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Since Pulse, LGBTQ Bars Have Upped Security and Activists Are Worried

At a time when police brutality is a top concern, this increase in security especially raises the concerns of trans and queer people of color.

by Jon Shadel
Jul 24 2017, 4:00am

Police outside Twin Peaks Tavern, an LGBTQ bar in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood. Photo via Flickr user Scott Richard

It's not unusual for lines to stretch down the block at Portland's Blow Pony, a monthly queer dance event that brings up to 2,000 people to a warehouse in the city's industrial Inner Eastside. But one Saturday night in June of last year, a restless crowd waited in a particularly sluggish line for the doors.

While the event has always had a security presence, organizers upped the ante last year for its ninth-annual Queer Mutiny Fest, held during Portland's pride weekend. The most visible change was what slowed the pace of the line: Staff peeked in bags and waved metal-detecting wands around the bodies of guests to check for weapons before anyone was permitted to step into the club. A number of regulars I spoke with in line expressed that such measures were rarely, if ever, seen at LGBTQ events in Portland.

But Blow Pony was only one of many such events to increase security that week. Six days earlier, on June 12, 2016, the Pulse shooting had happened. It was the single deadliest mass shooting in US history.

The carnage sent tremors through the LGBTQ community. More than just a place to get drunk, gay and lesbian clubs have long served as community centers and a refuge from societal persecution. That's why for many, the news amounted to the literal violation of a haven and the metaphorical desecration of a sanctuary.

Pulse immediately raised concerns of copycat attacks. This was in part because the security at gay bars is often on the lenient side—metal detectors and armed guards are a rare sight. Some clubs admitted that measures as simple as bag checks weren't a part of security protocol until the Orlando massacre. A few gay bars insisted on maintaining the status quo. For example, the owner of Larry's Lounge in Chicago told TIME that he refused to give into fear and would carry on with business as usual. But by and large, a flurry of headlines declared that club owners, parade organizers, and local authorities would elevate security for the remainder of 2016 pride festivities.

It was yet another reminder to a community all too accustomed to violence that no space is ever entirely safe. But the subsequent impulse to fortify security at LGBTQ bars and events also serves to underscore patrons' marginalization—stressing the dialectic between pride and an instinct for safety. It's particularly concerning for trans and queer people of color, who are often victims of violence at the hands of the very police and security forces that are supposed to protect them.

Orlando, of course, was far from the first attack on an LGBTQ space. Gay and lesbian venues have long been victims of homophobia, from decades of police raids at gay clubs to the 1973 arson at a New Orleans club that killed 32 people to the 2000 fatal shooting at a bar in Roanoke, Virginia.

But Pulse was different. The fact that Pulse was the deadliest terror attack on US soil since 9/11 made it feel like a harbinger of a more muscular and increasingly visible security presence at queer bars, clubs, and events. The question didn't seem if security at queer spaces would change but how and to what degree.

More than one year later, major LGBTQ event producers and bar managers say they have responded to perceived terror threats by implementing a range of security measures, some obvious and others less so. But questions remain as to what impact these changes might have on patrons, particularly those most marginalized in the queer community.

Some are unsurprising and immediately noticeable, such as armed guards, metal detectors, and frisking. For example, a prominent gay nightlife venue in Los Angeles beefed up security in hopes of making guests feel more at ease. "We have at least one visible armed guard every night at the Abbey and the Chapel" in response to Pulse, said owner David Cooley, who has also outfitted security staff with body cameras and turned to West Hollywood authorities for formal training.

In Orlando, the Pulse Latin Night event relocated after the shooting to a new venue, also called the Abbey, which has made its security presence more visible over the past year. "Our biggest concern immediately following Pulse was to make sure we could provide a place where our guests felt safe," said owner Wendy Connor. "We have added additional security personnel, added wanders to check people at the door, and provided additional security training to our staff."

Other actions that venues have taken are less obvious to patrons—such as hiring private security companies and seeking assistance from local police departments. LGBTQ bars in the nation's capital, for example, have recently taken steps to collectively prepare staff for emergency situations.

