Breaking up fights, escorting the oh-so-drunk down seemingly endless stairs, refusing bribes and generally keeping a watch over partiers. All in a day’s (actually, night’s) work for Tina Learning and Heather Rutherford, bouncers who help to keep the Ottawa gay party scene safe and sound.
Rutherford works at Ottawa gay bar the Lookout, and has for the past four years. She started by working the balcony; she now “mans” the front door and trains Lookout staff to do the same.
Learning has been bouncing for three years, including gay night (Hump Wednesdays) at Helsinki, Surface afterhours club, and a number of the York Entertainment straight establishments. Rutherford and Learning are a minority in the Ottawa bouncing scene.
“Ottawa definitely has a shortage of women bouncers,” says Learning. Both women were hard pressed to name any other female bouncers currently working in Ottawa.
Rutherford explained that when a male bouncer senses trouble, the situation is likely to more quickly become physical.
Not so with women, Rutherford says with a smile. “If someone’s causing trouble and needs to leave, I convince them to come outside to talk about it, then shut the door. I always try to diffuse it without a physical altercation.”
Learning also uses words as a weapon. She compared her bouncing strategy to that of the 1989 Patrick Swayze movie Road House, where a tough bouncer is hired to tame a dirty bar. Swayze’s mantra — fighting is the last resort.
“It’s a bit like babysitting,” she says. But with a different kind of bottle involved.
With almost every shift, it is necessary to reject a few very inebriated would-be patrons at the door, but their mastery of words does not diminish the fact that these chicks are tough. When asked whether they’d had to deal with many with fights, both women began to laugh.
“I wouldn’t know which one to start with!” says Learning. So she started with her first one.
It happened a few years ago on her second shift bouncing ever, at the afterhours club Surface. Her opponents collectively weighed about 800 pounds — a group of really, really, high guys looking for trouble.
“They attacked us [the bouncers] because they were convinced that we wanted to pick a fight with them. Before I knew it, one guy had me pinned against the wall, feet up off the ground. Then he dropped me and I fell. In the middle of everything I heard one guy say — you’re a chick; stay out of this.”
“When I was on the ground, I looked beside me and one of my fellow bouncers [a boxer at that] was also down.”
The fight lasted for about five minutes. Although Learning didn’t suffer any major injuries, she remembers being very sore the next day. This didn’t deter her from bouncing though; it is three years later and she still loves the job.
“I love the adrenaline rush,” she says.
From a bouncing perspective, both women agreed that gay bars are generally less rowdy than straight bars, and that gay men are the least likely fighters. Rutherford said that Men’s Night at the Lookout typically has the fewest problems. Rarely has Learning had to intervene in a physical fight between gay men, although she “once had to interrupt a slapping match.”
But gay bars are not dispute-free, as seen with the recent fight involving well-known Ottawa drag queen, Michael Marcil, aka Dixie Landers, at Centretown Pub (where there is typically no staff member at the door). Rutherford remembers the times when Marcil had her back.
“Michael stuck up for me a lot. If he thought I was having trouble, he’d be right there behind me, saying he was there to help in case things got out of control.”
Learning enjoys working Hump Wednesdays, where the drag queens always give her support.
“Drag queens are great to work with. They can shut anyone up in an instant!” she says.
Rutherford said many of the regular Lookout lesbians also have her back. The gay men, on the other hand, are not always so willing to jump in.
“But they’re there to comfort me afterwards,” Rutherford reassured me. Rutherford frequently accepts midnight poutine treats from her regular gay male patrons.
Even when not officially on the job, Rutherford and Learning find it hard to peel themselves away from the bouncer role.
“I’ll find myself listening in on conversations if I think there may be trouble,” Learning says.
“Even on my nights off, people will come up to me and say ‘Hey Heather, there’s a problem in the bathroom,'” Rutherford says.
Whether on or off duty, both women find their work intrinsically rewarding.
“It’s nice to know you’re looking out for other people when they’re having fun; some people will give you a big hug afterwards, even if you had to kick them out!” Rutherford says.
“And a lot of people are respectful of the fact that I’m a female bouncer, and buy me a beer out of respect. It’s nice,” Learning says. She added that her beer consuming takes place off duty, of course.
Their shared passion for bouncing rang through their smiles, the colourful stories, not to mention their huge pipes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t look forward the end of a shift.
“I’ve been bitten, had my hair pulled, and called names,” Rutherford says. “We’re not allowed to drink at work, but sometimes we need a drink afterwards!”