Photo of Lauren McGrath by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Lauren McGrath by Darrow Montgomery

“We call her the jellybitch,” Lauren McGrath says. She’d just finished recounting one of her most trying evenings working security at DC9—a popular, three-level nightclub off U Street NW that serves up burgers alongside musical acts. It happened during the drunk olympics known as Halloween.

Six people were walking toward the club in a group jellyfish costume that was a mess of umbrellas and tendrils. “At the back, there’s a couple that’s fighting in a way that sets off a lot of red flags,” McGrath says. “I don’t want to let this group in, it’s just a bad vibe.” Upon informing them that they wouldn’t be dancing at DC9 that night, it got ugly. 

One of the women went off. “She started yelling, ‘I bet you voted for Donald Trump, you love Donald Trump,’” McGrath recalls. The inebriated invertebrate continued nonsensically, “I live in Brooklyn and have a blog there! I’m going to get you shut down for not letting us in.” 

She took the verbal abuse, got back-up from the manager on duty, and eventually removed the jellyfish from the club. But not before the group threatened to stage a “protest” in the foyer and get her fired.

McGrath is one of many women who work security at clubs in the District. Some venues have long histories of hiring women, while others are just coming around to placing them in the job too often stereotyped as being about sumo-wrestler-sized bouncers tossing troublemakers into the streets. 

“There’s this idea that nightclub security is like Road House,” McGrath says, dropping the name of a 1989 movie starring Patrick Swayze as a bouncer trying to get a rowdy bar under control. “You’re not breaking up fights and turf wars,” she says. “That doesn’t happen at DC9.”

The job is far less physical than most imagine, but McGrath says she faces sexism every shift. “I have dudes tell me all the time, ‘I had no idea they would let a woman work this job,’” she says. “My move is to pull them in real close and whisper, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but they started letting us run for office, too.’” 

When you get down to the brass tacks of what the job entails, not only can women handle it, but they might even have a competitive advantage over men according to McGrath and three other women who work security at local clubs. They excel in the face of unwelcome advances, cat calls, and other forms of harassment.

Responsibilities of security personnel include taking cover charges, checking identification, wanding bags for weapons, answering questions, and roaming the club looking for suspicious activity, underaged drinking, and overserved patrons. Most go through in-person or online training to learn everything from conflict resolution to how to identify club drugs and how to handle an active shooter. 

To keep all club-goers safe, these workers must be perceptive, intuitive, and make sound judgement calls. There aren’t always clearly defined rules for when to intervene or when to end someone’s evening. “You just know,” McGrath says. “There’s a line in the sand and you know exactly where it is. Young people. Older people. Stupid doesn’t discriminate.” 

McGrath often feels like “a drunk girl’s big sister” on the job. A few weeks ago, two college-aged women McGrath suspected were intoxicated asked to come in from the cold at 2:30 a.m. She told them it was too late to enter the venue, but they could call an Uber. “They’re loud and a pain in the ass, but they’re standing next to me and I’m keeping an eye on them,” she says. The women went out to find their Uber but couldn’t locate it.

“This dude from down the street comes out of nowhere knowing exactly what he’s seeing,” McGrath continues. She makes a habit at watching the area immediately outside of DC9, too. “I went outside and grabbed them both, saying, ‘You’re coming back in here with me.’” 

One New Year’s Eve, McGrath spotted a man flying solo. “Dudes who come in alone and aren’t meeting up with anyone and are lurking, I’m always watching,” she says. She spotted him repeatedly ordering drinks, taking three sips, and disappearing. 

Turns out he was chatting up girl after girl, ending each encounter with face-grabbing kisses. “I’m like, ‘You can’t do this in my bar—you’re not drinking anymore, you’re cut off.’” She got a golf clap from other patrons, presumably for a job well done. 

“The main difference between a male security officer and a woman is women can tell the difference between creeps and genuine OK social interactions a little better,” McGrath hypothesizes. She puts herself in the customer’s shoes to gauge whether she would welcome the advances. “I’m not going to screw up anyone’s game, but I’m going to stand nearby and make sure my bright orange security armband is visible.”

