When Will We See Ourselves in Your Spaces?

Bringing Visible Queer Inclusion into Community Spaces & Organizations

by Rachel Sparling

Positionality

Before we start this conversation, I want to acknowledge that I am currently on the Haldimand Tract, the territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee people. My home is in Mi’kma’ki, the unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people.

For those of us who are settlers, take a moment before we continue to reflect on the spaces you’re in. Are Indigenous people represented? Is anti-colonial work happening? Whether these reflections are new to you or not, it’s vital to continue learning, listening, and building anti-colonial practices into every level of your organization, group, and life.

Lastly, as we enter this space together, it’s important to understand that this article is written from my positionality as a white, able-bodied, queer and genderqueer settler.

Step into the room

On the first day of my degree, every time I start a new job, or join a new volunteer group, I walk in and my eyes immediately scan the room. I’m looking for people who look like me; people who don’t quite align with rigid western ideas of gender. I know that if they’re present, it’s probably safe for me to be present, in all my gender nonconformity, too.

But, most of the time, it’s just me. Most of the time, I’m the only person who looks visibly queer or gender nonconforming, which means I need to make a snap decision. Do I want to share my pronouns and be myself, or if I should pretend that I’m someone that I’m not? In that moment, I don’t know if my queerness will cost me connection, belonging, opportunities, or my job because of the conscious and unconscious bias that exists in even the most well-intending of spaces.

Looking for safety: my past experiences.

Sometimes there won’t be any out gender diverse people, but I’ll see that they have language or stickers that promise queer inclusion, so I’ll take the risk and bring my whole self into that space. On the odd occasion, it works out well, and I’m supported and get to be the out queer person who signals to others that this is a safe place to be themselves.

It doesn’t usually go that well though. The stickers and vague language are often virtual signalling by otherwise well-meaning groups. When this happens, I’ve been met with a barrage of people debating the validity of clients’ queer identities, questioning the fluidity of gender, or demanding that I change aspects of my gender expression because it’s an affront to their conservative clientele. When this happens, I’m alone in having to decide if it’s worth the risk to stand up for myself and if I can financially walk away from the job if things go south.

Each of these experiences taught me that safety is something I have to look carefully for, and it’s often contingent on if there are others like me in this space.

Invisibility is loud

In The Body is Not An Apology, Sonya Rene Taylor writes, “When we don’t see ourselves reflected in the world around us, we make judgements about that absence. Invisibility is a statement.” For me, that statement is that we don’t belong, that there is limited opportunity and a limited future in our communities if we don’t fit into western ideas of gender. And by extension, this means that I must fragment myself into bite-sized pieces so that I’m palatable enough for the cis and heteronormative world around me.

This cycle of queer erasure is often reinforced in very subtle ways. On the surface level, many spaces will tout queer-inclusive values such as anti-discrimination policies and gender-inclusive forms without doing the serious reflection and integration needed to create places that are genuinely inclusive of queerness and gender diversity. In most cases, we’re welcomed in theory, but not in practice. When we are present in workplaces, we are often tolerated at best, which in turn pushes us out as we are forced to compress our identities to fit cis-hetero expectations.

Not everyone is visible or wants to be, but visibly queer inclusive spaces make a difference.

Despite having written all of this about the importance of seeing queer and gender-diverse people in our work and community spaces, it’s important to remember that queerness doesn’t have a particular look. It’s not something you can necessarily see, and presenting a certain way does not make someone more or less queer. After all, even the idea of queerness changes with each generation and each culture.

But, those of us who are gender diverse or visibly gender non-conforming are still rarities in organizations, especially at the leadership level, which is truly a loss for everyone. When gender diversity isn’t present in a workplace, you miss out on our unique worldviews and the way that our presence signals to others that it’s okay to be visible and it’s okay to explore what gender means to you. So while not all queerness is visible, there’s still power in ensuring that those who are visibly queer are represented, seen and supported.

Disclaimer: Visibility isn’t everything, and it’s not unique to queer folks.

Despite writing so much about visible queer inclusion, it’s also important to know that visibility isn’t everything, or the only thing. Of course it’s important,  but visibility is a double-edged sword for many. Trans women, transfeminine people, queer and trans BIPOC BIPOC, and people whose identities overlap with these ones often face higher levels of harassment, discrimination, and violence due to their visibility. So while we continue to push for more visible queerness in our organizations and groups, we also need to acknowledge that visibility in our society is not currently a place that is safe for the most marginalized in our communities because of the power systems at play (patriarchy, colonialism, racism, etc.). So the goal here is not for every queer person to be visible, but for every queer person to be able to be visible safely, if, when and how they chose.

