A Utah bar that makes people feel “safe to express their queerness” is on the brink of closure

The downtown bar has been closed for weeks and could lose its liquor license, as its owners argue.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Rozeboom and Taylor Psalto, both employees of the Sun Trapp gay bar and dance club in Salt Lake, visit their work place on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, where they have been shut out following a dispute between the two owners that temporarily closed the place down.

For Jasmine — just Jasmine — there is one place in Utah where people in the LGBTQ+ community, like herself, feel completely safe to be themselves: A bar called The Sun Trapp.

“When you’re a queer person, there’s always the question, ‘Am I safe expressing my queerness?’,” said Jasmine, a lesbian from Grantsville who goes by just her first name. The Sun Trapp, she said, “is one of the places where you don’t have to ask that question because you can be you, 110%, and everybody loves and accepts you. … I don’t know of another place like that in Utah.”

Utah’s LGBTQ+ community could lose that safe space at 102 S. 600 West in downtown Salt Lake City this week — as a legal dispute between the owners of the bar threatens to close the business forever.

Riley Richter, who owns 60% of FChugg Inc., the company that owns the Sun Trapp, closed the bar on Jan. 11 because of the ongoing dispute with Michael Goulding, who owns 40% of the parent company.

On Feb. 2, FChugg filed a lawsuit against Goulding and three former bar employees — Haley Jones, Trapper Geary and Michael Smith. The suit accuses them of “numerous actions that are not only unauthorized but which also have harmed the business and which exposed it to potential irreparable harm relating to the loss of its liquor license.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employees and patrons of the Sun Trapp gay bar and dance club in Salt Lake, visit the establishment on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. A dispute between the two owners has temporarily closed the place down.

Attorneys representing Goulding and the other co-defendants have turned down multiple requests for comment.

Richter received permission from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for a temporary closure, good from Jan. 11 to 21. On Jan. 28, according to a DABC spokesperson, The Sun Trapp applied for a 30-day closure on Jan. 28; that expires on Saturday. The bar can request more time, but must do so by Friday.

State law regarding liquor licenses is, essentially, use it or lose it. If an establishment remains closed past the date granted by the DABC, “the license is automatically forfeited,” the spokesperson said. Any closure longer than 90 days must be approved by the Alcohol Beverage Control commission.

Jasmine said she feels like an “orphan” without The Sun Trapp, which is “so very much more than a bar.”

A big part of what makes The Sun Trapp special, Jasmine said, is the staff, who are “just beautiful people that make you feel at home, that take care of you, that watch out for you. If there [are] problems, you know they can take care of it.”

The closure, stretching into six weeks, has affected not only the LGBTQ+ community, but 15 former employees and independent contractors who relied on The Sun Trapp for their livelihood.

Some of the employees have long histories with the bar. Mark Sanchez, who runs the bar’s social media, said that when he came out, The Sun Trapp is the first gay bar he visited. For Utah transplants Amy Tanner, a bartender, and Rick Reger, who also does social media for the bar, The Sun Trapp is a crucial part of their Utah identity.

“It breaks my heart not being able to be with these people because they have nowhere else,” says Taylor Psalto, who staffs the door at the bar and runs social media. “The main theme of the bar is safety, regardless of who you are and what you identify as.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jasmine, a patron of the Sun Trapp gay bar and dance club in Salt Lake, embraces DJ Justin Hollister as they visit the establishment on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. A dispute between the two owners has temporarily closed the place down.

A vacation and a lawsuit

The fight between the owners of The Sun Trapp’s parent company reached a breaking point just after Jan. 2, when Richter and his husband, Micheal Repp, who also works at the bar, left for vacation, planning to return Jan. 14.

According to employees interviewed by The Tribune, on Jan. 9, Haley Jones — who was not a bar employee at the time — sent a message to staffers via Facebook Messenger, announcing an emergency staff meeting that afternoon called by Goulding, who was identified as “the owner of the Sun Trapp.”

“If you do not show up to the meeting (or set another time to meet with me), I will not be able to add you to the new schedule,” the message said — threatening the employees’ with their jobs.

Several of the employees were in Park City for a drag brunch when the message arrived. As a group, they decided not to attend.

Two employees, door person Courtney Miles and bartender Jacob Ensign, ultimately did attend the meeting. Ensign recorded audio at the meeting, where Goulding and the three ex-employees — Geary, Smith and Jones — were present.

In the recording, made available to The Tribune, Jones informs those attending that Goulding has rehired Jones and Geary — and that Repp “was notified that he is no longer an employee of the bar.”

