I have been thinking for a while about what makes a place feel comfortable for me as a queer person. (By this I mean confident that I would not be treated differently than others if I were out; physical safety is a related but separate issue that I’m not going to address here.) I would describe this as “queer-friendly,” but this term does not have as universal a definition as one might expect. The catalyst for this burst of opinion was the seemingly inane process of finding someone to cut my hair, so I will use that experience for most of my examples.
For context, I’m a white abled transmasculine person; I’m also gay and ace. I can pass as a cishet man, though my preferred presentation might be accurately described as “pretty gay.” I am in no way trying to suggest that my experiences reflect those of anyone else.
Queer-friendly (Definition the First): Blithely cisheteronormative, but not actively homo- or transphobic.
This is the sort of place or individual that simply has never registered the existence of real live queer people. They presumably know that queer people exist, somewhere, but not as anyone they might interact with, and certainly not as potential customers. They don’t hate us; there is no threat of physical or verbal attack, and they would not refuse us service if we came out to them. It just never occurs to them that non-cishets really exist in their immediate world, and that comes across clearly in their language and behavior.
Example 1: One place that I went to several times was...fine. I am not much of a small talker, which makes most haircutting/dying experiences awkward, but this was pretty standard. The person who dyed my hair had no memory of what we (i.e., she) had talked about the previous visit, so there was a lot of repetition. Almost every time, she would ask if I had ever had long hair. I would tell her that I had as a child, which was perfectly true; she would then tell me about young boys that she had known with long hair, her tone indicating that this was a charming but rare thing. The thing is, when I had long hair, I was a girl, not a boy. (Please note that trans people think of their identities over time in all sorts of different ways. Not all trans men thought of themselves as girls when we were children, but that was my experience.) This was not a misguided attempt at inclusion; it simply had never occurred to her that she might be working with a trans person. I was left to decide between explaining that I had not been one of the charming long-haired boys, which would out me, and nodding vaguely along without comment, which I did. It would probably have been awkward but okay if I had taken the other option, but I was not comfortable coming out in such an uncomfortable manner to a stranger. This conversation happened every time I went back; eventually I dreaded it enough to stop going.
Example 2: The next place I tried was a fairly traditional barber shop. It was rather charming. The first time I went, the barber asked if “any hot women” ever came into my library. This is an incredibly creepy comment, especially because he already knew that most of the people who used the library were students. The next time I worked with a different barber, who informed me out of nowhere that this haircut would “help me get women.” Also a creepy thing to say, regardless of orientation! It was extremely clear that neither person was aware that some of their clients might not be straight, let alone cisgender. As before, they probably would not have responded badly to my face if I had come out to them, but I did not feel comfortable doing so. I stopped going there also.
Queer-friendly (Definition the Second): Aware of the existence of queer people as actual humans and equals who one interacts with in real life.
This is what I mean when I use the term. (It only just occurred to me to add the “and equals” bit, as I suppose without that it includes people who are aware of queer people in a negative way. That does not fit the term, obviously.) This is the sort of space I strive to create in my library and anywhere else I have any power. Like anyone else, I am capable of mistakes, especially when trying to support identities that are not mine; being queer does not automatically make one an expert in inclusive practices. Perhaps this definition should also include a component of openness to constructive criticism and change.
Queer-friendly (Definition the Second, Take Two): Aware of the existance of queer people as actual humans and equals who one interacts with in real life, and willing to adapt one’s behavior to support them.
(These are not particularly well-written definitions. I’ll make better ones if I ever put them anywhere more official.)
Example 3: After abandoning the dudebros who wanted to use their haircutting skills to help me get women, a goal in which I am wholly uninterested, I finally found a place that met my own definition of queer-friendly. The person who cuts my hair now is someone I can talk to comfortably, even to the point of coming out in conversation (about how I had transitioned recently enough that I still wasn’t sure what to do with my beard). One important factor is that several of the other employees are openly gay; this is not a requirement for a queer-friendly space, but it certainly helps to know that people feel comfortable being out there. By extension, it demonstrates that presumably the employees know that queer people exist, which I acknowledge is a tragically low bar to be this important. In addition to feeling safe, I am much happier with my haircuts: I can now just say “please make it gay” and get a satisfactory result.