Sasha Woodward, another female security worker at DC9, says women constantly assess the safety of their surroundings, and that pays off when monitoring activity in a club. “It’s exhausting to explain to people what I do,” Woodward says. “I tell them I do security at a bar and that it’s about de-escalation, charming people, and telling them to get the fuck out in a very nice way. Being a woman doesn’t hamper that much for me.”

“There are unique skills we bring to this job in being able to de-escalate situations in an effective way,” adds Torrey Sanders, who works security at Black Cat on 14th Street NW. “For better or worse, there’s something about being female that’s less threatening … Women don’t think of themselves as being able to work in this space, but we totally can.” 

The Rock & Roll Hotel makes a point of scheduling one female security guard per night, according to the club’s general manager Kaitlin Wilding. She has also worked security at the H Street NE bar and music venue. 

“It’s nice to have a well-rounded presence,” Wilding says. “Culture is changing for the better. We don’t try to have big bulky security guys. Having women on the team helps the image too. When you walk into a club and you see four 6’5” dudes with angry faces, do you want to go in?”

Some male security guards can’t cope with the idea of a woman doing the job, according to Wilding. They question how she could possibly kick someone out. McGrath has gotten similar questions, especially because of her short stature. 

“I talk you out the door,” McGrath says. “Drunk people are chatty. As we’re talking, I’m slowly backing away knowing you’re going to follow me. I say, ‘I can’t hear you, let’s step out front.’ Then, when I’ve got you out of the building I say, ‘You’re not welcome here tonight. We’d love to have you back another time.’” 

When hiring security staff, DC9 co-owner Bill Spieler says he’s looking for calm, quick-thinking, and patient individuals. He doesn’t think twice about hiring women because he says it’s more about talking than being physical. And he agrees with Wilding that it’s less intimidating for patrons. “When the customer walks through the door, I want them to feel like they’re in a fun place.” 

“I don’t like the term gender-blind, but I don’t think it’s crossed Bill’s mind that this isn’t a job that men and women are equally capable of doing,” McGrath says. “His ethos has always been, ‘Why not?’”

If there’s a drawback, it’s that women on duty often face harassment. “Every Friday night someone touches me at some point,” McGrath says. That’s the night she works the door. “It’s not a boob grab. I usually wear jeans with holes in them and they love touching my knees.” Sanders has had similar experiences at Black Cat. “There are times late at night when you’re working the job where guys think it’s okay to grab your knees and shoulders.” 

McGrath recalls carding someone who didn’t want to show his I.D. and immediately pointed to his gray hair as proof of age. She checks everyone’s I.D. because it puts her in control. When she’s holding someone’s driver’s license, she can ask them a question or two to determine if they’re sober enough to enter. McGrath told Mr. Salt and Pepper that she was just doing her job. “‘You look real good doing it,’” he exclaimed. “‘Oh no, you can’t talk to me like that,’” McGrath responded. “‘I’m trying to do my job without you saying things about my appearance.’”

Racism surfaces too. Someone was so desperate to get out of paying a $2 cover charge that they tried to connect with Woodward, who is African-American. “After the Eric Garner murder, this adorable white man comes up to me and says, ‘How are you feeling? You know, with the Eric Garner thing? You must be going through some shit.’” 

Several live music venues don’t report having any female security workers, including Hill Country Live and Gypsy Sally’s. But Wilding thinks she’s seeing an uptick in female security workers looking to break into the music or hospitality industries. 

“All the venues in D.C. are doing a really great job overall of having a more diverse presence,” Wilding says. “There doesn’t have to be three girls for every three guys, but it’s cool to see how it’s becoming a more accepted position.”

Just ask Diane Groomes. After devoting 27 years to the D.C. Police Department, she stepped into the role of director of security and public safety at The Wharf. Groomes oversees a mixture of contract security guards and off-duty police and liaises with security officers who work at the various retail, dining, and concert venues. She says about 25 to 30 percent of her security officers are female and that her project manager is also a woman. 

Groomes and her team, like the female security workers at DC9, Rock & Roll Hotel, and Black Cat, are tasked with maintaining the public’s safety—especially during the large events. She encourages more women to consider careers in policing and public safety because of the opportunities for advancement and job security. 

“Policing and security is not about physical force, it’s more about communication,” Groomes says. “You’re the ambassador for customer service—giving directions, being there when there are questions. It gives people a sense of peace.”