Safe Spaces In The Age Of Woke (Because Some Of Us Knew Things Before November 9 2016)

In these uncertain times I ask myself WWALD--What Would Audre Lorde Do? We as a community (LGBTQ People of Color) are in need of our own spaces to come together and heal our wounds and celebrate our accomplishments. We long for spaces where we don’t edit ourselves for the sake of families, friends, the media, and society. What does it look like when the world does not dictate our narratives? Who are we outside of this system that is so invested in keeping us on the outside, begging for approval? When will we arrive at a place where we need nothing but each other, and ourselves?   

If we consider that system of insecurity as a tunnel, then the works of Audrey Lorde (my Lorde and savior) are a guide in that tunnel. In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Defining Difference”, Lorde writes:

Much of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior.  In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systemized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy a place of the dehumanized inferior.  Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women.

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy, which needs outsiders as a surplus people.  As member of such an economy, we have all been programed to respond to human difference between us in with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of 3 ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate.  

But we have no patterns for relating across differences as equals.  As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of divide and conquering, separation and confusion.

Lorde’s words touch on a truth that we can no longer ignore.  We are that surplus economy within the LGBTQ community. They have ignored our fears. In some instances so have we, as we copied the mainstream by allowing its messages to absorb into our relationships and interactions, and ostracized those of us who choose not to conform and comply.  We have done this to the point that we have divided and conquered ourselves. In my previous piece “All the White Reasons: The Modern Gay Mecca” (in which I wrote about San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood), and touch on how the White (Gay) Gaze is invested in keeping us dependent, under resourced and undervalued.  Using the Lorde as my guide let us traverse into the depths of Race, Space, and Community.

The Lorde says:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.

In Audre’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”, we are shown that to divide and conquer is to syphon our energy from creating spaces of our own. Lorde also brings attention to the notion that as far as sitting at the table is concerned, if you wish to sit at the table of power that is dominated by whiteness you must be willing to do what it takes, at all costs, to conform and contort oneself into the image of those sitting around the table. The second you ask questions, the moment you decide to think for yourself and speak of liberation, the table and the chair are pulled from under you.

It begs several questions: When will be use our own tools to build our own tables? Is it possible to build a house outside of the constant voyeuristic watchful white gayze, and if so, are we willing to do what it takes to make such a possibility a reality? 

It is the experience of many LGBTQ people of color that we are not wanted unless we agree to the terms that have been dictated by the white gayze. Our bodies are desired as objects of affection yet the soul within our melaninated vessels are discarded like wrapping paper, neglected, or blatantly ignored in most LGBTQ spaces. We will get the occasional “Latin Night” or “Hip Hop” event. But these are, in many, ways is skewed for the white gayze, so that our bodies and culture can be preyed upon at the leisure of those who wish to appropriate  appreciate us.  

San Francisco. We are rarely in control of the spaces that are for us; we are forced to share said space and it is seen as an issue when we express our need to have spaces that exist outside of whiteness. Is there space in the Castro, in one of the world’s most notable and significant gayborhoods, that is supportive and cultivates living in both night and day?  

There are events that happen either weekly or monthly (without these events their would literally be no community, so shout out to those folks out here making space and community!) that center us, yet these spaces are not exclusively ours. We have to share these spaces and we have learned that for our survival, we have to sacrifice our need of any “for us, by us” spaces. We are forced to go to events where are admirers have full reign to be problematic. Our vernacular, aesthetics, and experiences are on display for the white voyeurs and some problematic “bae”. Where are *our* spaces? Where are our places where we can take refuge from the Whiteness? Do places like this exist or will we always have to alter our vision of community for the comfort of the white gayze?

I created a survey in 2016 in hopes of providing a glimpse (data/proof/receipts) into how the Bay Area is providing space and community resources for LGBTQ People of Color. What I found was intriguing:

  • 42% of LGBTQ people of color surveyed felt somewhat connected LGBTQ spaces in San Francisco
  • 26% of people surveyed barely feel connected if at all to LGBTQ spaces in San Francisco Bay Area at large.   

Nearly half of the queer people of color who participated in the survey have little to no connections to the spaces that are available to us. For all that the Gay Mecca provides for the LGBTQ community it is clear that it isn’t enough. While it is true that there are events out there and people who work have put their blood, sweat, and tears into providing the events and spaces that do exist--*adopts Carrie Bradshaw voice*--“I can’t help but wonder, are we depending on the master’s tools to create space and if so, what is the alternative?”

The survey tells us more:

  • 68% of those surveyed felt that there are not enough spaces for LGBTQ People of Color
  • Of the spaces that do represent LGBTQ People of Color, 33% feel that these spaces are not adequately resourced.  

It is clear that there is a need for our own spaces, and that what is currently available to us is not enough. We need more than what our Gay Mecca provides.

  • 43% of folks that were surveyed are not satisfied with bars and clubs as  means of community support.  

Yet, these are the main spaces where LGBTQ folks to come together. We are forced to endure spaces where we are not welcome; the music is shit and purposely so while having to navigate the white gayze. The only places we got are the sunken ones and aint nobody got time for that!  

If keeping our community at arms length was the mechanism that keeps the machine running, what if we walked away? The mechanism only works by our agreeing to participate in its function, so why not walk away? Why not create something new? Is it possible to create a space that cultivates relationships across difference, celebrates all of our intersecting communities without using the same systems of oppression to generate power for itself?  

What Do We Need?

Most spaces in the Castro are owned and ran by white gay men, as are the LGBTQ organizations. Those with the most power and influence run the spaces we go to for assistance and the places we go to for social connection. While there have been improvements in making these spaces more inclusive, they are still run and operated using the same old systems and means. If 68.2% of those in my survey feel that spaces for LGBTQ people of color are in need of resources, what would those resources be? What do we need that we are not getting?  

If we let the survey responses be our guide, it is that we need creative, intellectual, or spiritual spaces that are of us, if not truly “for us, by us”. Folks also expressed the need for spaces that are both culturally competent with respect to general health and wellness. Our spaces must be inclusive and intersectional, and owned by those who understand this complexity. We can’t just create echo chambers; we must create opportunities for those of us whose voices are most neglected are instead uplifted and held with respect and in high regard. We must create spaces that help pull people up while climbing the proverbial social status later--if my bothers and sisters and family aren’t here with me to share in my success, then I haven’t succeeded.

Tokenism, elitism, competitive isolation--the master’s tools will never create our house or pave the way to our liberation. And yet there is work to be done.


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