About a year ago, Meghann Mossell and a friend were watching a show at the Empty Bottle, sitting side by side at the bar. A man they didn’t know kept walking by, and each time he passed, he’d rub their backsides with his hand.
“I thought he must have been high,” Mossell recalls. “Why would someone do something like that?” She says she talked to one of the bartenders, who immediately found the man and kicked him out.
“It made me feel really good, but I remember wondering if that’s their action plan—do they have policies set in place for this?” she says. Or did she just luck out, she asked herself, by happening to approach a bartender who knew how to handle the situation in a way that made her feel safe and valued as a patron?
Harassment—which can be verbal, physical, or even just an intimidating stare—is an unfortunately common experience in bars, clubs, and music venues, especially for women and members of the LGBTQ community. “There are millions of stories a night that are similar to mine,” Mossell says. “They don’t seem extraordinarily harmful. They don’t seem inherently violent, but they are—and they ruin your night.”
An international campaign called Good Night Out fights harassment by providing training, tips, and other resources to management teams and employees at venues and bars. The volunteer-run organization was founded in London in April 2014 by Bryony Beynon and Julia Gray, who were running the London chapter of Hollaback!, an international network dedicated to stamping out street harassment. The two women decided they wanted to create practical strategies to help bars and venues improve the way they address or prevent sexual assault—a shift in focus that came about because they felt nightlife culture often turns a blind eye to a problem Beynon describes as “epidemic.”
Beynon, who plays guitar in the postpunk band Good Throb, has been making music for ten years—long enough to get thoroughly fed up with feeling unsafe. “I have personally experienced many types of harassment, including sexual assault, at gigs,” she says. “As an attendee and a performer.”
Mossell met Beynon three years ago at the Philadelphia incarnation of Ladyfest, a celebration of music, activism, and the arts that’s been hosted by various cities around the world since 2000. Mossell was playing a set with her band, Blizzard Babies, and Beynon had a speaking gig. Mossell was immediately captivated.
“She made this statement—she said, ‘In these times, just being close friends with a woman is a radical act,'” Mossell recalls. “And that’s when I think I fell in love with her.”
By keeping abreast of what Beynon was up to, Mossell discovered the Good Night Out campaign. “I was thinking about the many experiences I’ve had here in Chicago,” she says. “For such a large city, we don’t seem to have a community of people watching out for each other in social spaces.”
In fall 2015, Mossell says, she felt ready to found a chapter of Good Night Out in Chicago. She works with special-education students in the Chicago Public Schools, and as cofounders she recruited longtime friend and CPS colleague Laura Boban and another pal, Rachel Gray. Incidents of harassment and other ugly behavior had been piling up for a while—all three of them had a wearying number of stories they could tell. A man Mossell had talked to at Bonny’s followed her down the street in a car and asked her to watch him masturbate. Staff at a bar hosting a queer night carelessly misgendered a group of Boban’s friends—a splash of cold water in what was supposed to be a welcoming place. Gray had to throw a man out of the upscale Ravenswood cocktail lounge where she worked because he made passes at her on repeat visits—on one occasion, he was so drunk that a table of customers tried to intervene.
“I remember thinking about the Empty Bottle,” says Mossell, “and telling people that they took action so quickly—and that I wish there was a way, other than me making a fucking Facebook post, to say that that was handled well, and that’s awesome, and when something happened somewhere else it wasn’t. To give people credit, almost.”
Mossell, Boban, and Gray got help from Beynon, including Skype sessions where she taught them how to go about training bar staff. She also sent them Chicago-specific Good Night Out posters, intended for prominent display in bars and venues that are on board with GNO’s program.
“We’re completely not-for-profit and currently unfunded, so all this is done free of charge,” Beynon says.
GNO has at least ten chapters in the United Kingdom and Ireland, though the organization’s non-hierarchical structure makes it hard to know who’s doing what. Beynon says she’s also working with chapters in the U.S. and Canada to push the GNO message even further. The Chicago group has yet to apply for nonprofit status, but it’s still so small that this hasn’t created any problems—its three founders are still its only members, and they volunteer all their time.
“I’ve been to Chicago a few times and attended festivals in large venues like Metro and played gigs in smaller ones like Township,” Beynon says. “The live music scene in Chicago is legendary but of course is not immune from sexual harassment.”
