Queer safe spaces are disappearing, leaving queer and trans people with few options

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Recently, I found myself passing through on Spring Street in Portland, Maine, past the old location of the Styxx Nightclub. In place of the once iconic grungy brick wall and steel railing, there’s now a patio and a fancy European restaurant in its place. This brought back memories of the 18+ nights Styxx used to host when I was a 19-year old “baby gay” (having just come out before starting at USM in 2010).

If you live in the Greater Portland or Southern Maine region, you’ve probably noticed there are fewer options for LGBTQ people when it comes to nightlife. Within the past few years, Portland lost two of its queer nightclubs: Styxx, founded as The Underground in 1981, and Studio 55, which had opened in 2014. Both ended up closing by the end of 2016, sending shockwaves through the queer community, both young and old.

I was finishing my studies in Washington, D.C., when all of this was happening, where there were a little more than a handful of gay bars and nightclubs spread throughout the city. Then, I was seriously considering staying in D.C. and hearing about two queer spaces closing added to the list of things that weighed in favor of me staying in the nation’s capital. I loved D.C., honestly, because of its diversity and the robust queer community fostered through things like Stonewall Kickball and the concentration of LGBTQ community and advocacy organizations.

I also secretly nurtured a hope that it would be easier to find a smart, ambitious partner in a city like D.C. because, to be honest, my dating life in the capital was vastly different than it was in Southern Maine – for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.

But despite them being primarily bars and nightclubs, places like Styxx and Studio 55 were also safe spaces for the queer community. Venues where they could go and know for sure they wouldn’t be subjected to slurs and even hate crimes.

I was exposed to more Latino, Black, and other Asian gay men, which also exposed me to cultural differences and perspectives on dating. I also noticed there were fewer explicit disclaimers such as “White guys only!” There were also more nontraditional couples who were in open marriages or open relationships.

But despite them being primarily bars and nightclubs, places like Styxx and Studio 55 were also safe spaces for the queer community. Venues where they could go and know for sure they wouldn’t be subjected to slurs and even hate crimes. For queer people of color, especially, as I will explain a little further on, these spaces are vital in a very white region. And, more importantly, places like Styxx were where LGBTQ activists congregated, socialized, and forgot about the world outside for the evening before going out and fighting for the rights and acceptance we so often take for granted.

Now, there’s no one root cause for why traditional queer safe spaces are disappearing. But the few that come to mind, at least the ones that matter most to me, are gentrification, Maine’s demographics (increasingly one of the oldest, whitest states in the U.S.), and the relative ease, given the improved cultural climate, white gay men have in diversifying the nightlife establishments they frequent – meaning that the more accepting society has become, the more white, gay men start to break into traditionally hetero spaces, otherwise known as “straight bars”.

The last factor is what I focus mostly on in this piece. And I want to first provide the disclaimer that I despite being gay and Asian, I come across as cisgender, meaning that my gender experiences and behavior correspond with the sex that I was given at birth. So my being cisgender gives me the privilege to walk into a straight bar without “arousing suspicion” that I might me otherwise or even that I am gay. Let’s call it “passing as straight,” at least in the eyes of people with bad gaydar.

So this isn’t to be read in any way as blaming white, gay men. This is more bringing to their attention that a combination of white, male privilege and socioeconomic factors contribute to loss of revenue for traditional queer spaces, jeopardizing their long-term profitability, as well as the ramifications and unintended consequences that means for the LGBTQ community.

In a state as white as Maine, it is far easier for white, gay men to assimilate into mainstream society and frequent traditionally “straight bars.” This does not mean that they stop going to queer bars and nightclubs, it just means that they frequent those bars and nightclubs less often.

As is said in other contexts, if we “follow the money,” we can see the dollars and wallets of predominately white, gay men flow more and more toward white spaces and spaces that cater predominately to heterosexual patrons (as evidenced by advertisements and posters and who/what is featured on them). This is inherently not a bad thing.

We are a society that is striving toward inclusion and acceptance. But it is important that white, gay men are aware of the privilege they have to be able to walk into a straight bar without attracting attention based on skin color or other features, characteristics, and fashion choices that aren’t necessarily as accepted as being gay, white, and male.

In a market-driven and Capitalist society, there is the concept of not only voting with your feet but voting with your wallet. The bigger your wallet, the more power you wield at an establishment. And so often, in a society beset with implicit (increasingly explicit) biases, having white skin and being male (or giving off the impression of being a cisgender male) brings with it social, cultural, and economic mobility. There’s definitely a lot to unpack here but that’s the synopsis.

Again, I am in no way saying white, gay men are abandoning queer safe spaces completely. What I am suggesting is that they use their privilege to help preserve what little safe space is left for queer people of color and, especially, transgender people who don’t have the luxury of having the number of safe spaces that gays and lesbians enjoyed leading up to marriage equality in 2015.

My heart breaks for our transgender friends and family because I know how important places like Styxx was for me to explore who I am and to meet others like me. The loss of queer safe spaces in many ways is a subtle marginalization of those who feel less safe going to and breaking into straight and white spaces. And to simply say “Oh, why don’t you just go to x bar or x nightclub,” ignores how unsafe queer people can feel when walking into white establishments that often and subtlety demand conformity.

Mixed into all of this are of course things like gentrification, skyrocketing commercial rents, and a rapidly changing city that also places limits on “entertainment permits” (permits for nightclubs). But, in addition, Maine’s demographics also spell trouble in that there are limited economic opportunities for young people, including queer young people. This prompts young people to leave the state. And for queer young people and young professionals, the lack of community could also be a driving force that makes cities like San Francisco, Houston, or Chicago more attractive.

So I guess all I really want to say is that we need to be mindful where are dollars go and to make sure, just like the Buy Local movement, we also support a robust “Buy Queer” movement.

And on that note, there is some movement toward creating more queer safe spaces. For instance, there’s a new spot in Westbrook called Quill Books and Beverages that has been making the rounds and Flask is also a queer bar that has showed some resilience. Other creative establishments are also aiming to make up for the loss of traditional queer safe spaces. Know of any? Leave us a comment!

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