Faster Than Sound: Is the Broken Spoke Too Broken?
Allegations of intolerant behavior at the honky-tonk arise following Queer Eye feature
To premiere its new season filmed in the Austin area, the hosts of Netflix's Queer Eye donned cowboy boots and pearl snaps to make over Terri White, longtime two-step instructor at local institution the Broken Spoke.
After the episode debuted on New Year's Eve, some viewers from Austin music and beyond were surprised to see the all-gay cast enter a space they regarded as hostile to marginalized groups. Chronicle commenters remembered an incident when two women were asked to leave after kissing in a booth at the venue, which circulated on social media in 2016. Tipped off by a Reddit thread, national outlets like Gawker recently pointed out a wealth of vivid online reviews alleging racism, homophobia, sexism, and other negative experiences at the historic honky-tonk – including during Terri's classes.
As one Austin musician, who chose to remain anonymous, put it: "I can't believe the show didn't mention any of the real problems that people have with her in the scene. I've heard so many musicians talking about this in the past week, like, 'Why is she on there?' It's just a shame they featured kind of the worst parts of Austin country."
The Fab Five didn't address any issues at the venue, which was opened in 1964 by Terri's parents James and Annetta White. Rather, the episode focused on 58-year-old Terri's relationship with her daughter and her natural hair. A year after initial filming, the show revisits the family following the momentous January 2021 passing of James White.
In an interview with the Chronicle, Terri categorically denied any allegations of intolerance made against herself and the Spoke.
"I don't even know where this is coming from," she said. "A little negative thing like that just horrifies me, because I wouldn't hurt anybody's feelings. I understand why people would get upset if they hear things like that, but it is just not true. They can come out and see for themselves."
A longtime Austin country artist who spoke with the Chronicle played with various groups for many years at the Spoke. She decided not to return after disagreeing with a Facebook comment made by James White during the 2020 George Floyd protests, where the late owner wrote, "Blame it on virus and riots protestors," regarding a temporary closure. The artist says it's difficult to give up the space where she first saw James Hand and other legendary figures.
"That dance floor is what I envisioned Texas to be before I ever moved here – country music, families, community, and all this good stuff," she said. "But as the years went on, it just became more of an openly misogynist, racist, sexist bar to me. There's enough progressive honky-tonks around town – the White Horse, the Sagebrush, Mercer Dancehall – that I don't have to play the backwards one."
The artist often set up onstage while Terri taught lessons. Like multiple sources who spoke to the Chronicle, she witnessed Terri separating same-sex couples from dancing together.
"I heard lots of racist comments from Terri during the dance lessons. I saw her tell women, who were clearly there on a date – 'You shouldn't be dancing with women, that's just wrong.'"
This issue was also mentioned in multiple online reviews, as the classes often include more women during bachelorette parties. The frontperson of a prominent Austin-based folk band told the Chronicle she wouldn't return after witnessing this with a pre-wedding group in 2019.
"We had way more women than men in our party, so several women paired up together," recalled the artist. "[Terri] immediately said she wouldn't allow that, that two-stepping is for male/female couples only, and split them up. It incensed me right away and I walked off the floor.
"I did listen in though, and she proceeded to berate all of the women and their lack of skills. She praised the men constantly and said, 'Even when he's wrong he's right, ladies take note.'"
When asked about the subject, Terri said she does not discourage same-sex dance partners.
"Never," she said. "Are you kidding me? I have so many friends that come in with their mate. I have kicked one man out of my lessons because he was rude to a gay couple, and that was probably 17 years ago."
She says she has only interrupted bachelorette parties when their dancing was inappropriate: "I love everybody. But if you act like a dodo and single yourself out, then I may say, 'You can't dance like that.' You can't do 'bump and grind' out here. It's known to be a family bar."
A trans musician in Austin summarized the bar's reputation in a statement to the Chronicle.
"It's well known amongst my trans femme and non-binary friends that the Broken Spoke is not a place to venture to for a good time, unless you're ready to take on some potential extra bullshit that night. Things are a bit of a toss-up over there. It doesn't tend to matter too much to us, though – places like Sam's Town Point take us in just the way we are."
Another group of women, visiting from Portland, also shared negative memories of visiting the Spoke in October 2021. According to visitor Becky Kuhn, Terri asked a member of their group to leave because of her dress, saying she "looked like a trashy whore," but refused to refund the group's entry fees. Another member of the party – who prefers to be identified as just Holly – then confronted owner Annetta White, who she says threatened to call the police.
"We felt conned," Holly wrote to the Chronicle. "I was furious and told [Annetta] that was the last time I'd ever go there. She replied 'We don't need your kind here,' so we all just left angry. I'm a woman of color, Latina, so I know exactly what she meant."
On Yelp, 17 separate reviews ranging from 2013 to last year mention witnessing racism at the Spoke. Of course, that leaves room for hundreds of positive ones. On the subject, Terri says she informally hosts refugees from across the border in her home on a weekly basis, facilitated by a man from Mexico who she lives with.
Terri's conversation with the Chronicle also revealed details of her casting on Queer Eye's Austin-filmed season. She says she was recruited by the show's producers, who interviewed her friends and family before having her daughter nominate her for the makeover. Terri says she spoke with producers from the show in the past week regarding recent press coverage.
"They contacted me over all this and said, 'We are a hundred percent behind you, Terri,'" she recalled. Netflix and Queer Eye did not reply to the Chronicle's request for comment.
A week before the show's airing, UT-Austin Ph.D. student Kameron Dunn published an essay in Texas Highways celebrating Terri's classes and the Spoke as an unexpected queer haven, "authentic in its roots and progressive in its ideals." Spoke General Manager Ginny White-Peacock, Terri's sister, also provided a statement stating the business does "not discriminate against anyone for their race, gender or sexual orientation." She added that Terri operates dance classes as a separate business from the Spoke.
"We have been in business for 57 years ... You don't stay in business that long by treating your patrons badly. We have people visit the Broken Spoke from all over the world and they all love it and have a great time in our establishment. We have and will, always take real claims of discrimination seriously."