Aidan Tharp

Should Straight People Be Allowed in Gay Spaces?

Filed By Aidan Tharp | March 22, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

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With the emergence of Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools and the call for "allies for the cause" one question enters my mind: What does it mean for the queer community when straight people enter gay spaces?

As co-president of my college's LGBTQ organization it is important for me to understand what impact straight people have on our community, particularly when straight people enter queer spaces. I hold the view that we are not here to make straight people feel better about themselves.

While we do not exclude straight people from our organization, we do not create a space for their education or their self-serving warm fuzzies in the weekly meeting or the queer cultural center (which serves as a library, safe zone and housing unit). This is not to be mean, we just feel that straight people already have their own place everywhere else in the world and we want a space for us and focused on our issues without having to answer gay or trans 101 questions.

March 29th begins our Pride Week and there have been many discussions centering on the purpose of the week - particularly for the queer students, but for the rest of the college community as well. Where do we draw the line between Pride and other events for the queer community and outreach and education towards the greater campus community?

It is a hard fence to ride and the arguments on both sides of the fence have important points. But I do not want to spend the time within a queer meeting or Pride Week educating or informing straight people about my life: I have to do that everyday and I need breaks.

Straight allies have a place within the queer community, and I think that is fantastic. The fact of the matter is: people don't usually listen to marginalized people until a dominate group starts advocating for them. It is sad but true.

On the other hand, a queer support/social organization is not the place for straight allies. This is a safe space for queer support, community and camaraderie. whereas public events held throughout the year and Pride Week are a prime arena for straight allies to gain information and show their support for the queer community.

Where should the line be drawn? Should there be a line? How many straight people turn a queer space into just another everyday place?


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Interesting post, and something that happens in all LGBTetc. groups at all levels.

Safe spaces are an important part of community organizing. Whether or not straight people constitute "safe" is open to debate. As in my post from Creating Change on the "People of Color Only" sessions, I think it boils down to having the ability to say what we want without worrying about hurting a straight allies feelings.

choirqueer | March 22, 2009 5:32 PM

The reason I will not draw a line like that is because I don't believe there really is a line. Queer spaces tend to be self-selecting...people who want to be there show up because they want to be in queer space, and that's plenty of line-drawing for me. Outside of those spaces, people who don't choose to be in queer spaces are the majority. That's the difference, for me, between a queer space and the rest of the world. It's not the presence or absence of "straight people"....it's the presence of absence of people who intentionally choose to go into a queer space for support.

I hear the challenges it presents for many queer-identified people to have people who identify as straight and/or allies and/or something other than queer in queer space. The problem I see with creating intentionally exclusive space is that someone has to be comfortable identifying themself as queer in order to enter that space, and many people who really need queer support space do not. Some people are trans, identify as straight and/or prefer to be stealth -- they shouldn't have to disclose their trans status to show up in queer space. I have a number of friends who are maybe 85% straight, but feel safest in queer space, and feel pressured to identify themselves one way or the other when those lines are drawn. And what about people who aren't ready to come out as queer yet, or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity but ultimately find that they are heterosexual and/or comfortable living in the gender they were assigned at birth? They need queer spaces too, and I feel like the value of including those people in queer spaces far outweighs the value of excluding straight people.

Honestly, the biggest issues I see come up are in queer spaces where most of the people in the group define their queerness in terms of sexuality, and those of us whose queerness is primarily defined by gender can't get the support we need for all the other aspects of our lives that our queerness impacts outside of sex...not issues that have anything to do with who is "queer" or "not queer"...and in fact, these issues seem to be less problematic when people who are not queer are included in the space, perhaps because then it is obvious that we're "not just here to talk about who has sex with whom".

As far as what to do if the "line" between "straight" and "queer" in one's group becomes relevant because straight people are showing up needing to be educated? I think the responsible thing for a leader to do is to discuss that with the individuals. Be prepared to provide them with some resources, or direct them to someone who could better answer their questions. I agree that it is not the responsibility of every single LGBTQ person to educate straight allies, but I do think a leader takes on the responsibility of at least acknowledging that the questions of straight allies are valid and valuable, and being prepared to respond in some way even if that way isn't directly answering every question that comes up, instead of saying "you're not welcome here". Queer people can be just as ignorant about queer issues as straight people, too.

I agree that it is not the responsibility of every single LGBTQ person to educate straight allies, but I do think a leader takes on the responsibility of at least acknowledging that the questions of straight allies are valid and valuable, and being prepared to respond in some way even if that way isn't directly answering every question that comes up, instead of saying "you're not welcome here".

Very good point, choirqueer.

