This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
I’m a bisexual woman. Like many others, I spent many years feeling not gay enough to be part of the LGBTQ community. I only attended my first Pride last year—11 years after realizing my bi identity. I constantly feel guilty for what some people call “passing privilege”—appearing straight and avoiding blatant homophobia—which bi people know is not a privilege at all. I long for acceptance in a community of queer people, because I am queer people. But I carry around one giant roadblock to being embraced in LGBTQ spaces: My partner is a cisgender heterosexual white man.
While many LGBTQ people pay lip service to bisexual validity regardless of who we sleep with, date, or commit our lives to, I’ve found actual acceptance lacking in practice—if only by accident. Consider my recent experience with the Madison, Wisconsin-based DJ collective Queer Pressure, which sometimes hosts queer-exclusive events. I asked if my boyfriend would be able to come to one of their queer-only events and was told he could not if he didn’t identify as queer.
When I followed up for this article, the collective’s co-founder Sarah Akawa explained that the collective “is not a fixed entity.” It tailors events based on its community’s response, and has found “the queer-only events are super special to people.” Akawa (who uses gender-neutral pronouns they/them) said queer-only spaces are important because in them, “you can get a break from needing to be vigilant about the people around you, that you won’t get stupid questions like, ‘Who’s the guy in the relationship?’” They added that queer spaces allow us to “curate our own beautiful queer utopia, even if it’s just for a night.”
I love this sentiment. But queer spaces can be far from utopian when you’re not the right kind of queer. Akawa said Queer Pressure doesn’t often have to turn people away from queer-only events. Invites explicitly state when an event is for queer-identifying people only, and “people self-select and respect that.” They also reiterated if a queer person has a non-queer partner, “that partner may not attend, as it is a queer-only event.” As for our place in the LGBTQ community, Akawa told me, “Bi+ people are under the queer umbrella and they are welcome and embraced at Queer Pressure.”
Yes, I’m welcome—as long as I check my “straight” half at the door? A queer space that says I’m only welcome without my partner isn’t welcoming all of me. It’s no better than the rest of the world that blissfully ignores my queerness as long as I’ve got a man on my arm. I’m finally free to be gay—but at the expense of who I actually am. Embracing bisexuality means embracing a community that includes straight people, because we fall in love with them all the time—and they with us, which, you could argue, puts them in a queer relationship.
So what is the purveyor of a safe space to do? As if to prove a point about inclusivity, an LGBTQ-friendly Meetup group in Tampa, Florida, gave me an almost opposite reply to the same question I asked Queer Pressure. The organizer of Gay Friends of St. Pete and Tampa said simply, “EVERYONE is welcome and [inclusion is] the reason the group was created.”
This simple answer is the one I’d expect from groups whose purpose is to empower marginalized people. It’s the one that makes me feel welcome as I am without judging me by my seemingly straight relationship. Instead of focusing on keeping straight people out of your space, focus on welcoming queer people into it. That’s as simple as replacing “queer people only” with “LGBTQ-friendly” or “all people welcome,” or adding “and those who love them.” Or just hang a rainbow flag over your door—it sends the right message and adds a decorative flare.
New York City comedian Dash Kwiatkowski, who identifies as queer, has been told bisexuality doesn’t exist and that he’s “just greedy”—in a gay bar. He says, “especially now with the country the way it is, everyone marginalized needs to sort of band together … I think we have to figure out how to be on the same side right now.” I understand the desire to put up walls that make it clear: This is our space. But pay attention to who your walls actually keep out. Not everyone out there is the enemy—and some of them really need to be inside with you.
“Queer spaces are so important because, honestly, we’re not safe in the world,” says Kwiatkowski. “I live in a fairly progressive city, and I still catch looks and get yelled at for wearing makeup or clothes with rainbow flags. Having a place that I know is safe and friendly … is a huge relief and can help when I feel alone.”
If you need to create an exclusive space, I encourage you to be flexible about it, and be cautious of bi erasure and exclusion. (It’s subtle, so if you’re not bi, listen to us!) Understand that to be bisexual can mean to share life with a straight person. Put yourself in my shoes, and consider how you’d feel if your partner were excluded from any part of your life for any reason. Then treat my partner and me the way you’d want your relationship to be treated.
Editor’s Note: The Queer Pressure collective wishes to clarify that, in addition to hosting exclusively queer events, they throw many parties open to straight/cis allies as well. According to Sarah Akawa, of 32 events in the past year, 29 were open to all while three were queer-only. They have published a response to this piece here.