Example 4: This one is not about haircuts. Recently, I made the questionable life decision to watch the Democratic primary debates. In one, Julián Castro made himself king of my heart by mentioning trans people in part of his comments on reproductive justice. He was one of two candidates to acknowledge the existence of trans people at all, let alone in a meaningful way that demonstrated awareness of our experiences. The other was Cory Booker, who spoke briefly about the violence faced by trans women of color. Castro’s phrasing wasn’t perfect, which people called him out on after; in keeping with the update to Definition the Second, he publicly thanked them for correcting him. Is it ideal that this is all it takes to make someone stand out? Not really. But it is an excellent demonstration of the difference between the two definitions: Perhaps everyone up there would say positive things if asked about their thoughts on trans rights, but they were not, so they did not say anything at all on the subject. Silence does not make someone an ally or a space queer-friendly.
Which brings me to an important point. The reason that Definition the First is insufficient is that plenty of spaces are actively unsafe for queer people. In an ideal world, one should not have to explicitly demonstrate support for me to feel comfortable, but that is not presently the case. My search for a haircut took place in a town most known as home of a prominent Christian university famous for its anti-queer stances and known to fire trans people. The employees in Example 1 talked frequently about their connections with this university, which is not unusual here. Were they themselves homophobic? Perhaps not. Could I assume that without asking? Absolutely not.
Of course, there are as many different types of inclusion as there are identities. Some spaces are safe for gay men but not bisexual women, or LGB folks but not trans and gender variant people, or binary trans people but not nonbinary ones. In Example 1, orientation never came up, though it was assumed that I was cisgender. In Example 2, it was assumed that I was straight; technically gender never came up, but I cannot imagine that such a heteronormative space would be any better about that. I don’t know for sure how the people in Example 3 would have responded to a nonbinary person.
A huge element of this whole issue is erasure. When I suggest that some people aren’t aware of the existence of queer folks, I’m not really joking. Presumably, most people who interact regularly with other humans in a place like a public business have heard that there are some people who aren’t straight. Some of them might even know that there are trans people in the world. But this is not the same thing as realizing that they may interact with queer people in real life. I doubt that anyone that I have written about would, if asked, declare that gay and trans people do not exist. The denial of our experiences is much subtler. Telling an assumed man that he will be able to “get women,” in addition to being a gross thing to say, implies that gay and ace men do not exist. Assuming that all men were once boys, or that birth control is an issue for only women and for all women, erases the experiences of many trans and gender variant people.
The really fascinating bit, to me, is how people operate under different definitions. I found Example 3 after asking my campus listserv for recommendations; my email was titled “Non-heteronormative hair” and asked for a “barber or salon that does not assume that everyone in the world is straight and cisgender, and ideally also cuts hair adequately.” Nearly all of the recommendations fit Definition the First perfectly: people had had perfectly fine experiences and hadn’t seen any indication of homophobia (most of the recommenders were cishet or passed as such, so it wouldn’t have come up naturally). Several people suggested the place from Example 1. Example 3 was recommended by other queer people and allies (a term I use sparingly) who could speak positively about the place’s inclusion, rather than its lack of overt exclusion.
I do not like Definition the First, and it is not what I mean when I ask if a space or person is queer-friendly. I would like it to be, though. I would like to be able to assume that inclusion for queer people is typical, to interact with a friendly stranger without fearing judgment if I were to come out to them. I would like the bar to be high enough that Definition the Second is the norm, so that any business that did not meet it was widely known and avoided. I would like to be able to move to a new town without dreading the months and years of trial and error it will take to find a salon, doctor, coffeeshop where I can relax. I would like to ask my well-meaning colleagues if a space is safe for me and have them know what I mean.
That’s not right, actually. I would like to not have to ask.