"Have a good night, my darlings!" Vickie Shirley, bouncer at London gay bar Her Upstairs, says warmly as we head in. It's a welcome with a different tone to "evening ladies" or "girls half price."
Later when I go for a cigarette, Shirley's all about crowd control: "No drinks outside, smokers to the right!" It takes a delicate balance of warmth and firmness to work for a queer venue.
"You've got to know your audience," says Shirley, who has worked in security for five years. "But then you don't want to frighten away people that are new to the scene... you've got to be really careful. I'll always say, Have you been here before, do you know what kind of bar it is? to check the lay of the land. I'll always say everyone is welcome, you don't have to be this, that, and the other... Just don't give me more work or be horrible."
Security is a priority for any organizer, but especially so for those putting on nights designed for vulnerable or marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+ scene. It's crucial to ensure that the attitude on the door matches the ethos of the night. Shirley knows her crowd, and describes the team at Her Upstairs as "family" who have "grown and learnt together."
But many venues hire their bouncers through an agency, who will then need to be properly briefed as to what kind of event they are staffing. Aggressive or thoughtless behavior on the part of security can undermine the best intentions.
I spoke to a friend, Natalie, who had witnessed bouncers "...physically removing people from bathrooms for allegedly being the wrong gender [on a] night that is meant to be explicitly trans friendly." Of another London queer night she frequents, which regularly attracts over 200 clubbers and emphasizes zero tolerance for harassment, she said, "The bouncers are always really threatening. I've been pushed by bouncers, physically shoved." She added that their behavior can be so troubling that management have had to ask them to dial their aggression down.
Preventing incidents like this requires that the venue, generally responsible for providing security, be on the same page as those putting on the night. Tamsin, one of the organizers of Unskinnny Bop, which describes itself as "a queer dance party for misfits of all persuasions" said that, for them, getting this balance right was "completely a learning curve, one based on 12 years of experience."
"It requires a great deal of managerial commitment and consideration to staff a queer night successfully in a straight venue," Tamsin said. "We haven't done nights in many different venues precisely because the onus is on the [queer] promoter who is using a straight venue to ask for what they need. Having crowds in close quarters with alcohol flowing and clashing expectations can be a volatile mix."
Unskinny Bop happens at the Star of Bethnal Green, a pub around the corner from Shoreditch in East London. Tamsin and the rest of the group have worked closely with the management to establish proper security practice. "Nadean [the bar manager] offered to ensure [security staff] received diversity training," Tamsin said. "Subsequently we have followed this up with a guidelines document for all Star staff [bar and security] with the sorts of issues we want them to bear in mind."
Venues can be scared of their own security team.
These guidelines highlight the importance of avoiding gendered pronouns and emphasize that the event is "a night off from [attendees] having to deal with a strangers' interest in their gender identity, sexuality, ethnic background, disability, body shape or any aspect of their appearance." Tamsin and co-founder Rudy also made sure that the pub established gender neutral toilets and better disabled access for the night.
"For several years we looked into buying or leasing our own venue so we could manage all of these things ourselves," Tamsin added. "Having control of the entire chain of responsibility is the best way of getting all of these requirements met. But it was going to be much too expensive, and [we would be] giving up our jobs." These constraints dictate that, for many independently run LGBTQ+ nights, a "strong partnership with (by default) straight venues is essential."
Tam Vibert, a scene veteran and General Manager of east London venue LimeWharf, has come up with an alternative solution. She is setting up Queer Security Services (QSS), an agency with a queer, trans and gender non-conforming team that will supply venues with bouncers or train venue staff to do their own security.
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"I've started a security business because... I can help every single gay venue that I know," Vibert says. "Explaining things to security can be a nightmare. There are some lovely people who work on security," she adds, "[but] what I want to instill into my people is that responsibility isn't the same as power; culpability isn't the same as power. Venues can be scared of their own security team."
The chain of command at a club night is complicated: Often, the person taking tickets on the door will be reporting to the venue organizers and the bouncer will be talking to the bar manager. It's crucial that everyone involved be communicating properly to ensure the safety of the people inside. As Vibert points out, it's about more than bouncers who "get the warmest coat on and stand outside and never go into the fucking club."
Most importantly, security staff need to be comfortable with the people they're mingling with. You don't need to be a gay bouncer to work a gay venue, but you can't be intimidated by queer people if you have to power through an intoxicated crowd to break up a fight.
Vibert says that some clubs have long kept their security in house to avoid this concern: "Think about one of those really hardcore gay bear nights. They've all got their own trained up people, not from agencies... because they have to." It's a far better option than hiring bouncers that are uncomfortable with what's happening inside the venue.
I was going up as a manager saying to people you can't come in, and [people] were just fighting with me.
Vibert originally got certification from the Security Industry Authority (SIA), the regulatory UK body of the private security business, "because I wanted to protect people in my venue."
"I was going up as a manager saying to people you can't come in, and [people] were just fighting with me," she explains. "Whereas if I go with my security card displayed they just leave."
Getting the qualification is arduous, requiring an exam, a comprehensive criminal records check, and significant costs, but Vibert is "developing my own core team before I take on pre-existing SIA operatives. The people I am getting trained have no bad habits, and eventually I want to be offering all the training myself, through QSS..." Vibert has six team members scheduled for training in January.
"I need a responsive, flexible, customer focused team [for QSS]-mainly dancers, performers and people who understand not only the diversity of the queer scene but also what makes a good night, and how important it is for security to be on it, [by being] friendly and making the experience better for everyone."
It seems obvious that all venues would prefer that security who do their jobs without intimidating the punters. As Shirley points out, "I'm the first person [customers] see when they come in... you don't want people to have a negative experience, you want them to come back." It's partly good business sense not to harass your clientèle.
Vibert is at pains to point out, however, that queering security emphasizes a degree of acceptance that goes beyond not putting people off. "[I want] people who will be able to, not just interact with the public but also genuinely appreciate a trans person, is actually happier to see a gay person," she says. "[There are] so many things that could just take away so much pressure from anyone who's not straight, cis, and totally content in exactly the binary they're in... There's a very different feeling being greeted by someone who accepts you as opposed to someone who's tolerating you. That's what's really important for me."
Education and experience play a crucial role in developing such an approach. But it's that sense of kinship which makes it authentic. Shirley puts it simply: "I'm here looking after my people."