In Defense of Keeping Queer "Safe Spaces" Queer

Queer safe spaces are important as a sanctuary and a revival area, but also as a place to meet other LGBTQ people, to connect with and learn from one another.
Publish date:
January 15, 2015
social justice, lgbtq, marriage equality, Safe Spaces

Over the years, my wife and I have lived in a few places known for being particularly LGBTQ-friendly – Manhattan, then Brooklyn, then Boston, and now D.C. Overall, we've enjoyed everywhere we've lived and would move back to any of those cities when the time is right. Our same-sex marriage is recognized in New York, Massachusetts, and D.C., and the steady increase of marriage equality and equal rights across the nation opens up the path for the entire country to be within our means. I know that if my spouse is hospitalized, for example, I can always access her room and her records. I know that when we file our taxes, we can claim status as a married couple.

We are more assimilated and have more opportunities than ever before to not only be out as LGBTQ, but also to be out with legal protection as LGBTQ, and we are grateful for that.

But the issues don't end with marriage equality, and I sometimes worry that people are too quick to see life as a queer person as easy and equal to their straight, cis-gender counterparts. The Trevor Project reports that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth, and that one quarter of transgender youth have made a suicide attempt.

The recent and tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn has left society with a suicide note literally calling for movement and action to help transgender youth. Isolated from friends, cruelly unaccepted by her family, Leelah stepped in front of a trailer truck and took her own life because she was pushed to a place where she believed her life would never get better.

LGBTQ youth are dying by the day. As adults, LGBT people are more likely to smoke with no intention of quitting, and LGB adults are more likely to suffer from mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse than our heterosexual counterparts. Yes, for many people, things are getting increasingly better, but change and acceptance are not universal, nor immediate.

What role may queer safe spaces play in this? Queer safe spaces have consistently been an integral part of LGBTQ people's lives. Edith Windsor, for example, often talks about meeting her late wife, Thea, during a dance night specifically for lesbians in Manhattan in 1975. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, lesbian bars are closing rapidly — perhaps because there is an idea that women's sexuality is less real than men's, feeding into the stereotype that women are more likely to be homebodies and not want to socialize, drink, and date if men aren't in the picture. Many gay clubs are closing, in particular ones which were known for being more racially and ethnically diverse, and I worry that our only remaining queer spaces will be aimed exclusively at cisgender and white LGB demographics.

Increasingly, the gay clubs still in business often function as venues for straight women's bachelorette parties and cater to fulfilling those stereotypes, losing any vision of a safe space in the shuffle. In these situations, queer people are seen as caricatures and performers, and are accepted only on the surface: When we break the stereotype, non-queer people often feel threatened, confused, and upset, and as though the queer people in these bars and clubs should know to cater to the ideas the straight world has for them.

In response to this frustration, The Abbey said they would no longer host bachelorette parties, at least until marriage equality was equal across the country. Is it discrimination? Is it bad for business? I don't think so – for LGBTQ people, we are constantly living in a world where heterosexism dominates, and it is exhausting to have our limited safe spaces infiltrated by people who are often there to celebrate their impending nuptials, while LGBTQ patrons are still fighting for the very same right.

A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in New York, she did a low-key art show at one of the only lesbian bars left in Manhattan. The bar had a nice setup, and many queer women came to display their work. The overall atmosphere was casual, with women holding hands and buying each other drinks. Many women kissed openly and talked about relationships and sex.

There was no sense of performance, which is important because it breaks the stereotype of why women show affection to other women in public – women are often accused of kissing one another for male attention or approval, to titillate or excite them. This very situation happened to my wife and I when we were outside of a straight bar in Williamsburg, and a stranger harassed us for an orgy after seeing us kiss. In a safe space for lesbians, that issue never comes up, and women feel safer inherently.

When six of seven straight men arrived, the mood shifted dramatically. They reeked of alcohol and sat at the bar in a group, staring into the crowd of women mingling and dancing. Eventually, the bartender asked them to head out, and they did, but it was too late. Most of the artists had packed up, and the illusion was broken — the safe space was gone.

While statistics regarding LGBTQ sexual assault are generally underreported, the threat of of sexual violence against queer people is very real. As a woman in the United States, I already have a 1 in 5 chance of being raped, and studies show that LGBTQ people are more likely to be targets of sexual violence because perpetrators often want to humiliate and damage queer people, as well as the idea that queer sexuality — specifically queer women's sexuality — can be “changed” or “corrected” through heterosexual sex. Safe spaces are important to me on so many levels, and perceived threats are always chilling.

As a feminine lesbian, I am always asked to prove my sexual orientation. For New Year's Eve, my wife and I went to a local gay bar and had a good time overall. We met a few lesbians from Indonesia, and spent most of the night talking about their lives in their home country and how they felt here in D.C. When the conversation hit a lull, one of them leaned in and whispered to me, “You were straight before you met her, right?” and nodded toward my wife, who was sporting a short pixie cut and blazer over a plaid men's shirt. I said no and smiled, and our new friend apologized profusely. We talked a little about gender expression and identity, and I felt heard and understood.

In straight bars, when people ask me that question, it is almost always followed up with “but you look so straight” or “have you ever been with a man?” and there's no room for learning or discussing. Queer safe spaces are important as a sanctuary and a revival area, but also as a place to meet other LGBTQ people, to connect with and learn from one another.

Should LGBTQ bars and clubs refuse all straight people? Of course not. There's little to be gained from entirely isolating ourselves. My wife and I, for example, brought one of our close friends with us to a popular gay club in Boston on our last visit home. He is straight, cisgender, and male, and we talked to him about the space before we went. He was respectful, danced with us as well as with strangers, and mostly stayed pretty quiet. Yes, everyone is different and no, there is no 100 percent correct way to act when you're in someone else's safe space, but there are some attributes which surely help: Don't stare at people, don't use slurs, and don't announce that you are different (there is nothing worse than a cisgender, straight person in a queer space reminding everyone around them that they are straight and cisgender). Have fun, but be respectful and cognizant that you are in someone else's sanctuary.

And remember: Progress is real, and every step is an important one, but if you are an ally to LGBTQ people, your role is to listen, to support, and to learn. Let queer people set the tone and draw the lines, and be respectful of those both immediately around you and those far away. LGBTQ people are as diverse as any other group, and not everyone has the same experiences or comforts — just because your queer friends think something is funny or appropriate does not give you liberty to interact with queer people outside of your circle in that manner. We are people, and we are a minority, so when we give you access to our spaces, please give us the same respect back.