The last time I had a beer at the Green Lantern, a guy on the TVs above my head was using a corn cob on his companion in ways you probably haven’t imagined, until right now.

The profane display was notable for its creativity, but it wasn’t particularly shocking. Since opening in December 1992, the Lantern—a tavern tucked in an alley near 14th and L Streets NW—has always anchored the raunchy end of the bar spectrum in gay Washington.

Affectionately nicknamed the “Green Latrine” by some regulars, it eschews the cocktail-and-cologne surroundings of most gay bars in the city. Barely lit, packed with muscley men, and once decorated with chain link, the Lantern is where you might go to meet a friend—a one-night friend. Sometimes a 10-minute friend, if the corner is dark enough.

To be sure, most patrons don’t have sex in the bar, and it draws a variety of gay men (Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson (Wis.) has been there, for example). But everyone knows the sex is there. It’s part of what gives the place its appeal: The sex, the pornos, the Levis, and the occasional groping lend the Lantern a refreshingly unpretentious air.

Of course, what’s merely unpretentious for one man might be disgusting for the next guy—especially if the next guy is a heterosexual city inspector. On May 2, Oliver Johnson—one of five investigators working for the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Division—was on the job at the Lantern when someone copped a feel. To be exquisitely more specific—as ABC Board Chair Barbara L. Smith was at a recent hearing on the Lantern—Johnson “had his penis pulled.”

Johnson and his two fellow investigators would later file a report about the incident as well as other sexual activity they witnessed. Smith, who was recently nominated for (but did not win) a Superior Court judgeship, spared few details: “The ABC investigators,” she said at the hearing, “observed customers fondling in an erotic manner the buttocks, anuses, and genitals of other customers.” After a hearing last month, the six-member board suspended the Lantern’s liquor license and fined its owners $7,000.

But what would have been a routine—if salacious—ABC matter has now drawn the attention of gay-rights groups, Mayor Marion Barry, and his wife, Cora Masters Barry. After board members outraged some gays by levying an unusually stiff penalty against the Lantern and by using harsh—some say insensitive—language to condemn the bar, gay activists got involved. Within a week, the mayor had overruled a key board decision on the Lantern and Smith had backed away from her strident rhetoric. In fact, the Lantern episode illustrates just how quickly the city responds when the vote-rich gay community speaks up.

Alan Harden, the Green Lantern’s general manager, thought the ABC inspectors’ visit was the end of the bar’s run-in with the authorities, not the beginning. The inspectors had introduced themselves that night, at about 1:30 a.m., and told him they had found violations. But they offered suggestions to make the bar less conducive to sexual activity, and Harden says he quickly acted on them—he brightened lights and removed a decorative fence that had created a dark nook.

But in July, Green Court Inc., the company that operates the Lantern (and whose owners also own parts of two Dupont Circle gay bars), received notice that the Lantern was being formally charged with permitting oral sex, mutual masturbation, and fondling. The board set a hearing for Sept. 11, and Green Court hired Andrew Kline, an attorney who has handled cases for other bars. “We were surprised” about the formal charges, says Harden, who has worked in D.C. bars for four years. “I’ve never seen them be this aggressive with these inspections.”

Indeed, at the hearing the board seemed to relish the opportunity to swat the Lantern. Board members badgered Kline as if he were arguing for selling beer to schoolchildren. According to a transcript, they repeatedly interrupted him and twisted his statements.

And even though Kline admitted the charges when the hearing began—a move that usually engenders lenience—board members made clear they wanted to make an example of the bar. “We’re also concerned about this community,” Smith said cryptically. “There’s a disease in this community. It’s a virus and like a cancer. And it’s going to stop in this community.”

Harden, who took Smith’s comments as a sermon on AIDS in the gay community, was horrified. But Smith was on a roll. “We’re sending a message,” she said. “This is not going to be a place where…you walk into a place and someone is going to fondle someone else.”

Smith then voted with a majority of board members to fine Green Court and suspend the Lantern’s license for three months. The board hadn’t given weight to any of the mitigating factors Kline had presented—that no employees were involved in the sex, that it was a first offense, that the bar had brightened dark areas, or that the men touching each other were consenting adults. (In fact, the last argument angered the board members, since inspector Johnson, they pointed out, was certainly not “consenting.”)

ABC Board punishments vary, but both sides agree that three months for a first offense is unusually stiff. Kline pointed out in the hearing that selling booze to kids usually only merits a five-day suspension.

And though they weren’t discussed in the hearing directly, two concurrent cases involving sex at straight bars had resulted in two-month suspensions and lower fines. According to sources on both sides, those cases involved women hired by the bars (or by contractors running the bars) to perform “lap dances” for men.

Kline, who has practiced before the ABC Board for 15 years, says he’s never seen a more severe punishment than the Lantern’s in similar cases. For their part, Lantern employees saw subtle bigotry at work. “We were cast in a very evil light,” says Harden. “Not that I’m saying they’re necessarily anti-gay, but you begin to wonder, why do they seem to be coming after you so much?”

Steve Michael, the head of ACT UP Washington, heard about the Lantern’s predicament by accident. He was leaving his apartment for a press conference when he bumped into a Lantern employee who lives in his building. The ABC Board was conducting its second Lantern hearing that day, to consider Kline’s request that the license remain valid while the bar appeals the board ruling. Michael, a longtime Lantern fan, decided to attend.