Aidan Tharp Aidan Tharp | March 23, 2009 9:40 AM

I think there is a distinction between saying you aren't welcome and making an actual space for straight allies. Though, I think it is very hard to articulate that difference. I think it is the balance of making all people straight or queer feel welcome, without changing to program because a straight ally wants questions answered, that can be done outside the group on a one on one, or created during an outside event.

Aidan Tharp Aidan Tharp | March 22, 2009 5:44 PM

Choirqueer,

Thanks for the comment, you make some very interesting points and leave a lot to think about.

I'm not a big fan of saying anyone can't be in another group's "space" just because they don't belong to said group. It's discriminatory, exclusionary, and doesn't do anything to further our cause.

On a college campus, I think it's even more important to be inclusive. It's fine to let those who don't belong to the group that they may be offended or feel uncomfortable by some of the discussions, but that's a good thing. They SHOULD be in spaces that make them question their privilege.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | March 22, 2009 6:51 PM

There's much to think about here.

Thanks for raising some sensitive issues, Aidan. I would agree with Choirqueer, though, that it may be very hard to draw the line--and even harder at the high school level where more people may find themselves in the "questioning" category. Many college students are probably still in this category.

I think it also depends on the group's name and mission. A gay-straight alliance by definition, IMHO, should definitely be open to straight allies. I don't see GSA space as exclusively "queer" space. (I'm not sure you were saying it was, but FWIW....)

Aidan Tharp Aidan Tharp | March 22, 2009 11:08 PM

Dana,

I think many people do question and again thats why we do not police people who come. Your point about GSA's and names is great. OUr organization is not a GSA it is a queer organization and thus for us straight people and allies have a different place.

I think it is a very complex issue, hence writing about it on the blog to get other opinions.

Wow, I can't believe this is a serious topic. Maybe just the distinction in perspectives!

As trans -- and GLB as well -- we've always been invading straight space. Perhaps more so as trans. Well over a decade ago we began going to straight nightspots, they were friendlier and more fun. We got the message that we were kind of interloping in gay/lesbian clubs and found our own space instead. Nowadays, it's a thing even in GLB circles -- guerrilla gay bar nights, invading straight space, so to speak.

Even in organizations, I was invited and even ended up leading the local Women's Political Caucus in 2002, before a trans had ever even done so with any GLBT org. We're constantly going out into society and doing the best we can to immerse and be a part of society at large. But then, we've not had the infrastructure, enclaves, business success, social structures (anything from nightclubs to circuit parties to Womyn's Festival). And for the record, I'm not in favor of invading the Mich. Womyn's Fest -- they want their space, that's fine. But trans conventions have always been open to GLB folks (even if there's little attraction to draw many, some do come).

From a trans perspective, I'm shocked at that concept. We personally would not want that for us, nor to cut off one of the few opportunities we have for lifting ourselves, bettering our lot. And I'll admit, that's likely not the GLB perspective at all -- there are many other opportunities, etc, and you may want your own speace. But even the message this sends is counterintuitive to all the push for being "equal" ... what is equal if it's still distinctly separate? What would you say if straights demanded "straight only space"?

Seriously, I can't relate. Whatever you do, please don't tack the "T" onto any push for that!

I get the fact that having straight folks in support group meetings and other support services for LGBTQ folks is inappropriate, but if it is a purely social function at the gay space venue, what is the harm in allowing straight allies in?

There are enough wedges placed between straight allies like myself and my gay and lesbian friends by society. Does the gay community really want to alienate people who want to help and learn more about their allies for equality?

I also understand the point made about not wanting to have to conduct GLBTQ 101 while at these spaces. It is kind of rude for someone to come in and start asking questions and being clueless. Perhaps someone could conduct an actual GLBTQ 101 session for the straight allies to handle those questions.

I'm trans and I see both sides of this. I can completely understand why people of color would want a safe space where it would be "just us" and they can brainstorm or vent freely. I think you could make that argument for any of the LGBTIQ too, but the question would be "Is this truly forwarding us?". The other wrench in the works here is the very real phenomenon here in the City of the Angels of friends who I can only describe as "Het Queer"; people from the Goth, S&M and Alt community who hang out with, well, us.
Good question, no solution from me.

Annette Gross Annette Gross | March 23, 2009 1:41 PM

I think I can understand why GLBT people would want to have their own space. I belong to a national women's organization and I doubt if I'd be comfortable if men started attending our meetings. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in an atmosphere of acceptance - not constantly having to explain yourself, etc.

On the other hand, as a PFLAG mom, I am involved in GLBT rights and attend meetings and social events with straight and GLBT folks. It has opened up my world, made me see things differently, and become a more accepting and tolerant person. And along the way I've made some wonderful friends. So, as with everything, you need to assess the situation and try to decide what is appropriate for your needs.

