The Making of a Free-Speech Activist

Photo by Jack GouldThe King James Bible sat atop a beige filing cabinet in a back office; out front, nude women danced onstage at the Pelican Theater in La Habra. You might say the Bible was a going-away gift: a group of about 25 prim ladies presented it to strip-club owner Bill Gammoh—along with a petition signed by hundreds who want him to leave town.

This is hardly the good life 37-year-old Gammoh imagined when he came to America in 1983 from Qatar, the tiny Moslem state in the Arabic Gulf. “I left looking for a better life and a better future. America is the greatest country in the world,” said Gammoh, sitting at his large desk next to a 60-gallon fish tank. “I've been called a foreigner and a camel jockey and been told to fly back home on my magic carpet. But if you want to build yourself into a successful man here, you can.”

If the neighbors will let you, that is. Since leaving the gas-station business five years ago to buy the Pelican, Gammoh said he has endured police intimidation, threatening phone calls, acts of vandalism and incessant legal paper cuts designed to slay the Pelican with a thousand slices. In 1995, Gammoh applied for an operating permit but was denied. City planners demanded that the business pay $256,308 for a traffic fee, a quarter of a million dollars more than the restaurants on either side of the Pelican Theater paid. Gammoh sued, but he lost several early court decisions. It wasn't until November 1998 that a federal appeals court stepped in and ordered the city to allow Gammoh to open his club.

Federal law mandates that every city provide zoning for adult businesses, but it also gives cities the authority to regulate. City officials have since cited Gammoh for dozens of misdemeanor code violations—including not providing wheelchair access to the stage for disabled dancers—and ordered Gammoh to provide more urinals in the restroom.

“After I spent $30,000 on my restroom, the city turned around and limited one person in the restroom at a time,” Gammoh said. “They even put me in jail twice for girls lap dancing. That is not prostitution. I don't have a pimp degree.”

Good news came for Gammoh on Nov. 29, when a state appellate court stopped the city from enforcing an ordinance that forbids strippers from doing clothed lap dances—the main revenue source for the employees. “It's like saying you can open a KFC, but you can't serve chicken,” Gammoh said, smoking a cigarette amid piles of legal paperwork.

“It's almost over,” he said. “When I win my other court battles, I'm going to sue this city for harassing me, for all of the unfair ordinances, for putting me in jail illegally.”

Gammoh, who has never been married, says he is not making any money. “It's all principle now,” he asserts. “Other clubs average 200 people a day. I average less than 50 because the city pushed us and scared our customers from day one.”

The determination of local citizens to close down the Pelican on moral grounds reveals the contradictions of American culture, Gammoh said. “The whole system over here can actually drive you crazy,” he said. “You can get your girlfriend pregnant, and that's okay. But nudity is not okay. You could be a druggie, and the government will support you. But when it comes to adult entertainment, they think it's against Christianity. What about your unmarried daughter getting pregnant?

“Our culture is different,” Gammoh said, one eye on his television security monitor. “Here, you could have a child without even getting married. [In the Muslim societies], it would be a shame for her family. They would call it a 'bastard' child.”

Gammoh became the patriarch of his family when his father died in 1979 in a Royal Jordanian airline crash that killed 74 people. “I think about him a lot,” he said. Gammoh brought his mother, Eva, to the U.S. in 1989 and got her a green card. Eva, who turned 59 on Thanksgiving, lives in the Orange house Gammoh has owned for 13 years.

“The most important thing to me is my mother and family,” Gammoh said. “She has diabetes and high blood pressure. Last year, when I was in jail, she had a stroke because she was worried about me.”

Gammoh was arrested when police discovered dancers doing couch dances, in which bikini-clad girls dance for individual patrons, sometimes making contact.

The legal battles have left him weary.

“I'm a stubborn man,” he said. “When I believe I'm right, nothing else matters.”

So much time is devoted to defending his business that Gammoh said he has not enjoyed a social life in nearly seven years. “I work six or seven days a week. I don't have a girlfriend, and I haven't been with a woman for more than a year.”

Gammoh used to enjoy shooting firearms at the local range, but since he got arrested for carrying a concealed weapon two years ago, even that privilege has been forbidden. Gammoh claims he carried a handgun because he was receiving death threats. When asked what he does to relieve stress, Gammoh pointed to his 60-gallon aquarium. “I like fish,” he said. “It makes me relax. If you put your mind on one fish and watch its movement in the water, if you follow that fish from one place to another, your mind clears. It doesn't matter if the whole world around you is collapsing.”

While some people in La Habra might like to see the Pelican Theater collapse, Gammoh said that people should respect other people's privacy and the right to free expression and speech. “For example, I used to go shoot my gun at the range. I like to smell the powder; I like to shoot guns,” he said. “But I go to the range. I don't go in the street. There's a time and a place for everything.

“I don't force people to come in here,” he pointed out.

Gammoh finds it ironic that Christians are pressuring him to leave. Growing up in an intolerant Moslem state, he said that during the first half of his life, he was ostracized for being Christian. “I come from Jordan, where Christ walked in the river,” he said. “I'm Christian in my blood and bones.” And if the Christian ladies who gave Gammoh a Bible don't like his business, “I don't care,” he said. “The only thing I worry about is how to put food on my family's table. I'm responsible for my mother, my brothers—for everybody.”

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