"DC bars and restaurants have undertaken coordinated and continuing efforts to further enhance local security preparedness," said Mark Lee, a veteran gay event producer and venue manager. He served as executive director of the DC Nightlife Hospitality Association at the time Pulse occurred. In the wake of attacks in Orlando, Paris, and Manchester, the trade association—which includes LGBTQ-owned and -centric venues in its membership—facilitated multi-day training sessions in which city officials and regulatory agencies participated. "Most of these precautions are not visible or discussed by venues, for obvious reasons," Lee said.

Those training sessions were certified by the Nightclub Security Consultants (NSC), which pioneered standardized security-training programs in the hospitality industry when it launched in 1998. CEO Robert Smith spent two decades with the San Diego Police Department as a patrol officer and he said that experience informed the curriculum for NCS's variety of courses.

The owners of the queer venues that I spoke with said they turned to companies like NCS for training on how best to respond to a variety of emergency scenarios. But in his work with more than 1,000 bars, Smith generally believes queer ones remain among the safest when it comes to situations like fighting and disruptive behavior. "LGBTQ bars and clubs are not insecure at all," he said, explaining that, in his view, patrons tend to be of "very like mind and heart" and therefore have fewer altercations.

Even so, "security" is a loaded word, and "safe space" is a matter of perspective. For many in the LGBTQ community, gay bars have often proven to be unwelcoming to people of color. They're the site of astonishing racism and sexual harassment. So even as club managers and event producers take steps to elevate security, a number of activists see these moves as problematic.

"When we talk about 'safety,' we really need to talk about who that safety is for," Emmelia Talarico, a lead organizer for grassroots activist organization No Justice No Pride (NJNP), told me. "For many trans and queer folks of color, increased security and a heavy police presence doesn't make spaces safer."

Spurred by a controversy over uniformed police participation in pride marches, NJNP gained notoriety this past June by protesting at parades across the country. Talarico believes that many white, cisgender gays and lesbians think they can count on the police to protect them, and the police's relationship with gays and lesbians has indeed improved since Stonewall, especially in major cities. But many queer people haven't had such positive experiences, particularly trans women and trans people of color, who are disproportionately targeted and harassed by police, according to a 2016 report from the Movement Advancement Project.

While there's no palpable link between a culture of police brutality and the standards of private event security, Talarico has her reasons for viewing them both through a similar lens: "We live in a society based on white supremacy and transmisogyny," she said. "Any 'security' entity that exists within this system without explicitly working against those forms of oppression is going to perpetuate it—it's rare that a security presence in white-, cis-dominated queer spaces is explicitly trained or committed to working against forces of marginalization."

These kinds of critiques are unavoidably anecdotal. No data exists about private security in queer spaces. But Talarico does see hope. She cites the DC-based Safe Bar program as an example, an initiative of anti-sexual assault nonprofit Collective Action for Safe Spaces that aims to help bar owners identity and intervene in instances of harassment. "The lens for their training is explicitly anti-racist, trans-inclusive, and rejects criminalization, which is critical," she said, suggesting it represents a step in the right direction for security at queer venues.

Even so, protesting a dominant culture and correcting those injustices are two different things. That's why a few recent queer events—such as this June's Trans Day of Action—have explored alternatives to mainstream security models.

As was the case with Blow Pony. Last month it returned with its tenth annual pride party, at a new venue with a less visible security presence than the year before: No metal detectors or wanders were in sight, and the line moved quickly. Event organizers confirmed in an email that licensed security was on site, but said they were relying more on support from other community groups this year.

"We've also received a lot of support from our local antifa [anti-fascist] chapters, who have been a great help," the email read. Blow Pony organizers declined to elaborate on what role groups such as Rose City Antifa might play in the event's security protocols, emphasizing the tumultuous nature of the current political climate.

A Rose City Antifa spokesperson responded similarly. "There isn't really anything that we could tell you that wouldn't run the risk of compromising our security activities," the email read. "We can tell you that white supremacists and other bigots have threatened LGBTQ events in Portland, both in the past and present, and that a number of local groups are working to defend our community against those threats."

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