For anyone who has questions and wants to learn more, PFLAG meetings are an excellent venue for this. In a safe and confidential environment, straight people can ask questions and learn more about the GLBT community. To locate a meeting in your area, go to www.pflag.org and you will be able to find meetings within your state.

Aidan, it is a compelling question. It is unfortunately confounded by the reality that there is no commanding definition of queer. Each person has an impression about what it means. Which Darya was pointing at with het-queer.

In therapeutic space I think the exclusion is important if not required. But, I think the definitions need to be far more exclusionary than simply queer.

I think it is queerty that has an article on straight bachelorette parties in gay bars. I'm not much of a bar person these days, but when I was I didn't really like lots of straight people in the bar. Most of the bars had signs informing straights that they were guests of the gay community and were expected to act as guests. Most gay men my age and older didn't have "safe" places to socialize as men do in the greater community. We were pretty possessive of our space. I'm sorry for rambling, but I'm conflicted on the issue.

If your group was downtown, I'd say be as selective as you need to be. On a college campus, however, I think the nature of a learning community is such that as long as goals and norms are respected membership should be an inclusive as possible.

my 2¢

I also has discomfort at the straight people in the gay bars.. the bachelorette parties the "hey lets be crazy and go look at the freaks" feeling. I remember one New Year's Eve.. there were so many straight people in the gay bar watching the drag show, that my girlfriend wouldn't hold my hand for fear someone from the National Guard was there in the straight group and would see her. We couldn't even be ourselves at a drag show in a gay bar. It was annoying.

Angela Brightfeather | March 24, 2009 5:11 PM

I agree with indigosue on this one. Michaelangelo's radio show brought this up yesterday on the Q Station on Sirius also, so I take it that this may be becoming an issue in bloom so to speak.

As a trans with limited passing priveleges I have been in gay bars where they have told me that I could not use the women's room because they had so many straight women there celebrating their upcoming weddings at bachelorette parties and they were afraid one of them would call the cops and report the bar, even with no law on the books about having to use the appropiate bathroom, per one's sex.

I have also been in a restaurant were the owner told us not to come back again because a straight woman with a young child complained about having people like "that" eating in the same area.

So there is no doubt that straight people do insist on "their" space when they want to and just look at the vitriol that spews forth from the straight community when we want to pass a trans friendly law in any municipality? I'm so sick of having to defend my right to use a restroom appropriate to my presentation, and being looked at like a rapist or pedafile in drag.
Where are those "straight friends" when that subject matter comes up in the news?

Although it's not right, many Trans people coming out of the closet express their fear that they might run into someone they know and therefore don't want to go out beyond the support group setting, even to a gay bar. Many in the Trans community are in the same place that gays and lesbians were 20+ years ago, when they went out to gay bars exclusively because they weren't out at work or socially, therefore they needed their own space. It's sad, but it's still that way for the vast majority of Trans people and it hasn't changed that much in the workplace or socially either for them. That is why hate crimes and ENDA is so important to Trans people. At least they have some hope of being safe and keeping their jobs if they come out more than in the past. Until that time though, 90% of Trans people still feel they have to stay in the closet. More Straght people in gay bars isn't helping that problem one bit.

Education? I'm getting a bit tired of hearing that after so many years of doing it, and still hearing it from people like HRC and Barney Frank, when a simple google search can tell you all you want to really know and answer every Trans 101 question ever brought up on at least 1000 different web sites.

There is a lot of cleaning up work to be done in the GLBT community in making people equal, let alone letting Straight people in to celebrate their weddings at the local gay bar after celebrating their victories in Prop 8, or just not having an opinion on it at all.

And sure we go out into their straight space, because we have no choice if we want to eat or just try to live normally. But the big difference as I see it is that straight people can go to a gay bar and not get beaten up or killed in the parking lot by GLBT people. But unless you pass 100% and look and act stright, your chances of that not happening to you after being in a red neck bar are very suspect. When the odds even out on that, I'm not against more straights in gay bars, but don't hold your breath to long waiting.

Wow, this really amazes me. It never would have occurred to me that straight women would go to gay clubs for their bachelorette parties. I work as a stripper in a gentleman's club, and they've been doing the same thing to us more and more. I guess they want to do something "wild and crazy" and think that going to a gay bar or strip club is just the thing. These days I can't work a Saturday without having to deal with large groups of women coming in to treat us like freaks.

Sorry to interrupt the discussion at hand, but I couldn't help but put my two cents in re: bachelorette parties. Those women need to find a new place to party. We don't want 'em and I doubt you guys do either.

Yes, "straight people already have their own space," which I assume all of us enter on a regular basis (even you, unless you've created a warren of tunnels, rooms, and other enclosed areas for getting to school, meeting with friends, and so on), which makes those straight spaces not so straight after all. And all of us already know of at least one good "safe space" for likeminded "LGBT" people to congregate and do their thing, however you define “thing” – it’s a place called home.

