For nearly 25 years, the Castle nightclub has been a gothic haven of free expression in Ybor City.
In addition to attracting tourists from around the world, longtime patrons say it's a sanctuary for members of the LGBT community. There are geeky cosplay nights, fetish parties, steampunk balls and gatherings for fans of the "vampire lifestyle."
The dark, multi-story club vibrating with industrial and '80s music is, as a former manager put it, a place where all are welcome: "You might see a guy wearing a polo shirt, next to a guy wearing a Misfits tee, next to a guy in a Chewbacca suit next to a guy in a tutu."
Now, the Castle is under siege from an avalanche of Internet rage involving Nazis supposedly being allowed to party there.
In reviews on the club's Facebook page, some called for a boycott and others said they no longer felt safe there. An out-of-town promoter canceled a large, vampire role-playing convention at the club, saying "it's our duty to provide an environment that is safe for and tolerant of all people."
Pushed to respond, the club issued a statement that "discrimination, bigotry and hate have no place in the Castle." That statement, in which Jewish owner Alan Kahana said it pained him that anyone would think his club welcomes hate groups, spread the rumors further.
"What's going on with the Castle and Nazis?," asked a Reddit user in Tampa, echoing others online who were catching wind of the controversy but felt out of the loop.
"I keep seeing everyone on social media talking about the Castle and Nazis, which, that word is kind of the buzzword of 2017," tattoo artist Skip Sampson, who has been a regular for 20 years, said. "I still don't know what's going on really. It doesn't make any sense. Nazis? That's not the place that I know, not at all."
Here's how we got here.
Two weeks ago, when the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was dominating newsfeeds, club regular Pythia Lane posted to Facebook that "as mad as people were at Charlottesville, Nazis, nobody ever b- - - - - s about our local Nazis," then posted photos of Castle go-go dancer Dee Dee Zeta in various military costumes, calling her a "known Nazi sympathizer." Lane says club management banned her indefinitely for calling out the dancer.
A week later, Vita Devoid, another longtime dancer at the Castle, posted a letter she'd sent the club's management raising concerns about customers she claimed were allowed in that week wearing "Nazi uniforms," and carrying weapons, and who had a history of acting aggressively toward other patrons. She accused the club of turning a blind eye to Zeta wearing "Nazi regalia" and posted a years-old photo of Zeta wearing a beret with a Nazi iron eagle pin.
She told the Times that after raising her concerns with management, she was taken off the schedule.
Devoid has thousands of followers online, and her letter was shared frequently among Castle patrons and by people across the country.
A Facebook photo of the two men Devoid said were the aggressive "Nazi boys" showed the uniforms they were wearing the night in question: khaki cargo pants and military-style, button-down shirts. One wears an army helmet and holds a wooden stick, the other a military style side cap. They are not Nazi uniforms and there are no Nazi insignia, though one man's ALICE belt is printed with "U.S."
An old online gallery of modeling photos from 2014 does show one of the men wearing a hat with the "death's head" symbol that was adopted by the Nazi SS during World War II and an iron eagle, among other costumes. It does not appear to be at the Castle.
The Times interviewed nearly two dozen Castle regulars and every one of them said that seeing a swastika worn inside the club was a very rare occurrence, maybe something they'd seen once or twice in a decade.
"There is not some underground faction of the Nazi party that has posted their headquarters at the Castle," said Angela Hall, 47, a regular for 20 years. "As you can see I am a black female and I've literally never had an issue. In fact the only time I've ever been hassled at the club was by the fundamentalist Christians who used to picket outside."
Uniforms, including elements of German military uniforms from World War II, are more common, especially in the fetish, kink and cosplay communities, though they're often given an outrageous spin. One Castle patron is known for wearing a military uniform with an armband that swaps out the swastika for a Mickey Mouse head.
"Normally to show you're different you just have purple hair and listen to weird music," Hall said. "But ... in the goth community you have to work really hard to find things that are going to trigger people."
Eric Strom, of Chicago, who operates a photography company and has worked events at the Castle and clubs like it, said the fetishization of Nazi imagery has been happening for years among some in the goth and industrial communities, but people are paying more attention in the current political climate.
"I think for a long time it was only talked about in private because it was the norm, and if the people dressing like that weren't causing trouble we would just ignore them," he said.
Whether or not hate symbols are an actual problem according to the real-world experience of those who go to the Castle, the club's statement made it clear: "We understand there can be a thin line between fantasy cosplay and historic re-enactment and will be carefully enforcing standards regarding what is acceptable. ... Any persons or groups displaying affiliations or support of any hate groups, may it be with symbols or gestures, will be asked to leave the Castle."
When asked if that meant that the club would look into claims of dancers or patrons being banned or fired for raising concerns, and training door staff to spot hate symbols, Kahana, who has been traveling in Europe since before the controversy began, replied via email, "yes to all."
None of the current regulars the Times spoke to said they felt there was an increase in Nazi imagery or growing presence at the club.
John Landsman, a club manager from the '90s and 2000s who has maintained close ties, said the line at the castle for being thrown out has always been drawn at intimidation. He also said it seemed like some of the things brought up on social media weren't handled perfectly, but also that the "climate is ripe right now."
On Facebook, he posted his own widely-shared response to the controversy.
"Years ago the Castle was visited by (former KKK leader) David Duke. What we did not do that night was throw him out, ban him or beat his a - -," he wrote. "What did happen is, Cynthia (then Queen of the Castle) bought him a drink and sat with him. She explained to him that (among other things) it was the diversity of the Castle guests that made the place so magical. The safety from reprisal that everyone felt to proudly display their heritage or sexuality made them call this place home. He got the message and knew the Castle was not a place for him and he left on his own. Folks that's how you do it. Let the idiots and the - - -holes know they are drastically outnumbered by amazing, intelligent and peaceful people and that their presence is not wanted."
Later, by phone, he added, "Nazis were 100 percent not welcome then or now, but, at least in my day, they wouldn't get stomped or manhandled. We would let them know who we were, and what we were about, and hopefully they'd decide they didn't want to be there," he said. "In this climate, though, I'm not so sure that approach would have worked."
After their posts, both Lane and Devoid told the Times they hadn't personally seen Zeta wearing anything offensive recently.
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @spatatimes.