Tavares – A group of community members teamed up to help a bar owner get back on his feet after his establishment was vandalized with an anti-gay slur.

Joe Gertis, 31, has owned Irene’s Lounge for about five months. Irene’s is not a gay bar, he says, but he is openly gay, and this latest act of vandalism marks the third time he’s been harassed.

“The first time, there was a note left in the mailbox saying, ‘We don’t want fags in our town,'” Gertis says.

The second time, someone threw paint on Irene’s walkway, plus painted penises and the word “fag.” Gertis says he caught that vandalism and repainted it before anyone else saw.

On Oct. 22, around 3 a.m., Gertis says vandals splashed paint all over Irene’s patio furniture and spray-painted “faggit” on the side of the building.

“They didn’t even spell it correctly. That was the sad part,” he says, adding that he’s concerned the harassment seems to be escalating.

This third time, one of the directors of Mount Dora Pride noticed the vandalism and messaged Bill Sievert, board member of both Mount Dora Pride and The Triangle Connection, who emailed the Pride Board with what happened.

“Most of the board quickly said we needed to stand up against bullying and hate and help owner Joseph Gertis paint the building,” Sievert says.

In a few short hours, they recruited volunteers from the Triangle Connection, an LGBT social and service organization, and from the new Lake County’s LGBT Community/Supporters, which is made up of mostly younger adults.

“With a mention on Facebook, donations were quickly offered to cover paint and expenses,” Sievert says. “About 15 people showed up Friday and repainted the building, scraped paint splatter from chairs and re-mulched where the vandals had messed everything up. All in all, it was a beautiful community response from folks gay and straight in a very short time span.”

Gertis says he was stunned by the positive response.

“I figured one or two people would come out and help me do it,” he says. “I was running late, told them to come after 2 [p.m.], and when I ended up getting there at 2:45, it was almost all done. They really did an amazing job.”

He says he wasn’t even aware an LGBT community existed in Mount Dora.

“It’s the first time that I’ve actually had someone there to back me up and help me bring it back to life,” Gertis says. “It felt pretty good. I’m not used to the community coming together to show appreciation. I feel like it shows the community in general, that [LGBTs] are here. No matter what you do, we’re going to come together as a group and fix it. We’re going to continue to do business and we’ll go on.”

Sievert agrees that this kind of community response sends a message to anti-gay people.

“We all knew that this sort of hate cannot be tolerated in our community,” he says. “When it crops up, the good people of Lake County will respond.”