My sense is that the problem of carving out a private niche in public spaces (personally, I prefer nooks and crannies) is not so much about straight vs. queer but, to put it very simply, public vs. private space. So, this question more rightly concerns a matter between consenting adults interacting on a spectrum involving issues of control, and an abundance of kinky quasi-public spaces already exist for all manner of behaviors outside of strictly defined private spaces – let’s just not assume it’s the duty of taxpayers to fund them in the same way we currently support the educational system. (If interested, you may like to know the “school of discipline” is not currently on that list of institutions receiving public monies, but you go ahead and try to get a grant if you wanna.)

Working from our end of the spectrum, rather than focusing on a separation of sexualities, the matter of providing safe space for the “alternate lifestyle” community might benefit more from a meaningful dialogue centered on those for whom heterosexuality poses a threat, and/or those who fear relinquishing their control over the movements of others – and may very much like to find ways to justify furthering that grip. Just to provide one example of the latter, who among us has not been in situations where a dyke surrounded by a bevy of babes winces when a heterosexual male enters the scene (or even a gay man), especially if her biceps are not as large?!!

If we can clearly see homophobia for what it is, why not heterophobia?

Looking to another disenfranchised community, there are certain guys I know on the "downlow" who don't even wanna go there - that is, to such a narrowly defined "safe space." Now, let's talk about how to provide safe haven for them!

Aidan, thanks for raising this important question that many of us have probably discussed privately and - POW: there it is on the BIG screen of your headline. Kudos for courage.

I am glad also to see the comments reflecting interest and even some reticence. That's good, too.

I don't see space as 'gay' but rather 'queer,' as your writing later extends to include. They're not equal terms. There are LGBT people who are not gay. So allies doesn't always need to follow the word straight. Bi people aren't gay and some of us trans people aren't, either. And some of us in our LGBTQQI community need to ask you to check with us in the morning, if you know what I mean.

As a transsexual guy of color who grew up as a girl in the deep South who is 52 now, I've seen this question be needed and later shelved, and once again needed.

Youth space has to be safe. There might be straight youth with LGBT parents who need similar support as LGBTQQI youth. All meetings, especially for young adults, can't focus only on advancing the cause. The most important piece is to create or preserve safety, comfort and hope at a time in life when emotions can run higher than knowledge, just because being young means having lived for fewer years than older folks.

Young people have to be safe and protected. Just thinking back of rumor mills, peer pressure and mindless cruelty (some unintentional) of school years makes me glad that young LGBTQQI people have many adults to sustain them. When I grew up, we had the lone gay art teacher or lesbian basketball coach to be our adults of comfort. Not so in some cities -- and probably still true in some towns.

Here in DC a few weeks ago, two transmen who attended a club on lesbian night were assaulted by women patrons there. That incident took my heart and brain and split both right down the middle. ALL assaults are bad, and there are other ways to ask transmen to excuse themselves from women's space. There's the anger-feeder of the assumption of 'male privilege,' which we of color are still trying to find a place in the 'plus' column for it for us. There's the assumption that anything gay is LGBTQQI welcoming. While not always true, it never merits violence. We in the LGBTQQI community should KNOW better than to create violence on each other or on anyone.

So, I am glad this is being considered. There are many ways to phrase what we're considering: Now that the world seems more open, do I get to claim MY public/limited access/private safe space, and may I select who is welcome there? And on the other hand: Where am I welcome? Who might I offend when I walk past this door?

Glad you raised this, and thank you, Aidan. Diego


Hmmm... at my college we just had two groups - the support/social group just for teh queerz and the political group where everyone was invited. Guess which one was more popular (oh, don't guess, it was the one where everyone was invited).

What I find interesting is that I can't really think of a reason to keep others out. I know, I know, protect the space and everything. But maybe being an ally is a way for someone to ease their way into acknowledging their own identity. I dunno, the demand for safe spaces always reminds me of Bush's claims that he kept America safe for years. That's America, a safe space from terrorists because their space is pretty much the rest of the world....

But I disagree with your point about not having to do trans/gay 101 in queer spaces. I mean, maybe your school has wonderfully already-informed people, but there are more than a few LGB folks who would benefits from some trans 101 and vice versa. I also think lots of straight, gay, and lesbian folks would benefits from some bisexuality 101 as well. And I'm sure lots of people just coming to terms with their own identity could use a 101 in being just that.

As in, when it's just us, it's still pretty unsafe and stupid and annoying. Or at least that's what I've learned from LGBT spaces (like Bilerico, although we don't exclude because it's just impossible over the internet!). We're just as capable as anyone else to make our own lives unpleasant.