Sunday, March 6, 2016

Safety vs Visibility

This blog post was written to fulfill an assignment for the course Creativity & Community.

In working on the Kosciusko County LGBT History Project for class, the question has come up how public to make the public aspect of it.  The class is all about creating and occupying public spaces, so leaving that out isn't really an option.  One of the things about public spaces is the leveling effect it can have.  Conceivably, anyone can walk into a local bar or library and be on the same level as everyone else - nobody gets extra privileges based on their rank or class.  However, as many queer and trans folks know, the cost one often times must pay to access this leveling is our authenticity - everyone gets "leveled" as straight.  Actual straight people give nothing, but queer people pack away much of ourselves into the closet.

Straight is the presumed default (nobody needs to "come out" as straight) so a plain space is not level by default; gay-only spaces are clearly not level either, as a mix is required for leveling.  Visibly affirming diversity seems to be a good solution, in that it gives space for people to know that their identity, whatever it is, is expected to be present.  Straight people may not be comfortable, because it feels like their identity is not being celebrated to the same degree that minority identities are.  Queer people may not be comfortable, because some are very cautious and untrusting of mixed spaces.  Oddly enough, an evenly-distributed level of discomfort might be the truest leveling, as long as prejudice still exists within society.

As I considered where I should hold the physical meeting for this project, I pictured two possible options: an open outdoor venue, or a quiet indoor space.  Anything else would begin to incur monetary fees I am unwilling to cover.  I was leaning toward the more visible option - I think it would be empowering to gather in a supportive collective, sort of a way to "take back" what ought to be our shared public place to begin with.  I have a lot of experience with that from my time spent in St Louis, but I do know that Warsaw residents tend to be a lot quieter, so I decided to check in with local friends before making a final decision.

Most people felt like a quieter space would work better toward drawing people in and allowing them to show a more vulnerable part of themselves.  It was also pointed out that the Diversity Rally is going to take place 2 months later.  (Initially I had hoped to incorporate my project into the Rally itself, but unfortunately it takes place after our semester ends.  I will probably present a reflection on this project at the Rally instead.)  St Louis can have a public action every other weekend, but Warsaw tends to get event-saturated rather quickly - many would view it as superfluous, and one event could draw attendance away from the other.

Ultimately I had to ask myself the question: visible to whom?  It's easy to experience mission drift during the excitement of what's possible.  Over the years of both organizing and providing support to groups and communities, I have learned to watch that tendency within myself and to temper it by reminding myself of my driving principle: service to community and nurturing personal growth within community spaces.  As a member myself, I don't feel bad or misguided when my desires are not the majority with other members, since my needs matter just as much.  But I do try to check in regularly to make sure I'm spending my energy in ways that edify as many of us as possible.

I think a quiet meeting in a publicly-accessible cafe will have the potential to foster dialog.  I say "have the potential", because in my experience, people here still seem to have a skewed idea of dialog that involves talking at the other side, rather than conversing with.  But I think Warsaw needs to have a coming of age.  Trans and queer people have been here the whole time, but the cloak of silence is only recently being lifted.  The population needs to come to terms with our past to accept our present situation and take honest steps forward.

I don't think my family wants a world in which I don't exist, but I don't think they live in a town where their relationship with me and their relationship with conservative Christian culture can yet coexist.  Somehow we have to make that possible.  The reality is people like me will be the ones who have to do the majority of the labor to build that future, and straight people will probably take credit for the results (much like white people take credit for racial progress), but the alternative is far worse, so I choose to side with hope.

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