Debate rages over whether straight, cis people should be allowed in queer bars, clubs and spaces
Picture the scene – you go out to your favourite queer club with your friends in tow, but when you walk through the doors, you see a hen party running amok with giant, inflatable penises.
Plenty of queer people will have had some kind of negative experience when it comes to cis, straight people invading their spaces, but many others have had some of the best nights of their life in gay bars, dancing the night away with allies who love them unconditionally.
The question of whether straight, cis people should be welcomed into queer spaces comes up time and time again – and there are no easy answers. Some feel that queer spaces, whether that’s a gay bar or an alcohol free get-together, should be reserved for LGBT+ people so they can express themselves freely.
That raises the question – how do you know if somebody is queer? Some LGBT+ people might dip their toe into queer spaces so they can explore their identity without having to actively come out.
LGBT+ community must avoid ‘assuming’ other people’s sexuality or gender
It’s a “tricky” topic for Ky Richardson, founder of We Are Queer London. Their group arranges casual get-togethers and buddy-ups for queer women, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.
It’s vital that those people have the space to explore who they are in a safe, non-judgemental way – but it’s also important that we don’t make assumptions about other people’s identities, Ky says.
“Queer spaces that are just for queer people are super important for a variety of reasons,” Ky says. “They can give us a little bit of respite from the kind of micro-aggressions we typically experience in a normative world. They’re also important for more serious reasons. Some queer people don’t feel safe being around cis men, for example, and that could be tied up in earlier trauma.
“I think it’s crucial that some of those spaces exist, but at the same time, we have to be very careful not to assume gender or sexuality. It could be that a cis person or a heterosexual person is questioning, it could be that they’re not out yet. They might need access to this space but not yet be in a position in their life – whether that’s safety, or comfort, or psychologically – to show up as a queer person. So I think we have to be very careful not to make any assumptions. The minute we start excluding cishet people, we could also be excluding those who really need access to that space. It’s a really tricky thing to balance.”
Ky always keeps those sensitivities in mind when organising events with We Are Queer London.
“We Are Queer is marketed to queer women and trans and non-binary folk, including trans men – essentially anyone who’s impacted by misogyny,” they explain. “We don’t explicitly exclude cishet people, but we don’t have them in mind when we’re creating a space. We prioritise and create space specifically for the aforementioned groups of people.”
It’s really about dialogue and open communication, but what we don’t do is specifically exclude anyone.
Ky thinks it’s important they set an expectation for people who come to their events that get-togethers won’t be dominated by cis gay men and straight, cis people.
“LGBTQ spaces can be quite heavily dominated by cis gay men, which we love and we adore, but there’s an expectation that our spaces wouldn’t be dominated by cis gay men. So if we have a group of 50 people for one event and a person says, ‘Can I bring my cis gay male friend?’ We will ask them to check the comfort level of the group so that we can at least set people’s expectations when they come into that space. Or if there’s a cishet friend, we will say, this space isn’t catered for them, and some people might be coming with an expectation that it’s a safe space where they don’t need to navigate that.
“It’s really about dialogue and open communication, but what we don’t do is specifically exclude anyone.”
Straight, cis allies should be welcomed – but only if they truly respect the community
That sentiment is echoed by Sarah Cheung, a 32-year-old lesbian from Northern Ireland who now lives in Scotland. She thinks it’s fine for non-LGBT+ people to visit queer spaces – but respect is key.
“I personally think there is nothing wrong with it as long as they are respectful and remember why these spaces exist,” Sarah says. Having said that, she can understand why some LGBT+ people might prefer that these spaces were reserved specifically for queer people.
“There have been times that I have seen straight people saying inappropriate things and touching LGBTQ+ people without their permission because of the negative stereotypes they have in their heads thanks to media bias,” she says.
Despite this, Sarah doesn’t think queer spaces should be cut off from straight, cis allies who truly respect the community.
“We need allies more than ever, especially with the growing issue of gender critics popping up. I say let them come but remind them to be respectful.”
Like Ky, Sarah points out that the LGBT+ community shouldn’t be policing other people’s identities. She understands why people might be suspicious of a hen party turning up to a gay bar, but she also makes the point that some members of that group could be queer themselves.
Yes, have fun and share a laugh with us, but please remember the barriers we had to overcome to get here.
“That being said, I do think that as the LGBTQ+ community becomes more accepted in our society, I do think that parties like these need to be reminded to be respectful of our spaces,” Sarah says.
“Yes, have fun and share a laugh with us, but please remember the barriers we had to overcome to get here. I do think we should encourage more of our straight allies to come to theme events at our spaces to learn more about our history. This is so they can see from our point of view why having these spaces is really significant and close to our hearts.”
Notably, Sarah says she’s never experienced any issues herself with straight, cis people in queer spaces – but she has been “hassled” by LGBT+ people because she’s Chinese. Some people think racist comments are just “banter”, Sarah says.
“In 2014 at Belfast Pride, I encountered a cis butch woman at the women’s bathroom of a gay bar and she asked if I was Japanese or Chinese and whether I can cook Chinese food. She stopped once her friend came out of the cubicles and told her off,” she says.
Sarah would like to see a wider conversation take place within the community about racism in queer spaces – it’s not just straight, cis people who are creating toxic environments.
Cisgender, heterosexual allies must ’embrace the culture’ in queer spaces
Luke Dixon agrees that it’s all about respect. He’s a gay man who’s “more than happy” to share queer spaces with straight, cis people – but he thinks they should only turn up if they’ve been invited.
“Most of my inner circle is queer with the exception of two or three het women, but I would be reluctant to rock up with a group of straight women as it’s unfair on the rest of the attendees,” he says.
“But where is the line between protecting queer spaces and discriminating against those outside of that spectrum? I think as long as the straight people invited into these spaces completely embrace the culture in a respectful and appropriate way, we should be able to share a space that is all about inclusivity.”
He also thinks it’s “inappropriate” for hen parties to turn up to gay bars. “Queer spaces are not a tourist attraction, nor a hot spot for entertainment,” Luke says. “They’re a safe space for the minority, whereas straight cis women can find safety in many other venues.”
Ben Tuffley, also a gay man, thinks it’s fine for straight, cis people to go to queer spaces – but like Luke, he would prefer that they were invited first. He also makes the point that the person bringing a straight, cis friend to a queer space needs to be mindful of their behaviour and make sure they’re not doing anything inappropriate or offensive to the community.
He’s also frustrated by groups, such as hen parties, going to gay bars. He worries that some groups of straight people see LGBT+ spaces as a “spectacle” to behold.
“That being said I do know some women go to gay spaces because they are perceived as safer,” Ben says.
“That is actually a sad indictment of our society.”