The Flying Saucer, 328 W. Morgan St. in downtown Raleigh, has always had a good thing going on Wednesday night. If there is one thing you can bank on, it’s that people love getting something for free. The Saucer’s Free Pint Glass night has long been a moneymaker: produce a few cheap glasses with a beer company logo or tie-dye design on the side, fill them with overpriced beer and, at closing time, customers take home the dirty dishes.
On Wednesday morning the Saucer announced the design of this year’s Father’s Day glass. The promotion, an annual affair that has previously featured such honorees as Charlie Sheen, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Octomom’s sperm donor as “Father of the Year,” is always a hit with, well, people that collect bar glasses. This year’s glass, featuring Bruce Jenner, was soon plastered across all of the Saucer’s social media accounts.
The company soon realized it had made a huge mistake.
The Saucer, by the way, is near four of Raleigh’s most popular LGBTQ bars.
Shannon Wynne has had a long day already when he returns my phone call late Thursday morning. The president of the Flying Saucer chain of pubs, which has 16 locations stretched across six states, has been fielding calls from media outlets since the previous afternoon and shortly before all pictures of the glass were removed from the company’s social media accounts. When I ask him for the company’s official stance on the glass controversy, he sighs deeply, then answers.
“Well,” Wynne begins, “I’ll kind of walk you through the time table. First off, let me just say we are pro-Bruce Jenner, and pro the decisions that he made, and pro-Caitlyn everything. We made these glasses, and there were a thousand of them, and they went out to all of our Saucers. During the period of time in which he first came out on television, the question was asked what everyone should call him now and he just said, ‘My name is Bruce.’ We had no idea, we had no knowledge, and we had no forethought into what was going to happen a couple of weeks later.”
“So we produce the glasses as a toast to him for having been, you know, brave enough to go on nationwide television and explain the way he felt. So we made him Father of the Year, or, you know,” Wynne stammers, “we made him our Fathers Day glass.”
“Now, no one on our staff is from the LGBT, uhm, L … G… B…,” Wynne says, slowly attempting to come up with the letters LGBTQ before stopping and moving on, “community, so when Caitlyn came out, we’re going, ‘Oh fuck, what do we do?’ We had already made the glass. We looked at it and said, ‘Well, there’s nothing negative or stereotypical or … making fun of him on this glass; how were we to know this would happen?’ So we, not being from that community, can’t really … we were not able to really foresee every angle by which it would be received. And from not being from that community it was difficult, because we looked at it and said, ‘You know, this is him winning, and this is our only image of him that people will recognize, and we say hats off to Bruce Jenner,’ and then Caitlyn came out.
“Like I said, we had to make a call. We didn’t think it would be received in a negative light. We certainly didn’t mean for it to be seen in a negative light. We were truthfully behind … and understand, the people that come to the Flying Saucer aren’t all pro-Bruce Jenner,” Wynne says with a laugh. “We were taking a lot of risk in supporting his decision to come out, and only later did we find out he was changing his name. We thought we were being pro-Bruce all along, and only later did it turn on us.”
From the stops, starts, and half-finished thoughts it is clear that this isn’t a statement drawn up by Wynne’s staff; this is truly what he believes happened, or the white-washed version of events that we all paint in our minds of events that we cause that turn against us. Fair enough, but there is one outright fabrication in what he just told me: Everyone knows that the Father’s Day glasses are awarded to celebrities that can be considered jokes by the frat bros that are looking for a cheap gift for their dads.
When questioned, Wynne says, “Well, some of them are and some of them aren’t. I mean, that’s not to say that all of them are, and there are certainly … look, if we wanted to portray Bruce Jenner in a negative light, we could have used much more,” Wynne stammers for a second, “negative cartooning of him, as I’m sure you’ve already seen out in the media. We did not doctor, we did not say anything negative, we were very careful to be win-win-win. And again, we didn’t know what was getting ready to happen. We did make the choice to make the release, we already had them made, and again my only defense is that we did not anticipate it would be taken in a negative light.”
The controversy was the strongest in cities with Saucers and strong gay communities, such as Raleigh. Neighborhoods change over time, and so should business models. In a world where trigger warnings are officially a thing, at what point does a company decide that maybe the dress code for servers shouldn’t call for the shortest skirts possible? During a week where even milquetoast comedian Jerry Seinfeld is taken to task for questioning comedy fans for being too politically correct, is it really worth it to a bar to continue punching down with their jokes?
“See, I didn’t know that!” Wynne replies when told of the Raleigh Saucer’s location within the LGBTQ community. “Again, I think you’re not taking into consideration the fact that we questioned whether the glass would be taken as offensive. There is nothing the least bit negative about the glass, and we didn’t create it to portray anything negative. We did it as a celebration, so it’s awfully hard to anticipate every angle in which the gay and lesbian, transgender culture will view it. It’s hard! You can’t win for losing sometimes, and we obviously made a mistake in releasing it, and we meant no pain to anyone.”
One long time customer of the Saucer, who did not want her name used, initially couldn’t believe the bar chain could be that culturally tone deaf.
“I've been going to the Saucer for over six years now,” she explained via email the night the controversy broke out. “I have two plates and am halfway through my third, and I lead an alternate lifestyle group that meets semi-weekly there. We have many LGBTQ and non-binary folks that meet up with us and over the past five to six years we have collectively spent a lot of money there.”
When told later of Wynne’s response, she said she was disappointed. Like many, she had thought the best course of action was to just substitute the glasses for that night’s promotion and issue a heartfelt apology.
“Obviously I get the message he was trying to convey,” she says, “but it seems like there's an undertone of ‘those darn gay people, I just don't get 'em.’ I do agree that the imagery they used of Bruce was non-offensive, and that if they were trying to lampoon him they could have had a cartoon of Bruce in a dress or something else demeaning. I'll definitely give him that point.
“Personally I think that if they wanted to present the angle they seemingly were aiming for about non-traditional families that they should have had a statement saying as such going along with the postings,” she continues. “I know that if I had read something like that it would have come off a lot differently; the glass by itself with no backstory behind the Saucer's reasoning looked like a piss-take.
“It looks like this was a classic case of corporate being out of touch with the rest of the world.”