Queering spaces in place of queer places

A quest for safe space in the absence of a physical place

“Where my people at?” exclaimed Roxxxy Andrews on Season Five of RuPaul’s Drag Race. As a young queer Muslim man in Waterloo Region, I resonated.

I moved to the region for school. Amidst considerations around academic requirements and housing options, I paid little to no mind to the prospects for finding a community. Like so many others with intersecting identities, I had never experienced the sensation of simply falling into place. I was too brown for white spaces; too white for brown spaces; too Muslim for queer spaces; and too queer for Muslim spaces. But I was hopeful for the fresh start ahead.

After all, there’s people like me everywhere, right?

How hard could it be to build community, right?

Orientation week had not even finished when it hit me. There weren’t people like me everywhere; it was becoming evident that finding community in Waterloo would be a challenge. The sights and sounds of house parties made visible the lack of diversity. Whether it was drinking culture perpetuated by student leaders or the themes of scheduled programming, Campus events shed light on the lack of representation. Far from the classroom and the expectation to be a decent person; nightlife revealed entrenched biases exposed through drunkenly spewed homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic comments. Bars may as well have had signs that say, “small town vibes only”.

Nonetheless, I have experienced pockets of queer community. I felt it when a few friends would gather in an empty classroom to watch Drag Race on the ‘big screen.’ I felt it when I visited the last LGBT+ bar in Waterloo, The Order, which joined the ranks of queer bars that didn’t last when it closed in 2017. I felt it briefly when folks gathered at the unveiling of the rainbow crosswalk in Kitchener back in 2018.

Even in these moments of sampling community, I would look around and realize: I was one of the only people of color around. I was the only Muslim around.

Some may ask, “why does that even matter?” Well, it matters because pieces of identity are not like hats that you choose to wear one at a time. You carry all the pieces of your identity, all the time. Some places and people are welcoming and understanding to one or a few of those pieces, while others may be inhospitable to all of them. The more pieces of you that are welcome and understood, the safer the space.

Unfortunately, the queer community is not exempt from internal prejudice towards some pieces. While some may assume that being queer acts as an umbrella that automatically eliminates all other existing prejudice sourced from nature or nurture, that is not the case. Even amongst queer circles, cis white men still maintain power and popularity. We see it in action in entertainment when straight, white, palatable actors like Timothée Chalamet land leading roles as queer characters. We see it on dating apps where folks will state their distaste for people of color in their bios under the guise of “preference”. We see it on social media where digital queer spaces are saturated by white voices. And we see it in physical queer spaces like bars where white folks receive visibly different treatment than the rest of us.

My need for diverse queer space would grow over the next couple of years. In the absence of physical queer spaces, this urge would drive me to explore groups such as SPECTRUM where I befriended local trans icon and long-time advocate for queer people in the Region, Cait Glasson. In search of a space that understood and welcomed more pieces of my identity, I found some comfort with a small group called KW Unity Mosque, an LGBTQ+ affirming Muslim community, right here in KW. Although gatherings were limited to Zoom, I felt something that I had not felt before. Even in the absence of physical space, I experienced safe space.

As the light at the end of the COVID tunnel grows bigger, I wonder if and how we will take our experiences forward. Is it possible to create diverse and equitable queer spaces without permanent physical place? Even if it is, is it sufficient? What does it take to ‘queer’ a space?

Additionally, it’s worth noting that not every queer person wants to build community in a place where the implied drink of choice contains alcohol. Can we queer places like libraries and places of worship just as well as bars and night clubs?

I say we can. What say you?

Cait says that we can “queer places by simply going in them” By being present and visible as queer people in any place, we can create safe space for queer folks to explore and express their identities. I thought back to taking over a classroom to watch Drag Race or taking over a street for a parade and how that statement stands true to some degree. In contrast, we reflected on how there is privilege associated with entering a place and making it your own — privilege that not every queer person has. Nevertheless, we are seeing examples of creativity when it comes to queering places. Dyke Bar Takeover KW is a new effort that hopes to offer events for all queer people through collaborations with local venues that would reserve certain nights for LGBT+ events. That’s definitely one thing we can look forward to when venues are open again.

While temporary transformations of place into queer space offer opportunity to find community, a lack of permanence must have implications on the extent and access of said community. In other words, there are some things about physical and permanent queer spaces that just can’t be substituted with temporary spaces.

Kamil (he/him) is a first-generation immigrant and settler from Pakistan who identifies with various communities including bisexual and Muslim. Passionate about mutual aid, resource distribution and building communities of care, Kamil is an organizer at Community Fridge KW. He is a photographer, facilitator, speaker, vegetarian, and a big fan of farmers markets.

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