Before we head into some suggestions, it needs to be said that the positive and negative impacts of visibility aren’t unique to queer folks. s. When Black, Indigenous, disabled, fat, low income, and immigrant people aren’t seen in the room and aren’t part of the decision-making, it sends a powerful message and creates unsafe environments for everyone. I encourage you to take the time to learn more about this from BIPOC, disabled, low-income, fat, and immigrant writers, podcast hosts, and other content creators. As we move into discussing how we can make spaces safe for visibly queer and gender-diverse people, I want us to keep in mind that this work must be intersectional.

Disclaimer: Visibility isn’t everything, and it’s not unique to queer folks.

  1. Continuous in depth learning. When we stop learning or stay at the surface level, we’re likely to miss important areas of understanding and change. So build time into your group or organizations’ schedule to keep learning more in-depth about our community, changes to language, history, and subcultures. We can’t stay at the 101 level forever.
  2. Actively seek out gender diverse and gender non-conforming 2SLGBTQ+ applicants for jobs, volunteering, and as board members.
    If you aren’t getting enough gender-diverse applicants in your group, take a hard look at your application process. Take a critical look at your work culture, your public relations, and see if there are barriers or red flags that you may not have been aware of. Once your group has done the work and is a safer place for queer folks, start to actively recruit and network in gender-diverse circles so that people know about your positions. However, if you aren’t in an inclusive environment yet, work on that before starting to look at recruitment. Bringing queer people into hostile or unsafe work environments will only cause more harm and isn’t good allyship.
  3. Foster an environment of change.
    Getting stuck in the status quo and being defensive about change and critical feedback is one of the fastest ways to signal to queer and gender diverse folks that this isn’t a safe environment for them. So, create an environment that welcomes feedback and changes with open arms and seeks to listen to the lived expertise in the room. This means coming to the work with humility and compassion.
  4. Engage with members and former members to learn what needs to change.
    Part of fostering an environment for change means actively looking to grow and not just waiting until an issue comes to your attention. So reach out to current and former 2SLGBTQ+ members and give them the opportunity to safely and anonymously share things that made them feel safe and included and things they would like to see done differently. They’ll have invaluable insights and perspectives on how to foster an inclusive environment. It’s important though that these are open invitations, not demands as the burden of education should not fall on 2SLGBTQ+ members. Instead we need to foster an environment where queer members feel empowered, and take their lead. In organizations and groups with access to funding, this must include paying members for their lived expertise, and budgeting for inclusion efforts.
  5. Go past policies.
    Anti-discrimination policies are essential, but policies alone are not enough. The focus on policy and formalized procedures over systems change means that queer folks who are already the most vulnerable are not supported and often lack the safety and resources to challenge overt and subtle discrimination. So when looking for things to change, move past policies, and work towards genuine cultural shifts. We need to go further and consider how we’re challenging the systems of oppression that exist within our spaces.
  6. Pay people for their expertise.
    Whether you’re asking for 2SLGBTQ+ expertise from inside or outside your group  to help inform others, pay them, even if they’re an employee. It takes a lot of extra time, energy, and vulnerability to educate others on your lived experiences. So make sure that the ask is optional and compensates them for their time. If you’re a grassroots group and really don’t have the funding, see if there are skills you can trade or resources that you can offer in exchange for their labour.
  7. Keep it intersectional.
    I wish I could scream this one from the rooftops. All of your work, every change you make, needs to be intersectional. If it’s not, it’s only serving those who are already safest and those who are more likely to have access to the systems around them for support. Ask yourself, are the only people you’re currently learning from or engaged with white, able-bodied queer folks? If so, you’re not going to be creating a space that is inclusive for all queer and gender-diverse people. (Hint: this means you should be seeking out resources and education in this area from writers other than me).
In this list, you may have noticed that very few of these ideas will directly increase gender diversity or suddenly add an array of cool queer people to your team. The reason for this is that we need to first address the inequities and power dynamics that have made it so hard for us to exist in these spaces in the first place. Things won’t change overnight, but it’s worth working towards anyways. Because when you help foster spaces for queer and gender diverse visibility and leadership, you’re helping create a more vibrant and beautiful future for everyone.

Bio:

Biography: Rachel (they/them) is a Queer facilitator and Master’s student studying Social Justice and Community Engagement at Laurier. In all areas of their life, Rachel values good food, connection, and nature!

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