[Warning: This story contains uncensored profanity, including homophobic slurs. Video courtesy of Ethan Bertrand]
Del Playa Rentals proprietor James Gelb hurled a barrage of homophobic slurs toward Isla Vista Community Services District Board President Ethan Bertrand on Tuesday, after Bertrand approached Gelb on State Street, telling the landlord he treats his tenants “very poorly.”
The incident, partially captured on video, was first reported by the Santa Barbara Independent on Friday morning. At one point in the video, Gelb repeatedly calls Bertrand a “fag” and makes lewd suggestions about Bertrand having anal sex with other men. Bertrand, who is openly gay, began the conversation by telling Gelb he treats his tenants poorly, and later said he’s glad to see Gelb go — referring to Gelb recently putting all 37 of his I.V. properties up for sale for an estimated $80 million.
Gelb redirected The Bottom Line to his legal representation, and on Friday, issued a statement to KEYT. He accused Bertrand of calling him a “pedophile” and “felon,” defended himself from accusations of homophobia by revealing he had a gay brother who died from AIDS, and further attributed his blunt comments to Asperger Syndrome. Bertrand later firmly denied the notion that he called Gelb a pedophile.
“I walked up to Mr. Gelb and said, ‘hey, I think it’s a good idea you’re selling your Isla Vista properties,’” Bertrand told The Bottom Line. “He then said, ‘why would you say that?’ I cordially said, ‘well, I think you treat your tenants very poorly.’” Bertrand said he then identified himself to Gelb as the president of the I.V. CSD Board of Directors. At that point, Bertrand said, his friend began recording the encounter.
The video opens with Gelb saying to the elected official, “fuck you.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Gelb tells Bertrand, “it’s none of your fucking business.”
In response, Bertrand says, “have a good day,” and begins to walk away, but Gelb follows him down the sidewalk.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Gelb asks. “What’s your net worth, you little fucker?”
After Gelb asks Bertrand who he is, the official replies, “I work for the people of Isla Vista!”
The two exchange some more inaudible words. Bertrand says, “you treated your tenants very poorly,” to which Gelb lunges forward at Bertrand and hollers, “fuck you!” without making physical contact.
Bertrand begins to create distance between them, but Gelb follows him. The friend taking the video tells Gelb to “get away,” but Gelb tells him to “fuck off.” At that point, Gelb begins using homophobic epithets.
“You walk like a fucking fag,” he says. “I know you’re a fag.”
“Hey!” Bertrand says, turning around. “I’m very proud to be gay.” Gelb, undeterred, continues, “you’re a fucking fag.”
“You know what,” Bertrand says, “it’s great that you’re leaving the neighborhood.”
“Fuck you,” Gelb responds again, “you’re a fag.”
Bertrand attempts to wrap up, saying, “Mr. Gelb, have a good night.”
“You have a lot of fucking business,” Gelb cuts in, “telling me I treat my tenants bad.”
“You treat your tenants very poorly,” Bertrand says, “I’m very glad to see you go.”
“Fuck you!” Gelb shoots back. “Some of them I do — I’m not perfect, you little fag.”
“None of us are perfect,” Bertrand responds, “have a good night.”
“Let’s see you butt-fuck somebody!” Gelb says. A woman, off-camera, tells Gelb to “knock it off.” Gelb responds to the woman, who is presumably standing near the Church of Scientology of Santa Barbara.
“I don’t care if you’re scientologists or what the hell you are. He has no business telling me how I run my business and how my tenants feel about me; he’s a fucking faggot.”
Bertrand, for the final time, tells Gelb to have a good night. “Go fuck some guy in the ass,” Gelb responds, before turning back to the woman, pointing at her, and asking what scientologists think of homosexuals. At that point, Bertrand’s friend stops recording.
On Friday, both addressed the incident to the media.
“Before the video, Ethan Bertrand told me I was a ‘pedophile’ and a ‘felon,’” Gelb said in a written statement to KEYT. “He also told me I was a disgraceful landlord. To me, those are fighting words. All of this caused me to lose my cool and say things that I now deeply regret.”
Bertrand denied saying either of those words, going on to say it was “unfortunate” Gelb couldn’t “take accountability for his disgusting behavior.”
Gelb also said that his own brother, who was gay, passed away from AIDS, and that Gelb is still friends with his late brother’s partner.
“While on the surface my anger may have been construed as homophobic I harbor no ill-will only love towards the gay community,” Gelb wrote in an email to the Independent.
Bertrand told The Bottom Line he feels sorry for Gelb’s brother, but that Gelb should be held accountable for his bigotry. He said he felt sick to his stomach the night of the encounter.
“I was broken that night, but I’m now ready to share my story and be a leader here on this issue of LGBTQ equality, which I’ve been passionate about for a long time,” Bertrand said.
Gelb has clashed with I.V. residents before — particularly his own tenants. In January, after a balcony collapsed from a housing complex on Del Playa Drive, residents questioned whether Gelb had taken proper measures to secure the safety of the units ahead of time. In response, Gelb referred to the women living in the house as “drunken girls” and “idiots.”
In a private Facebook group named Texts From Gelb, members post candid photos of Gelb walking down the street or selfies taken with him. They also post screenshots of texts supposedly sent by the landlord, which are often full of profanities. In April, a member posted a video of Gelb issuing a profanity-laced tirade toward residents who had been sitting over the balcony rail in their backyard. The group contains over 3,500 members, many of them Gelb’s former tenants.
Gelb addressed the group in his statement to KEYT, calling it a form of bullying. University of California, Santa Barbara students have routinely pranked him for years, he said, baiting him into bursts of anger. He said Bertrand — who is not a UCSB student — did the same on Tuesday night.
The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident, Bertrand said, so the two won’t be making personal contact again for a while.
“The most important thing that we walk away with from this hate incident,” Bertrand said, “is that in 2017, in California, members of our LGBTQ community still face harassment, discrimination, and oppressive violence.” Bertrand is committed to condemning incidents like this, he said, and he wants allies of the community to do the same.