When Mack Boyle, a security guard at Oakland, California’s queer-owned Friends & Family, checks an ID, they treat it as sacred. “It can sound like a basic task, but the reality in our community is that ID checks can often fill us and our folks with anxiety and fear,” Boyle says. “I take it really seriously; I’m not at the door to be policing bodies or policing anyone’s presentations, and I really hope that I’m actually doing the opposite.”
Boyle, who worked in mental health services for a decade, struck out on their own doing facilitation work around liberation, equity and antiracism last year. They were looking for a part-time job while work picked up, and Friends & Family fortuitously posted on Instagram that the bar was looking for a security guard. It was the ideal gig for Boyle, who is skilled in de-escalation and crisis prevention, and whose experience dovetailed perfectly with Friends & Family’s approach to security.
Boyle’s philosophy entails centering the person in front of them and being fully present for their introduction to the bar. The process of changing a legal ID can be cost-prohibitive and arduous, and the information spelled out on an ID may not match one’s lived name, gender or presentation. As a rule of thumb, Boyle will never do a double take or up-down when holding an ID. Instead, they welcome the guest, make eye contact and look at that person’s face directly, even before the ID is in hand. When handing the ID back, they express gratitude, encourage them to enjoy the space and let them know they are a resource if they need anything. “As a general philosophy, I’m really trying to slow down the [door] experience and just witness people as they are,” says Boyle.
An ID check is a required legal speed bump at bars, but it’s also an important consideration for queer nightlife safety. The U.S. is enjoying what this publication has called a “queer nightlife renaissance,” but we cannot celebrate that without acknowledging what is also happening at the same time: a dramatic uptick in violence and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment threatening this so-called renaissance. Increasingly, the cost of running and working in a queer space has come with unfathomable loss. With each new instance of harm, queer spaces become even more interconnected by the gutting reality that we, as a community, must work together to ensure our own safety.
“Much of the knowledge that has developed around queer-led community safety can be credited to the Black and Brown trans communities.”
Gay and lesbian bars as community spaces have historically been antagonized by the police, and much of the knowledge that has developed around queer-led community safety can be credited to the Black and Brown trans communities whose violent struggles forced them to come up with their own ways of defending themselves and their loved ones. This remains true today.
Guerilla Pump | Photo: Chloe Aftel
DJ Guerrilla Pump is one of the founders of We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, a creative collective that engages in mutual aid to provide self-defense training for trans-POC individuals. The organization was founded by a group of DJs who have long hosted ballroom events and “renegades”—that is, off-the-grid parties often powered by generators and hosted in nontraditional spaces. For these events, the collective has created a protocol for security divested from policing that aims to center the safety of BIPOC attendees.
For each event, the collective envisions and enacts a “security squad”—a crew of people, the majority of them queer, trans and/or BIPOC—trained in de-escalation and conflict resolution. Importantly, if there is a risk of police interaction, one person is designated to communicate with the police; this person must be comfortable with the risk and actively consent to the potential dangers of the position. Often, Guerrilla shares, this person is white.
“We really wanted to create our own way of handling conflicts, especially when it comes to police or even interpersonal conflict, because a lot of times, especially in club culture, especially in straight bars or with cis-straight staff, there’s this... conflict-facing approach to handling disputes or just handling people in general,” says Guerrilla. “We wanted to create safe space without being aggressively violent, and without being super cis-patriarchal about it.” Guerrilla’s vision for nightlife includes sensitivity and de-escalation training for every person who works in nightlife, which includes DJs, staff and security.
Similar protocols can be observed in queer spaces. For Friends & Family, this means calling community alternatives to the police, like the Anti Police-Terror Project, in a crisis and engaging all staff to provide assistance instead of leaning on a lone security guard in the event of a conflict.
“I’m committed to not using police intervention to keep each other collectively safe,” says Boyle, whose work stands in contrast to how California’s security guards, who receive state-mandated training in order to receive a state “guard card,” are primarily trained to document conflict and call the police. “We also are all operating under this same understanding that we keep each other safe, which—[it’s] just so nice to work in a community of folks that are operating from that collective value alignment.”
Cory Klink | Photo: Liam Woods
At the gay bar Akbar, in Los Angeles, Cory Klink brings a similar set of values to the door. Klink, a trans man, previously taught queer self-defense classes at Akbar before joining the staff. (Klink is a black belt in martial arts with decades of experience; he started offering sliding scale and private lessons for the queer community, eventually bringing them to Akbar.) At Akbar, every staff member rotates through all roles, including barbacking and working the door, to create a unified approach to safety and service. Deeply embedded in the kink community as a bootblack, Klink integrates his knowledge base around intimacy and consent as a means to connect with distraught guests and ensure safe, consensual interactions at the bar.
“De-escalation is always your first approach,” Klink says, explaining that all of the staff at Akbar are trained in de-escalation. This includes softer eye contact, a quiet pitch of the voice and positioning one’s body sideways in a less-charged position. “I would say 90 percent of the time I’ve been able to de-escalate people, [but] there’s always the people that... if they have the intent to hurt, they have the intent to hurt.”
In recent years, the queer community has been shaken by armed conflict at queer spaces, including the Club Q shooting that took place at a Colorado Springs gay club in 2022. In Klink’s training for what to do when gun violence arises, the protocols are grim from all sides. No business should expect employees to enter the line of fire on behalf of patrons. Indeed, employees are trained to not “be a hero” and instead focus on getting guests under tables and out of sight.
“Every time there’s a shooting, the whole bar staff is just so shaken because we know it could happen to us. We are that community, we’re trying to protect our own community, but it’s still like, fuck. It’s so challenging psychologically,” says Klink. “We have the recommendations of the LAPD... and we could use more support honestly; it doesn’t seem like they actually know how to train anyone in that situation, and that’s my opinion, not Akbar’s opinion.”
Klink and Akbar’s staff have filled in security needs through his expertise and systems of de-escalation, but he also desires logistical and tactical expertise, such as protecting entrances and barricading to prevent harm. He also notes that all of LAPD’s trainings are for generic bars, not queer bars, which have unique needs and populations.
Mack Boyle | Photo: Chloe Aftel
At Friends & Family, when there is an event that shakes staff, the team engages in active processing for all who witnessed it. It’s a small gesture of care, an acknowledgement of the horrors that those who work in, or spend time in, queer nightlife spaces can be forced to witness and reckon with. It’s also evidence of why nightlife spaces have historically been fertile spaces for activism, and remain so today, through organizations like We Are The Ones collective in Oakland and Trans Defense Fund in Los Angeles.
“Being a door person or working security, there’s this idea that you have to be a badass, or have to be assertive. [But] I think that there’s such a way to hold this work with more care,” says Boyle. “I have this memory of a coworker at Friends & Family telling me how they loved that their door person is a tenderqueer. There’s a way to do [the work] while holding folks’ whole humanity.”
For Boyle, Guerrilla and Klink, their lived experiences and community resources add up to a safer set of philosophies meant to protect some of America’s most beloved queer spaces. It’s also a reminder that our well-being is only possible through collective liberation and an acknowledgment of a simple yet hard-to-swallow truth: We are the ones who keep each other safe.