In the two weeks since the first hearing, Lantern employees and regulars had learned of the ABC Board’s ruling, which many saw as homophobic. So Lantern troops rallied for the second hearing; 50 employees, friends, and patrons gathered angrily on Sept. 25 at the D.C. government building where the ABC Board meets. When the security guard ordered them to wait outside until the board considered Kline’s request, tension mounted—they saw the order to stay out as another insult.

“The way we were treated was disgusting,” says Bill Manthey, vice president of Green Court. “It was like a scene out of Nazi Germany.” However ridiculous the comparison, by the time Michael arrived—after his press conference—he found a furious crowd.

As expected, the board declined Kline’s request. But then something fascinating happened. Michael, usually a guerrilla-style activist (he was once arrested for attacking a group of animal-rights activists who oppose certain kinds of AIDS research), didn’t try to start a protest. Nor did anyone else. There was no demonstration, no shouting, no taking to the streets.

Instead, Michael did something few other ACT UP activists in the country could do—he went to the mayor’s office. With Manthey in tow, Michael marched over to 1 Judiciary Square, took the elevator to the top floor, and began lobbying whomever he could find—people who work for Chief of Staff Barry Campbell, staffers he recognized in the hallways, anyone.

On the way out, Michael and Manthey ran into Barry, and Michael chatted with his friend the mayor about the Lantern’s plight. (Though Republican mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz won most of the gay vote in 1994, Michael and many gay activists remain Barry allies.) The next day, Michael happened to have a lunch date with another friend, Cora Masters Barry, at 701 Pennsylvania—a pricey downtown eatery known for well-heeled lawyers, not scruffy activists. But this is Washington—a city more or less run by activist veterans, where lobbying is always more effective than shouting. So Michael lobbied Cora, too. Meanwhile, Barry received letters from Lantern employees and patrons begging for help.

ABC Chair Smith says she heard as early as Sept. 27—the day after Michael’s lunch with the first lady—that the mayor would overturn the board’s decision and grant the Lantern a 45-day stay. And in fact, Barry issued the order a few days later, essentially allowing the bar to remain open during the appeals process.

In his order, Barry carefully noted that the sexual acts allegedly occurring at the Lantern “strike at the moral fiber of our community….[This] administration is committed to upholding the highest standards of decency,” the mayor added. Uh-huh. But, he said, “certain issues…require clarification.” He asked the board to consider the mitigating factors more seriously.

So did the Lantern break the law? Sure. Kline admitted that the bar had “permitted” patrons to engage in sex. Indeed, anyone who went to the Lantern knows that the lighting and layout of the second floor created dark recesses where sex was possible. Harden acknowledged to the board that he knew the sex had been a problem, though he said he’d been trying to end it.

But whether the city should concern itself with such matters is an entirely separate question. “I don’t think that this is a valuable use of our city’s funds to have liquor inspectors running around bars with adults touching each other,” says Michael.

What about preventing HIV transmission? Michael is typically frank: “Oh, come on. It’s not like people are taking dicks up each other’s butts without condoms there.” True enough—the Lantern might have been dark, but it wasn’t a bathhouse. Even sleazy bars have their limits.

And anyway, Smith now says she wasn’t referring to AIDS when she said there was a “disease” in “this community.” The “virus” she was referring to was apparently “that people are not obeying the law. There’s been a rash of lap dancing and other activity at bars in the Washington community—a real rash of it….I have no problems at all in terms of sexual preferences.” Later she added that she had performed pro bono legal work for people with AIDS and for gay people.

Smith says the Lantern received a harder slap from the ABC Board than the straight bars had because the manager admitted to knowing about the behavior. “This appears to be a place that…is established to allow individuals to engage in illegal sexual acts,” said board member James O’Dea at the Sept. 11 hearing. That’s true as far as it goes, though O’Dea should know that if the Lantern were closed, many of the patrons might find themselves looking for anonymous sex in the bushes.

“I have no doubt it will drive people out,” says Michael, “and that’s where there’s no chance for any safe-sex messages.” The Lantern didn’t offer such messages, either—but at least it could. Michael says he has long wanted to organize an HIV-prevention campaign in D.C. gay bars, though funding such campaigns is difficult.

What the ABC Board didn’t understand is that anonymous sex is a small but persistent aspect of gay culture. Closeted and married men prefer it, and even among openly gay men, anonymous sex isn’t taboo. In every city, bars like the Lantern fill that niche. In fact, 30 years ago the Lantern wouldn’t have been nearly as uncommon—gay bars were all shunted into business districts, and most gay people were in the closet. Open relationships weren’t a possibility. It’s no accident that the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the contemporary gay rights movement, were sparked by a police raid on a bar.

When O’Dea said that “any gay person should be free to walk into this place and not be groped,” he didn’t comprehend a crucial fact: Many of the men who go to the Lantern want to be groped. That’s the idea.

When I discussed these cultural factors with Smith, she was understanding. She seemed genuinely concerned that she not be presented as anti-gay, and she even said she wouldn’t oppose gay sensitivity training for the straight ABC inspectors.

And Lantern officials note that Smith and the board have been fair—until this incident. “I had always had a good relationship with [Smith],” says Green Court’s Manthey. “Were [the board members] being anti-gay? No. But did they show an ignorance of homosexual culture? Definitely.”

The Lantern may lose its appeal. Though Smith was conciliatory with me, she may return to her puritan streak in the next Lantern hearing.

Meanwhile, the Green Latrine is serving again. Wry ads in last week’s gay publications announced the reopening (in fact, the bar had been closed for only five days): “The Green Lantern. A Man’s Bar. If it’s legal…we do it.”—John Cloud