After Mossell, Boban, and Gray received Beynon’s training framework, they tailored it to the scene in Chicago as they knew it—Boban in particular felt the materials needed to place more emphasis on on serving the city’s LGBTQ community. Boban and Mossell already had connections to a few Chicago bars and venues—the latter through gigs with Blizzard Babies, the former simply because she’s lived here for 13 years. They want to begin by building relationships with small clubs where they know the staff, in hopes that word will get around about the work they’re doing—this should make it easier for them to extend their mission into bigger establishments, or into parts of the city they don’t typically visit. They don’t want to end up limited by which bars they personally patronize—everybody who wants a night out, especially women and LGBTQ people, needs to feel safe from harassment in the place they go to unwind.
Gray, who moved to the city from Melbourne, Australia, last September, has learned from members of the LGBTQ community that they only feel comfortable in a select group of venues and bars, mostly in Boystown. And Boban’s own experiences have made the need for this type of work apparent too. “For me, being part of the queer community, I’ve seen stuff happen in what is supposed to be a safe space on a designated queer night, especially with trans and gender-nonconforming people,” she explains.
Misgendering people, she says, can be damaging even if it’s not malicious. “Saying ‘Hi, ladies’ isn’t always appropriate, and I think that’s a really good thing for Chicago to learn.”
Gray, who recently left her job as a server in that upscale Ravenswood bar, says she’s experienced her fair share of harassment both in Australia and her new home. She joined the GNO team for a very straightforward reason: “I wanted to make a change in something that has been an issue for me.”
A big part of the training that GNO provides to bar staff and management, Mossell says, is a frank discussion about what constitutes harassment. They also get into what kinds of experiences employees have had (both on the job and as patrons at bars) and discuss strategies to handle situations when they inevitably arise. GNO hopes these workshops will be eye-opening for any staffer who’s never experienced an unwanted groping or lecherous stare from a stranger.
Mossell also hopes the training sessions will at least dilute one of the most toxic elements of nightlife culture: “The assumption that if you’re a woman and you’re going out, that you want to either be hit on or approached in a sexual manner just because you’re at a bar and drinking.”
GNO encourages bars and venues to keep incident logs (and provides logbooks). When staff keep track of reports of inappropriate behavior, they’re better able to identify troubling patterns. Mossell also has a proposal that might help prevent patterns from emerging in the first place. “Have an ejection policy set in place that’s not ‘three strikes you’re out,'” she says. “Because that means two more people are going to get harassed.”
A GNO flyer for venue staff stresses that “rule number one” is to believe patrons who report harassment or other problems. Rules two and three are “listen” and “don’t assume.” It’s important that a first responder not try to play judge and jury—it helps for staff to stick to statements that begin with “I” rather than “you” when replying to someone reporting an incident, and GNO recommends referring the issue to a manager ASAP. The patron being harassed may not want the perpetrator ejected or for anyone to make a fuss—either could create a safety risk.
GNO also asks employees to keep in mind that if one person reports an incident, it’s possible that several others have had a problem with the same harasser without taking that step. “People often minimize their own experiences,” the flyer reads. “If you’re hearing about an issue, it may well have happened to multiple people that night.”
Mossell says Good Night Out’s Chicago chapter has yet to conduct a training session—she and her colleagues are still working out the kinks in their modified program, and it’s tough to schedule a bar’s entire staff to be on hand at once. Logan Square venue Township has already scheduled a date (it hosted a launch party for the Chicago chapter in early June), and GNO has received positive responses from about a half-dozen other establishments, primarily in the same area.
Mossell, Boban, and Gray acknowledge that they’ll have to walk a fine line when working with bar staff and managers: they want to start a conversation around harassment and encourage policy development but refrain from dictating strategies.
“We work with venues to create policies. We don’t write them for them,” Gray says. “Especially in Chicago, that’s a good way to get venues and old hospitality hands off your side very quickly—if you tell them what to do and how to do things.”
Megann Lesnick, co-owner of Township, says she was happy to host the GNO launch party. The event raised $800 for the group, which will help cover the cost of training materials, logbooks, and posters (GNO offers its services for free) as well as transportation expenses. The night included performances by Blizzard Babies, Split Feet, and Hi Ho, and was emceed by renowned Chicago drag queen Lucy Stoole.
Township has roughly 15 front-of-house employees, and it will likely be the first venue to receive GNO’s training. It will also hang a poster from GNO alerting patrons that they don’t have to resign themselves to a bad night out because of a creep—staff are available and trained to assist them if they need help.
“The posters give people a positive nudge in the direction of staff members, and remind them that staff are there to support, not blame or minimize their experience,” Beynon says.
