ST. LOUIS — It was karaoke night Monday at a gay-friendly bar in the Grove, when Kyle Hanten spotted the plume of black smoke.
“Everybody in the bar ran outside,” said Hanten, who has co-owned the business, Rehab Bar & Grill, since 2013. “And we just see the fire.”
Hanten could spot a pile of rainbow fabric under the flames. An employee ran to get a fire extinguisher, and handed it to Hanten.
“I told everyone to get back,” he said.
The fire was out by about 11:30 p.m. Monday in the alley behind the bar at 4054 Chouteau Avenue. On the ground sat two charred rainbow pride banners, each printed with a message:
“God is still speaking.”
That same night, two of the same banners, message and all, went missing from outside the Kirkwood United Church of Christ, said pastor Betsy Happel. The Christian denomination places them outside churches as a welcoming sign to the LGBTQ community.
Surveillance images showed an older-model, dark-colored Toyota Tacoma driving to the bar with the banners in its truck bed, Hanten said. St. Louis police are investigating the crime, according to a department spokesperson.
The crowd of about 15 to 20 people at the bar who saw the fire had a lot of emotions at the sight of the symbol of the LGBTQ movement — the rainbow flag — burning: There was anger, confusion, shock and fear, Hanten said.
“We’re human. We were scared,” Hanten said. “I think this is a place where people feel safe. It’s a gay neighborhood. We’re in the city, but the reality is that there are hateful people here too.”
Hanten said he asked the people there that night not to post angry reactions on social media.
“Whoever did this is the one with the problem,” he said. “They do it because there’s something wrong with them that makes them feel like they need to attack people. I hope they can wake up one day and find peace.”
Hanten said the bar, which is covered in pride flags, hasn’t had any other threats.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s a precursor to something more, but that’s a scary thought,” Hanten said. “It does make you remember Orlando,” he added, referring to a shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida in June 2016 that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.
The burning flag comes less than two weeks after an anti-LGBTQ attack made news in St. Louis.
On May 24, a man began yelling anti-LGBTQ slurs on the porch of a Soulard home, which is painted with the colors of the pride flag, according to a video posted by St. Louis TV station KMOV. The man then kicked in the door of the home, according to St. Louis police.
The man was highly intoxicated and also kicked a vehicle, police said. At one point that night, he was in a fight outside the nearby Trueman’s Sports Bar. He later fell and was taken to a hospital.
“The incident in Soulard the night of May 24th, and more recent incidents in The Grove area, were an attack against LGBTQ people and equality as a whole,” Missouri LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday. “LGBTQ people and allies should feel safe and proud to display support of themselves and loved ones without becoming targets of violence.”
Hanten, the owner at Rehab, said he wants people who attack his community, including whoever burned the banners, to know they won’t do lasting harm.
“No one was hurt, there was no damage. We’re OK,” Hanten said. “Really that person was risking burning themselves more than anything else.”