As the meeting continued, Jones said they are not “trying to steal jobs from people” but “at the end of the day, we have a business to run and if nobody else wants to show up, we have to fill spots.”

Smith said they have “paperwork stating that Goulding is the ‘majority owner’ of the bar and that it’s ‘legal’ and ‘his brother’s legacy.’”

Geary said at the meeting that, under Goulding’s leadership, there is a “guarantee” that staff will make “more money” and “we’ve been trying to pull this trigger for a long time.”

The FChugg lawsuit describes how Frank Chugg and Goulding’s brother, Robert, created the parent company in 2013 — and that Robert Goulding owned 100% of the company, through a trust, before he died in 2018.

After his death, the trust was split three ways: 40% to Michael Goulding, 30% to Richter, and 30% to Dennis Gwyther, according to the lawsuit. Gwyther died in 2019, and his share of the trust went to his husband, who made a share redemption agreement — exchanging the shares for cash — with FChugg last September. On Dec. 28, FChugg sold those shares to Richter, giving him 60% of the company’s shares, a majority stake compared to Goulding’s 40%.

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The three men who took ownership of The Sun Trapp after the death of owner Robert Goulding in 2018: Riley Richter, Michael Goulding (Robert's brother) and Dennis Gwyther, who died in 2019.

The lawsuit accuses Goulding and his co-defendants of returning to the bar after employees had locked up for the night after the Jan. 9 meeting. They drilled through the bar’s door locks — which Richter had just had changed — and broke into the building, the lawsuit said.

Eddy Valencia, a DJ at the bar who goes by DJ Eddy V, said in an interview that he saw them changing locks and security cameras when he came by that night to pick up his equipment. He said he immediately felt “uncomfortable” walking in because everything was different, and it was “no longer a safe place.”

The next day, on Jan. 10, a patron, Sean Rawlings, visited The Sun Trapp. He said he saw Jones there, and she introduced Smith as the new general manager and Goulding as the owner.

That same day, Psalto shared an Instagram story with Richter’s message that the bar would close temporarily “in an effort to protect our community from any transphobic, homophobic, or racist bias.” Also that day, Richter filed a request with the DABC for a temporary closure.

The wording of Richter’s message caused patrons to panic. A more in-depth statement was posted on the bar’s social media accounts on Jan. 17, with more details of the dispute between Richter and Goulding.

Psalto, Valencia and other employees — bartender Stefanie Kent and bartender/karaoke host Paul Rozeboom among them — said they have experienced times where they were “talking patrons down” or have overheard Geary make transphobic comments, and insensitive comments about the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd.

Employees who spoke with The Tribune say Goulding was aware of these allegations, but did not act. Following one of these instances, Richter and bar manager Donald Neeley had the entire staff take sensitivity training.

Kent said that if Goulding prevails and takes over the bar, “The Sun Trapp can keep the name, but I don’t think it would be the same bar, and I don’t think it would affect the community in a positive way.”

Rawlings agreed. “The biggest fear is if The Sun Trapp closes, or goes under new management and changes from what it was, progress in our community is going to be halted,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Rozeboom and Amy Tanner, both employees of the Sun Trapp gay bar and dance club in Salt Lake, visit their workplace on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, where they have been shut out following a dispute between the two owners that temporarily closed the place down.

A place for everybody

Tara Lipsyncki, president of Artel Talent — a collective that hosts and books drag shows around Utah — said The Sun Trapp’s extended closure has been a “gut punch” for performers, who have lost revenue and a sense of community.

Artel and the bar announced on Jan. 5 that they would cancel a week of drag shows, because of the surge of COVID-19 cases that hit Utah at the time. Since then, the bar closed, and Artel has had to seek other venues.

Artel’s shows highlights performers of color and transgender “gender wear” drag performances — and, according to Lipsyncki, The Sun Trapp was one of the few places in Utah that are inclusive of those marginalized groups.

“With this closure, POC and trans voices that were given a platform have been silenced for the time being,” Lipsyncki said. They said the Sun Trapp was “extremely vital” for marginalized groups. “These people were finally safe, they were finally able to express themselves. There was safety and family that they’ve never had.”

While The Sun Trapp remains closed, the bar’s 15 employees are not getting paid. Several of them have day jobs, but for independent contractors — like the DJs — the bar is their main source of income. Lipsyncki’s performers, have booked shows at other LGBTQ+ bars around the Salt Lake Valley and have frequented them as patrons.

Justin Hollister, a DJ, noted that though The Sun Trapp’s location is significant, the community is not tied to a specific place. “It’s not about us, it’s really about [the] people,” Hollister said.

To those people, Hollister and the other employees had a message: “We’re still here for you and we’re still fighting.”