Lesnick says her employees already take strides to protect customers, but she thinks the additional training offered by GNO is a no-brainer for her business. “I don’t want to just serve people drinks and make money,” she says. “I want to be more communal, and I would hate for someone in my establishment to leave here and something to happen to them that could have been prevented. I would feel awful if I could have done something to prevent it.”
Odds are that not every bar and venue owner will be so receptive, but Gray hopes GNO can take advantage of the fact that businesses have to watch their bottom lines. People have lots of choices when it comes to where they buy their drinks or listen to their favorite bands, and if GNO develops the right kind of reputation, the group may be able to influence those decisions. The GNO seal of approval could help a bar attract and retain customers.
“The hope is that once the brand of Good Night Out becomes substantive enough within Chicago, that people will want to be associated with us and will want training programs run in their venues,” Gray says. “And eventually, hopefully, we won’t be chasing them down, but they’ll be chasing us.”
Diplomacy is a big part of the GNO strategy. Mossell says she and the other founders know they don’t exist in a vacuum, and they plan to network with feminist and LGBTQ-oriented advocacy groups in the city to inform their training.
The Feminist Action Support Network, for instance, already provides guidelines for venues and a voluntary system through which bands, bookers, and spaces can “rate” themselves to communicate solidarity with the organization’s goals. FASN’s goal is similar to GNO’s—it aims to provide safe spaces for women and people of color—but it concentrates not on bars and clubs but rather on the city’s DIY venues. (FASN did not return a request for comment.)
“I love FASN and I think they are incredible, and I would love to work with them and partner with them and do whatever we can to make nights out safer for everyone,” Mossell says. “At the same time, though, I feel more equipped to deal with licensed venues.”
When contacted for comment, a representative from grassroots organization FURIE (Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation) says my question is the first time she’s heard of GNO. FURIE campaigns around sexual-assault prevention, reproductive justice, and antiracism, among other issues, and social-media chair Althea Christensen says her group welcomes any effort to reduce harm to the community—she especially appreciates the inclusion of LGBTQ spaces and people.
“Eliminating sexual violence requires many different approaches, from all directions, and this could definitely be part of that,” she says. “I think every woman who’s been to a bar can probably relate to a story of being grabbed, leered at, verbally harassed, or otherwise creeped on—with varying levels of staff intervention, ranging from completely ignoring it to the offending patron being eighty-sixed.”
Though GNO are still working on spreading their message in Chicago, they already have an ally in Christen Thomas, former talent buyer for the Empty Bottle, who since January has provided the same service for the Metro/Smart Bar family of venues. She’s also a moderator for the Chicago chapter of Shout Your Abortion, a nationwide campaign focused on eroding the stigma attached to abortion.
Thomas has a keen understanding of the local entertainment business and feminist advocacy work, and she says she’s helped introduce the GNO team to venue owners around the city. “It’s a program with a lot of viability for all major cities, and Chicago especially,” she says.
Thomas explains that GNO’s training program is “a really easy sell,” partly because venue and bar owners are in the business of making sure their customers have a good time. The current cultural climate in the city helps too—there’s so much feminist-oriented activity, she says, that it’s easier to educate staff about best practices for tackling instances of sexual harassment or assault.
“I think it’s not necessarily, for every bar or theater, a conversation everyone wants to have—because it’s admitting there is a problem,” Thomas says. “But at the end of the day, we’re all in it because we want people to come out and feel safe and have a fun experience. And Good Night Out is very noninvasive.”
GNO doesn’t plan to publicly call out bars or venues with particularly egregious records of staff or patron misbehavior (this is part of its general pattern of proceeding diplomatically). The group intends to rely on patrons and employees to call these establishments to its attention, with the ultimate goal of scheduling trainings and changing the culture that’s allowed for harassment and assault to continue with impunity.
Businesses that do nothing to stop harassment don’t just risk damaging their relationship with their customers—they can also alienate their own employees. “I’ve spoken to a few staff members who are unhappy with how management deals with it, and eventually that builds up,” Gray explains. “That’s when you lose good staff and create a shitty culture in a venue. It will impact the business eventually, and I want to make sure venues know that.”
Boban says she hopes that one day honest conversations about harassment—and about establishing safe environments for people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation—will be so commonplace there won’t be a need for organizations such as GNO.
In the meantime, though, Gray says she and the others will keep working to change the hostile culture that still condemns far too many women and LGBTQ people in Chicago to bad nights out through no fault of their own.
“We’ll play a bit more of the role of a diplomat,” she says. “Because, in reality, these places aren’t going to close down tomorrow. And we’d rather be inside than outside.” v