Space, or the Lack Thereof
Can we be honest for a second? I don’t know about everybody else, but I can firmly say that 2016 has not been a great year. With the rise of Trump, the popularity of Hillary, the Orlando Shooting, the continual death of Black bodies by police officers, the past eight months have been horrendous — and that’s only a small sliver of things. Through all of this, however, 2016 has taught me a valuable yet painful lesson; it has highlighted to me more than ever that the queer and gender nonconforming bodies have little to no space.
I have no space, no safe haven, nowhere outside of my own house that I feel comfortable enough in to be myself and proudly exist within each of my intersections freely.
Historically, the LGBT community has been pushed into the night and hidden away into our clubs, bars, and ballrooms we created for ourselves. When violence and exploitation pushed us into the night, we became nocturnal. When violence and exploitation chained many of us to anonymity, we created our own methods of communication and expression within that anonymity.
“Gay bars” became a hub for social, cultural, and political growth and expression for many years. I remember the first time I snuck out of the house in high school and went to a gay nightclub in Atlanta; I saw drag queens performing on stage, adorned by every eye in the audience, lip syncing to my favorite Lil Kim songs. I saw Black and Brown trans women living in their truth, unafraid and wrapped in love.
My first trip to the gay club wasn’t my last, and I eventually learned the allure that drew me to it; it was the only place where those I was taught, since birth, didn’t deserve to exist fully and freely existed. In my young mind, standing behind layers of clothes in the closet and resting uneasily in the fear of the unknown, I saw this place as a safe spot. It was dark late at night, the music loud. Outside behind the club queer people talked about politics, and love, and life. I learned that within this community — one fighting for visibility for years — the nighttime seemed the most comfortable place for many, whether a mechanism of defense or preference.
We’ve carved for ourselves spaces of perceived safety, both in person and digitally. We created apps like Jack’d and Grindr when the rest of the world told us our love wasn’t valid. We put our dating lives into tightly packaged, private messaging apps when we didn’t get the million-dollar advertising campaigns of e-Harmony, or mom and dad’s help spouse-hunting, or places other than those nightclubs to find someone we love.
So quickly, those very places have been trampled on. We know that we can’t afford the mistakes or violence of losing our sanctuaries. We know that in a society where at least 19 trans women have been murdered alone in 2016, the cost is too high. We also know that queer people of color are living in poverty at alarming rates, and we have no comfortability to lean into.
Our sanctuaries tend to be different than most. We don’t get to worship, express, exist freely outside of where we’ve created for ourselves. Our sanctuaries look like my friend voguing in the streets in an act of defiance and protest against the policing of the Black queer body. Our sanctuaries looks like the back stage of drag shows, where I photograph and interview performers. Our sanctuaries look like protest, and holding space while stopping traffic feels like prayer. Our sanctuaries look like Grindr, where anonymity occurs and is understood as a defense to violence of our cisheterosexist, capitalist, racist society.
A trip to the mosque means keeping my head down, avoiding eye contact, and not engaging in many conversations. Churches can look like prisons for many of us, especially those living in the US south. High schools can feel like torture for many, in several states you can be fired for sexual orientation or gender expression, and many states have no protection against LGBT hate crimes. If journalistic integrity has surpassed the point of understanding and reconciling with these types of realities, it has been lost altogether.
We don’t usually get to be Black, queer, spiritual, loud, and vibrant beings without having to dull or silence some part of ourselves. We don’t embrace words like “compromise” or “unity” because they often are coded for silencing various parts of our intersections to pacify our oppressors. Words like “compromise” taste sour in our mouths because they often mean assimilation, or adoption into agendas which seek to flatten our differences.
We are often wedged between being silenced and being scared to speak out; being visible and being fearful to be seen. When we do speak, our words are turned against us, or bottled and stored away, or they simply fade into the wind. When we are seen and visible and proud, our own families turn against us, or we have to take extra precautions for our own safety, especially if we don’t have the privilege that comes with being a white upper-middle class gay man.
Ever since the shooting in Orlando, a tragic event in which I saw pieces of my identities battling within rage, and the recent event with a “journalist” named Nico Hines, I have had a problem with “space.” As a concept, a location, a conversational framework — I have not felt like I have “space” — and I know many more who feel the same way. 2016 has been a year of being reminded, time after time, that any “space” has been made for me, it is to be exploited, or commodified, or hurt. With presidential candidates who once proudly boasted anti-LGBT platforms of hate against me and my people now dominating popular culture, I feel that all I can do is sit back and watch in the corner I’ve been given and that they call “space.”
As Audre Lorde said, “we were never meant to survive.” Too often we mistake survival for existence and existence for living. We become familiar with our oppression, used to our exploitation, and suffering becomes normality. We rise, time after time stronger than ever, as a community, and I am continually surprised at our ability to do so. As as we move throughout time, we stand on a vibrant and powerful history dominated by pioneers of creativity and change.