Regular patrons at Rainbow House, a queer club in Melbourne’s LGBTQIA heartland of Fitzroy, won’t see the usual familiar faces behind the bar this weekend after staff walked out en masse on Sunday.

Seven staff members — all the bar staff, the glassy and the coat check manager — collectively resigned at the start of their Sunday-night shift after a week of escalating tension between them and the venue owner Alaattin Uslu, who goes by Fernando.

Several took to social media to say they had quit in solidarity with venue manager Stevie Valentine, who they said was fired and replaced on Friday with no reason given. 

They said his removal made them feel the venue was no longer a safe and welcoming space for queer, trans and gender diverse people. 

“Until a week and a half ago I thought I had the best job in the world,” former staff member Blair Tosh told PEDESTRIAN.TV. 

“When [Fernando] told me a week and a half ago that he was planning on firing Stevie and I asked him not to, I immediately [felt] that without Stevie there it wouldn’t be safe anymore.”

Stevie posted on Instagram at the weekend that he had fostered a safe space at the venue — something with which other staff agreed in their own social media posts. 

Fernando however denied firing Stevie and said it was a misunderstanding. 

English isn’t his first language, so he told PEDESTRIAN.TV he wanted someone who could better communicate with him on the team.

He said he told Stevie at the end of May a new staff member would be starting next week in the same role and that he wanted Stevie’s help to train this person over a one-week period. 

He said it was then Stevie decided to leave. But Stevie told PEDESTRIAN.TV Fernando said after the one week of training he would be without a job. 

Messages sent by Fernando in April show he was looking for another manager.

Fernando said on Wednesday he didn’t know why his staff had walked out and he would welcome any of them back. 

“I sent a message, all day open, come in … up to you,” he said. 

Fernando still calls the venue a “community centre” and said even without his usual team he’ll continue to open as normal because he’s confident he’ll find friends to cover the shifts. 

Whatever the actual circumstances are, one thing is clear: the staff who walked out no longer believe Rainbow House is the safe space it once was. 

“We’ve lost a very precious place,” Tosh said. 

Rainbow House was reopened after lockdowns at the end of 2020 with a new venue manager, Aliyana Kauri (also known as Dawn Lee) at the helm. Kauri wanted to transform the gay bar into a venue that welcomed marginalised queer and gender diverse people.

“As a trans woman of colour, I don’t get these opportunities often so I wanted to give a safe space to queer people that are often overlooked — queer people that are not white, gay men,” she told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“I wanted to make sure … we all got our space.”

But in 2021 Kauri said she was also fired after an altercation with others including the venue’s security guards.

Kauri said she didn’t speak about the event publicly at the time due to trauma but decided to share the story on Instagram at the weekend after the social media flurry around the staff walk-out. 

“I saw it and shared it because I felt so vindicated,” she said.

“To see this happen with Stevie I was not shocked at all.”

Tosh said Rainbow House became popular because of the efforts of Kauri and Stevie. She said it was a place she felt comfortable partying as a trans person before she applied for a job there. 

“The performers that we platform are more diverse than any other bar and we’ve been able to give work to a lot of women and trans people and people of colour and people with disabilities,” Tosh said.

“I was going in as a patron four nights a week because of Aliyana and how safe she made the space feel.”

She expressed a deep sense of loss for the venue because bars like that were “very few and far in between” and for the staff who were without work. 

But she said hundreds of people had reached out with love and job offers which had given them all hope.

“My staff and I all feel very supported and we will continue trying to make every space that we’re in as safe as possible for every single person.”

Image: Rainbow House / Facebook