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How bars can create safe spaces for queer communities

To foster welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ staff and customers, the bar industry must do more than merely pay lip service to inclusivity. Amy Hopkins speaks to experts who have been pioneering ways in which that can be achieved.

Creating inclusive, safe spaces requires going beyond ‘marketable’ initiatives to make meaningful change

*This feature was originally published in the April 2021 issue of The Spirits Business

Bars have long played a fundamental role in LGBTQ+ culture and politics. Throughout the past century, queer nightlife venues have provided space for people to explore and express their sexual and gender identities, form community bonds and politically mobilise. One bar even became the cornerstone of the gay liberation movement: New York’s Stonewall Inn.

A combination of factors – including shifting social attitudes and the widespread closure of gay bars in big cities – means nightlife spaces have become more mixed over the years. But when it comes to mainstream hospitality businesses, heteronormative and gender binary notions persist, thus marginalising LGBTQ+ voices and experiences.

As the broader movement for LGBTQ+ equality advances, important questions are being asked about how hospitality can become more inclusive for staff and patrons with queer identities.

Katherine Sender, professor at Cornell University’s communication department, and feminist, gender and sexuality studies programme, says while mainstream bars have become “somewhat more inclusive” for the LGBTQ+ community, this inclusivity has been “conditional, based on things like money, looks and behaviour”.

“There’s always been the acceptable face of gay culture… which is basically affluent white gay men,” Sender adds. This image is “perpetuated” in mainstream bar culture, meaning “not everyone is equally welcome in mainstream bars”.

In particular, says Sender, “non‐binary and trans people have experienced exclusion across the board”.

It’s not only in mainstream bars where marginalisation is rife: the 2018 LGBT in Britain report commissioned by the Stonewall charity shows alarming levels of racism in LGBTQ+‐specific places, as well as transphobia, ageism and discrimination against disabled people.

LGBTQ+ advocates and allies are calling for exclusionary tactics to be addressed across the board. Crucial to this is a better understanding of how all LGBTQ+ people – particularly those with layered sexual, gender and racial identities – experience discrimination. This must then be followed, they say, by an active approach to inclusivity.

Visual displays of solidarity, such as window stickers or pins on bartenders’ uniforms, are simple and cost‐effective ways of welcoming LGBTQ+ patrons into a venue. “As a queer person, if my girlfriend and I are walking down the street and want to try somewhere different, 99.9% of the time if I see that symbol we are more likely to go in because I know it’s going to be an inclusive safe space,” says Chris Cabrera, national LGBTQ+ portfolio ambassador at Bacardi.

More public places are now offering gender-neutral bathrooms, but such facilities remain relatively rare in hospitality. As such, for transgender, non‐binary and gender nonconforming people, the simple act of using the toilet during a night out can be fraught with stress and even danger.

According to a survey by UK LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity Galop, nearly two thirds of respondents said they felt unable to use public toilets because of transphobia.

“Going to the restroom is such a mundane thing, but for me it’s an anxiety attack if I’m not in a progressive place,” says Cabrera, who is non‐binary. “I have to think about the level of harassment and safety… those are two things on my mind every time I go to a public restroom.”

Chris Cabrera, national LGBTQ+ portfolio ambassador at Bacardi


Galop recently partnered with the UK’s Good Night Out Campaign, which promotes safer nightlife, to create a ‘toilet toolkit’ that supports gender accessibility in bars, pubs and clubs. The guide offers advice for businesses on how to make their facilities safe and comfortable for all customers, regardless of their gender identity or gender expression.

Misgendering is also a hurtful and marginalising experience for transgender and non‐binary people. As such, LGBTQ+ ambassadors and educators are teaching hospitality staff to move away from language based on gender norms – such as ‘ladies’, ‘gentlemen’, ‘girls’ or ‘guys’.

Washington DC‐based Safe Bars, which trains nightlife workers to spot and interrupt sexual harassment, introduces the topic of pronouns during its own training sessions. “A lot of people don’t know the ‘why’ or the ‘how’, so we give them that tool,” explains Lauren Taylor, founder, director and trainer at Safe Bars. “This is one way we are trying to make the world LGBTQ culturally competent. It helps people understand what safety and respect look like.”

