Bouncers or What they can and can’t get away with

by Hugo Hodge | @Hugo_Hodge

On a Friday night in Melbourne, soon after restaurants and cafes have shut their doors, a new drunk breed of patrons hit the streets. Accordingly, the hospitality industry changes its tune from a bend-over-backwards style of service to a hardline ‘one warning and you’re out’ policy. That’s if you even make it through the front door.

On the late night city streets, bouncers are the burly gatekeepers to the various bars and nightclubs. Police aside, bouncers are the authority for whom nightcrawlers put on their best manners and behavior. They are the highest level of power in an average person’s night out and can make for a nervous encounter.  They have absolute control  over club queues and in failing to adhere to their strict, and seemingly arbitrary rules, you’ll find yourself drinking pints on your own in some dingy bar a few doors down.

Bouncers have the right to detain you under a citizen’s arrest or eject you with reasonable force. On a whim they can deny your entry for the most inane reason. For people who don’t work for the government, they have a lot of power and the will to use it.

Zana Bytheway is chair of the Law Institute of Victoria Workplace Relations and Discrimination Committee and the executive director of Job Watch Inc. She says it’s important to remember bouncers are not above the law.

“Bouncers operate under all the standard laws that everyone else does,” Blytheway says.

“They do not have any more power than the ordinary person. If they assault someone they are exposed to that. If they are negligent or they discriminate they are exposed to that too.”

In a brutal incident in April this year, bouncers from the Queen Streets’ CQ nightclub allegedly chased down and stabbed a 24-year-old man after he assaulted a doorman.  The bouncers then allegedly assaulted and stole a bystander’s phone caught filming the altercation. Last month, the 12 bouncers allegedly involved were charged at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Time will tell if justice will be served in this particular instance, but it’s easy to see how bouncers often get away with criminal offences when they hold absolute control over events in their jurisdiction.

Bouncers operate in a grey area between ethics and the law. Doormen have the right to reject patrons from a venue if they’re intoxicated or violent. But it’s also illegal to treat someone unfairly based on personal characteristics such as age, gender, race and sexual preference. While they can refuse punters entry for failing to comply with the rules of the venue, like dress codes,they shouldn’t deny them entry because they’re too old, or because they’ve got the wrong sexual organ between their legs.

These laws aim to ensure equality in Australian society and rightly extend into the early hours of the morning to afford Melbourne’s punters an equal opportunity to have a good night out. But it’s no secret bouncers discriminate against people’s personal characteristics, often blaming supposed dress codes violations and the catchcry “you’re too drunk”.  A bouncer on the door of a gentlemen’s club on King Street admitted, ideally, younger crowds wouldn’t get through the doors.

“We don’t just let anyone in. You want people to enjoy themselves and be left alone,” he said.

“If you let anyone in, especially the younger population, they come in and run amok and you don’t want the girls to be disrespected either.”

A bouncer on the door of a popular Bourke Street venue said he felt like he was curating the crowd and vibe inside when selecting people in the line..

“We’re told to aim at hipster kids. If they are hipster guys we’ll let them in. If they are girls who are half naked we’re told to knock them back,” he said.

“We’re trying to keep it classy. It’s not like Billboards where they let in girls in mini-skirts, you know, showing their midriff as well as their boobs.”

There appears to be a grey area when enforcing a dress code and rejecting people because of their lifestyle choices. While maintaining a vibe inside the club is important, is it right a bouncer can pass such a definitive judgment on someone based on their fashion choices and how they present themselves?

Blytheway reminds us sometimes, organisations and venues can obtain exemptions from the discrimination laws if they want to restrict access to certain people.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has granted Melbourne night clubs exemptions from discrimination laws to maintain 50/50 gender ratios in their venues. They granted the Peel Hotel and Sircuit Bar, two gay bars in Collingwood, the right to refuse entry to heterosexuals and women in 2005 on the grounds  “unrestricted entry would adversely affect the safety or comfort of the venue for its homosexual male patrons”.

VCAT found the Peel Hotel should be maintained as a venue primarily for homosexual men, able to express themselves freely and display a “kind of attraction or affection as would be tolerated among heterosexuals towards each other in virtually any venue in Melbourne.”

A night out is considerably better when you’re in a venue with like-minded people who make you feel comfortable. People go to certain venues each week because they know they will find people in there who fit their demographic. The aforementioned venues legally obtained exemptions from  standard laws to provide their customers with a place to feel safe and accepted.

What’s concerning is the bouncers who take the law unto themselves. The overbearing ones who refuse entry for the wrong reasons, purposely discriminating and passing harsh judgments on people based on their personal characteristics.

Often it seems there’s little you can do when you draw the short straw with a bouncer. Action can be taken against law-breaking bouncers through various avenues by contacting the police, or by complaining to their employer and the Licensing and Regulation Division. Job Watch Inc can also provide support on sexual harassment and discrimination matters. Sadly the reality is if you wake up the next morning with a hangover and a cloudy memory of some injustice, you probably won’t do anything about it.

Photo by Finbar O’Mallon

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