Shared Identity Does Not Create Safety or Connection
Here's what can.
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A couple months back, I went to a queer dance party with someone I’d met online. We’d had a nice time chatting over sodas at the city’s catholic themed bar before we headed to a warehouse full of slippery, glittering gays, adorned in fishnet and sequin, leather and lace. I hadn’t been to a rave in years, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to I’m old now. And I felt old as I looked around the party, realizing there were no longer any familiar faces smiling back. Multiple waves of young people had turned 19 since the plague had descended upon us, and they were here at this party, drinking and dancing and blushing and flirting but mostly looking down at their shoes.
I love to dance, but I’m a bit picky about music. If Motown is playing I’m guaranteed to have a transcendent in-my-body experience, whereas electronic dance music is hit and miss. I was, however, determined to shake and sweat and twitch, and so I did. My new friend danced beside me, trying to talk to me through the foam plugs in my ears—I nodded along with a smile, hearing nothing.
After awhile, they wanted to move closer to the stage and I followed. Before we could make it to the front, though, they explained how the dance floor closest to the DJ was for black and indigenous femmes only. Everyone else was to dance behind them in the following order: black and indigenous then other people of colour then mixed race people then whites, and femmes then androgynous people then mascs. Since my new friend was mixed and I was white, I would have to dance behind them, but they pointed to a stranger and told me I could dance in front of him.
At first I thought they were joking—how could such an elaborate and specific system work on the chaos of a dance floor? But as the explanation went on I realized how serious they were. I found myself speechless, and they interpreted my silence as confusion. “Don’t worry,” they said, putting their hand on my arm, “you’ll figure it out.”
I had just been told that I needed to determine the racial and gendered identities of each stranger dancing near me, compare those imagined identities to my own, and then calculate my proximity to the stage, as well as to everyone around me, using the racial and gendered hierarchies invented by social justice culture, and to do that over and over again, all night long, as I danced behind—but not beside—the person I had come with.
My mind started whirring and a crushing exhaustion fell over me. My desire to dance, to smile at strangers, to lose myself in the beat, to close my eyes and feel my body move without caring what it looked like, evaporated. I had a choice to make: I could strike up a conversation about the problems with ordering people to self-segregate by guessing at one another’s identities with a person I’d just met. Or, I could say goodnight as soon as was polite and make my way home. I chose the latter.
I spent many years in a subculture that regularly endorses racial and/or gendered segregation. While historically segregation has been a right-wing pursuit, this is no longer the full picture. Many social justice activists believe that they can create safety and connection by including certain identity groups while excluding others. Examples include trans-only and BIPOC-only events. They include social, educational, and artistic events that until recently would’ve been open to everyone.
I believe that many event organizers are genuinely trying to create spaces where people can relax, be themselves, have fun and/or learn something. However, after many years of supporting and participating in such events, not to mention a multitude of conversations with all sorts of people, I no longer believe that segregation will help achieve those goals. Shared identity is not a proxy for safety or connection, and there are numerous downfalls to such an approach.
Now, some of you may be thinking: but Kier, white men have dominated cultural spaces for centuries. Why can’t they stay home for once?
I’m so glad you asked! First of all, although segregated spaces certainly affect white people and men, they also exclude many others: mixed race people, adoptees, closeted or non-apparent trans people, and mixed race couples where one partner is white. These social norms can also be a nightmare for people with obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety or borderline personality disorder, to name a few. It also inadvertently encourages people to exaggerate or adopt a marginalized identity to avoid being left out.
Secondly, POOR white men are excluded from all sorts of places. I had a sweet white gay male friend who was looking for housing on a welfare budget and I put him in touch with a friend who needed roommates. He was told that the room was reserved for a QTBIPOC. I sure hope whoever moved in needed a room for $375 as desperately as my friend did, who ended up having to leave the city. Class is not an intersection that intersectional feminism cares about.
Thirdly, this exclusion has become so commonplace that men, and white men in particular, are excluded from all manner of progressive social, educational and artistic spaces to which they could contribute or from which they could benefit. If they are allowed to attend, they are often treated in cruel and inhumane ways, especially if they don’t abide by the unspoken social customs that govern these events (a nightmare for neurodivergent men, those with learning disabilities, and those who are new to North American leftist spaces.) I think it would be fair to consider this treatment “soft exclusion:” you can be here, but we’ll make sure you know you don’t belong.
What are the effects of such treatment? Many white men are struggling with loneliness, hopelessness, and endless financial instability. When they go looking for answers and the left shows them nothing but contempt, the alt-right is in a perfect position to recruit them.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine invited me to a party at their home that was for femmes only. My gender expression is fluid, and I’ve gone through periods of time where I am comfortable in makeup and dresses. For the last several years, however, I’ve been rocking button-ups and barber’s cuts. It was awkward to receive an invitation from a dear friend to an event at which I’d be unwelcome.
(I remember one time inviting two lesbians who were not involved in the Queer Scene to a femme picnic in the hopes that they’d make new friends. When I asked them about it afterward (I couldn’t attend due to being a swishy butch at the time), they told me they felt judged and unwelcome. They didn’t get the memo to bring a homemade vegan snack and watched people sneer at the bag of chips they’d brought to share. Although they were dress-wearing lesbians, they were not femmes—their fellow picnickers’ passive aggression made this abundantly clear.)
I decided to ask my party-planning friend what they were trying to accomplish by making their event femmes only. As we talked, it became clear that what my friend truly wanted was a dress party! They didn’t actually care about the genders of their guests. They wanted to dance in a dress with a bunch of other people doing the same—to enjoy the sweet swish of fabric around their legs in good company. Switching from a gender-exclusive event to a costume party allowed them to invite all of their friends, and each one got to make up their own mind whether to attend.
I’m not here to try and stop you from having your BIPOC bowling afternoon (that would be rather fashy of me). You are entitled to invite, and not invite, whoever you please to your personal events, just like everyone else, and that’s how it should be. I’m also not here to condemn identity-based gatherings where the exclusion serves a specific and necessary purpose—a domestic violence support group that is only for women, for example. What troubles me is seeing more and more public or publicly funded social, educational and artistic events that are excluding people based on the texture of their hair, the width of their nose, the presence or absence of facial hair. What troubles me is the possibility that this will become the new normal. This is not a path we want to go down again, even if the sign at the trailhead has a fresh coat of paint.
Here’s what I propose instead. In regards to personal gatherings, I’d like to invite people to consider whether choosing guests based on their warmth, kindness, intelligence, sense of humour, and love of a good time (or whatever qualities matter most to them) may lead to richer events.
For larger gatherings, I suggest that we ditch identity-based segregation and choose behaviour-based standards instead. Let’s make it clear that we expect everyone to be respectful of one another, to practice proactive consent, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If someone disregards those expectations, it may be appropriate to remove them from the event, and depending on the severity, perhaps future ones, too. But this decision will be based on their behaviour, not randomly distributed bodily characteristics.
In order for this to work, we will need to treat one another as adults, remember that no one can read minds, and recognize that misunderstandings happen. If we become authoritarian about doling out punishments for common behavioural transgressions, we will have missed the mark. It’ll be crucial to recognize that conflict is not abuse, disagreement does not equal harm and we are responsible for managing our own emotions.
Although the longing for safety is real, safe spaces are a myth. Here’s why this gives me hope: once we realize that it is not possible to sort people into Good/Safe and Bad/Dangerous based on identity, we can start educating ourselves on emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and domestic abuse intervention, so that we no longer have to rely on shunning to address the situations that will inevitably arise.
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