Born with severe cerebral palsy, Evaristo "Pee Wee" Vela walks with a halting gait. He communicates with jerky hand movements, or shakes of the head, or by grunting yes and no.
Earlier this year, when Vela came to live in a Dallas home for people with AIDS, supervisors worried about how restricted and vulnerable his handicap would make him.
But in short order, the 28-year-old Vela proved just how capable he was. He hopped a DART bus two mornings a week, traveling from North Oak Cliff to Plano, where he worked cleaning a hotel. A few nights a week, he rode the bus to Oak Lawn, to partake of the gay nightclub scene.
"It amazes me how well he does," says David White, a resident and employee of AIDS Services of Dallas (ASD), where Vela has lived since October, in a newly opened unit for homeless people with AIDS. "All he wants to do is go out and have fun. He loves to be around people."
So it came as a rude shock to Vela and his friends that the biggest obstacle Vela must overcome to have fun is not his handicap, but the gay clubs themselves.
On May 20, Vela and Don Maison, president of ASD, filed a lawsuit in federal court, accusing Caven Enterprises, owner of several gay nightclubs, of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for barring Vela on numerous occasions from JR's Bar & Grill, the Village Station, and the Throckmorton Mining Company. Maison is a plaintiff in the suit because he claims he was thrown out of--and then indefinitely barred from--one of Caven's clubs after coming to Vela's defense.
Maison, who practiced law before taking over ASD, says Vela's case is particularly ironic, considering gays fought so hard to make sure the Americans with Disabilities Act covered HIV discrimination.
Jack Polachek, president of Caven Enterprises, denies Vela and Maison were discriminated against. "I don't want to get into specifics, but on each occasion they were asked to leave, it was because they exhibited inappropriate behavior," he says. "Intoxication, fighting, arguing, causing a general disturbance--any of these can be reasons someone is asked to leave one of our establishments. We have a policy that patrons can be barred for different periods of time, depending on the offense."
Polachek refused to specify what Vela and Maison's alleged offenses were, but he claims Vela's handicap had nothing to do with it. "We have done more than any other bar owners for people with handicaps, whether it's increasing parking spaces or making entrances and bathrooms wheelchair accessible," says Polachek. "We are gay bars. We know what it is to be discriminated against."
And so does Pee Wee Vela, according to the claims in his lawsuit.
According to the suit, the trouble first began on October 26, the Saturday night before Halloween, when Cedar Springs was packed with people dressed up in wild costumes. Around 7 p.m., Maison was having drinks with friends at JR's on Cedar Springs and spotted Vela on the street taking in the passing show. When Vela walked by JR's, Maison tapped on the window and motioned for Vela to come in and meet his friends. He did so without incident.
A short while later, Maison again saw Vela outside. This time Vela was distraught, gesturing wildly, and trying to get Maison's attention. Maison left the bar and asked Vela what he needed. Vela pointed to the front of the bar, where a bouncer had recently started his shift.
Maison asked Vela if the bouncer had prevented him from entering, according to the lawsuit, and Vela shook his head yes. When Maison began to escort Vela back inside, the bouncer told Vela he was not allowed in the bar.
"Are you going to be responsible for him?" the bouncer asked Maison when he protested.
"No sir. This young man is responsible for himself," Maison replied.
The bouncer let the two men in, and Maison took Vela to the bar and introduced him to a couple of the bartenders. With Vela's permission, Maison told the bartenders about Vela's cerebral palsy, and asked that Vela be served soda in a short glass with a straw.
That evening ended peacefully. But during the next two months, several people told Maison that they had seen Vela either thrown out of clubs or escorted from the line and told he couldn't enter.
One night in November, for example, Jesus Chairez, who works for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and knew Vela through Maison, saw a security guard remove Vela from the line waiting to enter the Village Station. "I overheard the doorman say that Pee Wee got so drunk he wouldn't tell anyone where he lived," says Chairez. "But I had seen him earlier in the evening and all he was drinking was soda."
Being denied access to the clubs took its toll on Vela. "Every time he came back from Oak Lawn, he would be all sad and depressed," says Jeanette Jackson, a personal care aide in Vela's building at ASD.
At that point, Maison talked to an assistant manager at the Village Station, who said Vela had been asked to leave because he got drunk, which Vela denies. Maison figured that people confused Vela's handicap with intoxication. He discussed the situation with Donald Solomon, general manager of JR's, and Solomon said he would look into it.
Vela didn't have another problem until late January, when he was once again prevented from entering JR's and the Throckmorton Mining Company. Maison had a lawyer write Caven Enterprises a letter explaining the provisions of the Americans with Disability Act as they pertained to Vela.
In mid-March, Maison and Vela ran afoul of Caven management once again. Early on Saturday night, March 14, Maison ran into Vela at JR's. Maison helped Vela get seated at the bar. A bartender told Maison that he was sorry, but he was told he had to start charging Vela full price for a soda. Maison thought that was unfair, since Vela's glass was about half the size of a normal soda served at the bar. Maison asked to see the manager, Donald Solomon.
"He came over, and before I could say a word, he forcefully grabbed my beer and Pee Wee's soda and screamed: 'Leave! Both of you! Now!'" says Maison. "Pee Wee was startled. I asked him if he wanted a lawyer and he shook his head yes."
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Three days later, Maison stopped in for a beer at JR's. Before he could be served, the bartender told him he had to leave on the orders of management. "He is not welcome until after this legal business is finished," says Polachek.
Sitting in the lobby of his apartment building, Vela denies he ever conducted himself in a manner that would warrant his being thrown out of or barred from a nightclub. He says he only drank alcohol on several occasions at the bars and never more than two half-glasses of beer.
"Did you ever get drunk?" I ask him.
"No," Vela says, straining to get the word out.
"Did you ever cause a problem at the bars?"
He vigorously shakes his head no.
"Do you think you were treated fairly?"
Vela's dark eyes blink back tears. He doesn't say anything, but his answer is perfectly clear.