Dear Queer White People: Taking Up Space

by | Jul 10, 2019 | 0 comments

Can you please address how white queer people take up space at queer events? -Trying to Dance Unbothered

Should white queers be present in QTPOC spaces? -Trying Not to Intrude

Dear Queer White People,

Let’s talk about space—queer space, that is. It’s incredibly important for marginalized people to have access to spaces where their identities, values, and ways of being in the world are centered and affirmed, and where they know they can be themselves, safely, in community with others like them.

Spaces for marginalized people can be permanent like community centers and dance clubs or temporary like the Lesbian Pop-up Bars or the (now dissolved, but forever beloved) Queer Pressure dance events. As this column has repeatedly emphasized, however, even within marginalized communities there are folks who have more social power and privilege than others.

When you have privilege you tend to be allotted more space and this impacts your awareness of how much space you take up. If you’ve typically been given as much space as you want, you tend to behave as if it’s always OK for you to take up as much space as you want. There is a reason people have coined terms like “manspreading” (when men take up as much space as possible with their bodies on public transit) and “manslamming” (a term developed by Anna Breslaw after she decided not to move out of the way of men on the sidewalk and was repeatedly run into by them). In the Jim Crow era, black people were often expected to move into the gutters when passing white people and black men were expected to avert their eyes or cross the street when passing white women. In my time here I’ve repeatedly had white people cut in front of me in line at restaurants and bars as if they didn’t see me at all.

As these examples show, some people get to move around and take up space without consequence—and some of us don’t. This is why queer spaces matter and is also why, as a white queer person, you need to be aware of how you are taking up space in our shared safe spaces: physically, energetically, temporally, and so on. 

When in queer space as a white person, look around: Who is there and who isn’t? Who is speaking or performing? Who is dancing, particularly in the middle of the dance floor? Who is taking up the most space? If the people of color in a queer space are mostly on the edges, if we are mostly invisible on stage and off, the space may not be inviting or safe for us. When in queer space, as a white person, especially as a white man, be aware of how much physical space you’re taking up, particularly on the dance floor. If you are speaking in a group, be aware of how much you are speaking as opposed to the people of color or women in the space. When you go to order a drink or get in line for the bathrooms or food, look around to ensure there isn’t someone else waiting—sometimes bartenders overlook people of color and women waiting to be served as well.

If you mess up, if you realize you’ve invaded the space of someone else or forced them out of a space, own it and apologize. Queer space is your space. You have a right to be there. But so do we, and your behavior in queer space impacts our experience and our choice of whether or not to enter or stay in these spaces.

That brings us to the question of white queers in QTPOC space. First, find out from organizers what kind of space it is—even if your QTPOC friend or partner invited you. Just because your friend/partner thinks it’s OK or considers you an exception to the rule, that doesn’t mean the organizers or other people in the space want white people there. It never hurts to ask. 

If organizers say it’s a QTPOC-only or QTPOC safe space then you should not be there, period. If organizers say it’s a QTPOC-centered space, then that typically means white allies are welcome so long as they are aware of how they take up space as discussed above. In these QTPOC spaces, you should be even more aware of how you take up space. If you don’t have a lot of friends in the space, pay attention to how people are responding to you, listen to the folks around you and don’t take it personally if some QTPOC don’t want to talk to or dance with you when you are in spaces intended for us. When in doubt, act like you are a guest in someone else’s home.

This year Our Lives is sponsoring a QTPOC tent at Madison’s OutReach Magic Festival, organized by a committee of local QTPOCs, including yours truly. At the time of press we have not yet decided if the tent will be a QTPOC-only or a QTPOC-centered space, but once that decision has been made, we will have that information clearly available on the (to-be-created) Facebook event page and on the signage at the tent during the festival itself. I encourage all QTPOCs to come visit the tent for community, games, and food and ask that all white queer people respect whatever decision the committee comes to about your presence in our space. 

Of course, I encourage all of us to be aware of the way we take up space and how our presence and behavior in safe spaces impact those more marginalized than us. Happy Pride, y’all.

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