incidents since in New York and around the country.

But attacks won’t deter Sillen from continuing. While live music, dance music, and nightlife culture “can get a bad rap for being dangerous or indulgent,” the scene is “really, really important” to the queer community, they said. “It’s one of the only places that some of these people can exist, and do what they love to do, and be themselves.”