This article was published on December 9th, 2015
It could be a complete breach of trust and infringement of the rights and the privacy of Vancouver’s LGBT community as former lawyer and now nightclub owner, Bijan Ahmadian, hired an undercover private investigation company to film and photograph at a private event in late October in Vancouver, B.C.
Since 2013, Vancouver Art and Leisure (VAL), a not for profit organization supporting artist run queer spaces has hosted many events with the support of the City of Vancouver and partner agencies. With signature events, like Backdoor, VAL holds a special place in the hearts of Vancouver’s queer community, offering what was thought and trusted to be a safe and secure environment, up until recent events.
On Friday, October 30, VAL hosted their signature Backdoor event. It was a private event, with tickets being pre-sold and available at the door. The event was clearly marketed as a queer event and included a full service bar, music and dancing, performances, and a featured dark area were sexual encounters had the potential to take place between consenting adults.
That night a private investigation team was hired by Bijan, the owner of The Odyssey, a new gay nightclub in downtown Vancouver, to go undercover at the VAL Backdoor event. In late November the video was released to select mainstream Vancouver media outlets, which triggered a furry of reports and allegations that the VAL event was over capacity, over-pouring drinks, and sex was taking place in public. They were all just that; allegations.
When the stories hit the mainstream media on November 23, there was a fury of backlash and anger from Vancouver’s gay community. The morning reports did not originally identify the source of the undercover video. However, the Vancouver gay community felt it was Bijan who was behind the video footage at the private event that was released to the media.
Realizing how quickly the story was unfolding, and not in his favour, Bijan took to the evening news cameras and explained his personal concerns over safety for the entire gay community.
What’s interesting is, about a week before the October 30 VAL Backdoor Halloween event, Bijan went in front of Vancouver’s City Hall at an on-camera meeting asking council to put drastic restrictions on VAL events. It was clear by the end of the meeting that while no decisions were made, and that city staff needed to do additional work to field the concerns, that the city would likely uphold their decisions and support VAL by continuing to provide and endorse queer spaces for Vancouver artists. The City did acknowledge that they may need to fine tune some minor concerns that were raised, which VAL had been doing cooperatively over the past two years which they have been running events.
Vancouver’s gay community quickly leapt to social media with a wrath of activity, shocked and horrified by the actions. They could not believe that the owner of a brand new nightclub, which had hardly been open for three months, would sabotage an LGBT community event. And for what?
It is not illegal to film or photograph in public; however, the VAL event was clearly marketed as a private event and had signs posted that no video or photography was allowed inside the venue. The video could be considered to be violation of BC’s privacy laws, in addition to filming or photographing sexual acts without consent.
What about the reputation of the people who were the unfair victims?
There is the potential of many victims resulting from the private investigation footage. Patrons from the October 30 Backdoor event have raised valid concerns that they don’t know what was recorded and what was on the footage that was released to the media. It is alleged that there may have been evidence provided to the media, which included sexual activity from the event. This would mean individuals privacy were violated, which could result in damaging or ruining of a person’s current or future career should they be identified as having engaged in sexual activity. This in addition to issues that could result in their reputation, relationships, etc. being damaged. People who attended the VAL Backdoor event perceived the venue and event as a safe and secure environment, which clearly in the aftermath, it was not.
What’s more is that in the October meeting with Vancouver’s City Hall, Bijan admitted he had attended at least two VAL events in the past.
So what was the motive?
In Vancouver, established businesses know that as soon as rainy season starts in mid-October, business will come to grinding halt. Vancouverites hunker down through the fall and winter months, avoiding going out, especially on dark, cold, rainy nights. It’s hard for any business, especially a business that is only open three nights a week. With rumors of The Odyssey not meeting its financial numbers, it could be seen that the attack on VAL became an act of desperation to shut down the competition in an attempt to regain valuable market share.
While it is not uncommon for businesses to closely monitor and pay attention to the competition, which happens in every business, in every industry, these actions were unfathomable. Bijan publically stated his motive to be in concern for the safety of the gay community, which was nothing but a red herring.
If Bijan had legitimate and valid concerns over capacity he could have called the Fire Marshall or the Vancouver Police, just as he could have contacted the Liquor Inspector, Liquor Control Board, and City Hall if there were legitimate concerns of over pouring, over serving, and uncleanly washrooms. These more reasonable actions would have allowed the authorities to conduct a complete audit and investigation. There was zero reasonable reason to hire an undercover investigation team when there are agencies and authorities that are responsible for overseeing these concerns.
Let’s also be clear that it was not just VAL and the patrons of the October 30 VAL Backdoor event that were victimized throughout this monstrosity of a scandal. Performers, artists, and staff from The Odyssey have all faced incredible pressure and insults from the actions of the owner. In the time leading up to the November 23 media coverage, a number of the staff from The Odyssey parted ways, including the General Manager.
What’s left to do?
What’s done, is done. It’s time to pick up the pieces and carefully start rebuilding the community. For locals, that means supporting all the artists, performers, dancers, DJ’s, and staff who work hard at ensuring Vancouver has a vibrant nightlife to enjoy.
Many people are now carefully selecting which establishments and events they want to go spend their hard-earned dollar. It is likely, for the vast majority of people, both locals and destination visitors to the city, that The Odyssey may no longer on their consideration list of places to go. Any establishment that is willing to tear a community over profit is questionable of supporting. After all, communities aren’t build when for-profit businesses try to shut down and damage the reputation of much-needed and much-appreciated not-for-profit organizations that are trying to support the community.
In addition, the Health Initiative for Men (HIM), the largest gay men’s health organization in Vancouver, relocated it’s annual volunteer party due to take place this Thursday, from the Odyssey to Pumpjack, although no official reason was given for the venue change.
Perhaps this is also a fair warning to other Vancouver-based event promoters like TFD Presents, who puts on the highly successful Rapture events during Vancouver Pride and throughout the year at local clubs and venues, and to Big Roger Events, who also put on signature events throughout the city over the course of the year. Why stop there? Should other nightclubs, bars, and restaurants also be concerned for their business and their patrons? Of course! Everyone is going to be on edge, fearing what ruthless actions could potentially be taken in the future. It’s an unsettling feeling that will hopefully be washed away with thanks to the many winter rain storms that frequent Vancouver.
The sad part is, many extremely talented people have spent an incredible amount of time to put into the success of that business, only to have it turned upside down on them. They deserve much better. Sympathy goes out to the performers and staff of The Odyssey, caught in the midst of this ordeal, many of which may be in a position that they may not be able to afford to leave. These individuals deserve the support of the entire LGBT community, for their work is important and builds the entertainment and nightlife that we enjoy.
Don’t worry, Vancouver still has a number of incredible nightlife options, including the new XY, and all the Davie Street favourites like 1181, The Junction, Pumpjack, Numbers Cabaret, and Score, and of course, many more fun and creative events from Vancouver Art and Leisure.
Spend your dollars wisely and make decisions to go where you choose to go and your patronage is valued. It will help build a brighter, happier, and more fun community and turn Vancouver from No Fun City into the vibrant community this international city deserves.
Photo credits: Chase Porter