As part of its programme, Safe Bars teaches bar staff that “the more marginalised identities you have, the more likely you are to be targeted, and the more likely that the violence against you will be severe”, explains Taylor. For example, a transgender person of colour is more likely to be harassed than someone who is white and gay or lesbian, and is more likely to experience extreme violence. “We’re helping people understand [how] people of specific identities, in this case people of LGBTQ and non‐binary identities, are targeted… in different ways, and therefore what you need to be paying attention to and how you might adapt your intervention,” adds Taylor.


Beyond these immediate measures, there are calls for the hospitality industry at large to better its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Chris Cabrera speaks of the sector’s systemic prejudicial practices, which they claim need weeding out at the root.

“We have to dismantle the way the system works right now, because it’s transactional,” says Cabrera. “We have to change the way things are done, the way we bring people into the fold, the way we do our hiring, removing nepotism. We need to rebuild the system to be inclusive.”

The industry is structured in such a way that it primarily benefits “the 1%”, says Cabrera, referring to the dominance of cisgender straight white men. “I have had to work twice as hard as my straight white counterparts to still come right up under them,” they claim, adding that “toxic masculinity” has been used as a “tool to hold on to power and be a leader in our industry”.

Cabrera stresses that the key to enhancing inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community in hospitality is the implementation of diverse hiring practices and more opportunities for LGBTQ+ staff members to take up leadership roles. However, any instance of tokenism would be detrimental to the cause.

“If you’re at a table and you’re the only person of colour or you’re the only queer person surrounded by cisgender white people, it doesn’t mean it’s inclusive, because are your ideas really being heard? Are you part of the conversation and of making the final decision?” Cabrera asks.

According to New England‐based bartender and farmer Sagan Gray, there’s “an educational shift that needs to happen” in the industry, allowing people to understand what privilege they have and then use it to uplift others. “It has to do with a lot of self-education, working inward, trying to navigate what we’re able to do to support those around us, what’s being offered to us more easily, what barriers we might be facing or others might be, and trying to keep our eyes open and call those moments out,” says Gray, who identifies as trans and non‐binary.


Gray also notes that the difference between tolerance and inclusivity “is often very easy to pinpoint”. They add: “In a culture that’s insistent on purporting itself as ‘woke’ or ‘with it’, this movement toward diversity and inclusivity has become incredibly marketable for establishments.”

But venues that want to create long‐lasting, meaningful change should be “actively and vigilantly continuing to work on themselves and their processes every single day”, says Gray. Internal policies relating to uniforms, discrimination and healthcare, particularly mental health, are a few examples they cite.

Kayla Hasbrook

Brands also have an important role to play in the betterment of the industry, by using their platforms to champion the LGBTQ+ bar community. In 2017, San Diego‐based bartender and sommelier Kayla Hasbrook triumphed at the world’s largest LGBTQ+ bartending competition – Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic. She notes that while cocktail competitions are often populated by many of the same faces, Stoli Key West was “much more diverse” because it reached out to a community that is often overlooked.

“A lot of people don’t realise competitions even exist because they are only marketed to certain groups,” says Hasbrook. “It’s important to bring everyone on board so that we are giving people the confidence to continue on in their careers and develop.”

Of her own win, Hasbrook says: “It definitely gave me the confidence to go out and apply for jobs. It reiterated what I bring to the table as a bartender and as a leader.”

At both a brand and bar level, empowering overlooked communities provides a wealth of perspectives that could translate into an uptick in revenue. “We can see that if we have these more diverse teams of people, then we are stronger,” says Hannah Lanfear, founder of spirits education provider The Mixing Class and Cocktail QTs, a network of LGBTQ+ bar and spirits professionals.


“Having queer people in your team can lead to an increase in queer custom as well. This ‘pink pound’ idea is actually substantiated by real statistics on money spent in the industry. Creating a culture that celebrates diversity is something all employers should be doing, from the largest employers to the little ones.”

As Cabrera says, bars should not hire diversely for the “sake of tokenism”, as LGBTQ+ staff members, particularly those in leadership positions, bring a “fresh breath of life” into a business.

“We bring not only diversity to the table, but we bring a spirit, we bring culture, we bring style; we’re inventive, we’re strong, we have these amazing ideas. And when you empower an LGBTQ person in a position of leadership, you’re going to see that they bring something different to the conversation that’s only going to expand.”

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