The "safe space" is a complicated and rarely achieved idea. For those of us who want it, and have felt it, it’s incredibly fragile, and very temporary. And when it's finally achieved, a real safe space creates both a personal and collective kind of euphoria that's hard to describe to anyone who's always felt safe, wherever they are out in public.
Why, as marginalized communities, do we need these spaces? Because walking in a predominantly cisgender white hetero patriarchal world doesn’t often feel very safe at all: we often feel at constant risk of violence based on a preconceived notion of who we are, and how we live. This violence is a very real, omnipresent threat to our safety, and therefore also our mental and physical health. A recent YouGov poll found that one in five LGBT people in Britain have experienced a hate crime because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last 12 months. For trans people, that figure is double.
So we build clubs, cafes, bars and homes away from home. We build spaces to recharge. We build spaces, as marginalized communities, to feel like we are celebrated, heard, seen, represented. These spaces make us feel valid, powerful, sexual, loved. After the horrific Orlando shootings in June 2016, in which 49 Latinx LGBTQIA+ people were shot and killed at Pulse nightclub, the need for these safe spaces was once again proven; and the global outcry from the LGBTQIA+ community showed just how much it hurts when these sanctuaries are attacked.
But how do you create a space that is safe? How do you make an event that is truly inclusive, which prioritizes those marginalized even within marginalized communities? As the government’s consultation on reforming the UK's Gender Recognition Act closes on Friday, October 19, we spoke to the people behind five of London’s most inclusive events to ask how they ensure what they do remains safe, and truly—not just in a tokenistic sense—inclusive. Because, no matter the outcome, it’s likely we’re going to carry on desperately needing exactly what these people provide.
THE COCOA BUTTER CLUB
The Cocoa Butter Club is a cabaret collective who run cabaret nights that centre Queer Bodies of Color. They began because performers of color needed a space to reclaim and explore their narrative about what bodies of color in the arts are capable of.
“In order to keep nights safe, our manifesto is declared at the beginning of each performance night, making our objectives clear to all attendees. We make it clear who the organizers are so if there is a problem people know who to approach and who the venue staff are. We always make sure we understand the venues we work with and their ethos to make sure they understand the importance of QTIPOC safety at an event like The Cocoa Butter Club. The Cocoa Butter Club hand pick each performer for the night which means we know the performers have the same values as us in terms of safety, respect and agency. We make it very clear that the space is an inclusive space for all audiences from all walks of life as long as they are there to support.
The main rule of The Cocoa Butter Club is to respect the body on the stage. We ask for complete attention to the POC who is sharing their work with the audience. We have a 0 tolerance rule, meaning as soon as someone is made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by a situation it is dealt with immediately. To keep the space safe and inclusive, it is also really important to have a great team who all understand the importance and relevance of the night from a great security team to bar staff.
An inclusive space is one in which everyone is invited regardless of class, gender, race, sexuality, ability and mobility. Somewhere where people’s safety and comfort is a true concern of organiszrs/venues and promoters. Somewhere where diversity of all kinds is a core moral for the staff, entertainment, organizers, and venues, this includes working with venues who are owned by collectives and non-white bodies to make sure wealth is spread evenly, promotion teams who are well connected in communities that are under represented, communities that are generally shunned from spaces. Somewhere where people are asked to question their own prejudices and see if they are willing to work together to tackle them.”
Tia Simon-Campbell co-founder of the club night and collective BBZ, alongside creative consultant Naeem Davis, wanted to create a space to foster community, to create a place for queer black and brown bodies, and to highlight the talents of QTIPOC.
“BBZ started because my partner and I had just broken up and had a terrible terrible year mental health wise, needed an outlet, and an excuse for us to stay in touch. So we created this beautiful thing, and it came from a selfish place, but we both really needed community and didn’t know what that looked like.
Now, it’s become somewhat of a cultural consultancy: encouraging our communities to seek out other types of interactions. I feel like queer people have been pushed into nightlife as means of safety and cover as well as ritual, but we want to branch out and explore atopic cultures across the spectrum. which is how we’ve moved into things like curating exhibition spaces and festivals.
With all of the events we run, the central focus is the people that it’s for. So I suppose that’s the starting place: does this enrich queer black and brown bodies and is this going to be something that keeps them prioritized? And then we work outwards. So we’ll make sure that, for example if we’re putting on a club night, all of the DJs and artists will be from that community. If we’re creating an installation, again, the same thing applies. We think about the community before we think about profit or the wider audience.”
THE SHAYSHAY SHOW
ShayShay is one of East London’s premier drag performers. Naturally their talent and politics have taken them from the stage to organizing their own series of nights centered around a non-competitive place for performers to try new work or get in front of an audience for the first time. ShayShay actively prioritizes those marginalized within the already marginalized LGBTQIA+ community, often presenting full line-ups of non-binary, female or POC performers to celebrate the strengths and talents of those who don’t get the platform as much as they should.
“I work hard to foster an environment at the ShayShay Show where both the audience and the performers feel safe and supported. The line between performer and audience is very blurred, and there is often a lot of crossover. When performers are performing, the audience is paying full attention. No chatting allowed during performances. I lay out how brave it is to even step out onto a stage. At another night I run, CLASH BASH at Dalston Superstore, we have a rule: DO NOT TOUCH WITHOUT CONSENT. This is a big one that has to often be explained to attendees. Often people will touch the hosts legs, butts, breasts without permission. We very firmly explain to them that it’s not okay. If they apologize, we move on. If they try to defend their right to touch someone else without permission they are asked to leave (luckily this has only happened once).
In terms of the show, it should be a safe haven from the crazy world, where everyone feels safe and surrounded by their community. But I’m also sure to engage with the troubles of our world, and attempt to shed some knowledge. Folks should leave feeling empowered, with tools to call out injustice and help dismantle systems of oppression that all minorities face. I strive to create collective positive energy that, even after the show is over, resonates through those who attended.”
Kat Hudson and Phoebe Patey-Ferguson founded Vogue Fabric’s first ever in house night, in a rebrand of the iconic London space which expressly made it for femme-identifying folk on a queer scene which is predominantly male and masc dominated. Their aim was to bring intersectional radical feminism to the dance-floor, and to have some fucking fun!
Kat: “We have a zero tolerance policy on sexism, femmephobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, colourism, ableism, body-shaming, slut-shaming, homophobia, xenophobia, fatphobia, or harassment of any kind. But this goes without saying and we promote positive language within the space. If anyone is seen or reported to be inciting or enabling any of this kind of behaviour they are immediately removed from the premises and given clear instruction as to the reason for their removal.”
Phoebe: “Our ‘Femmifesto’ helps us create a night that protects and celebrates those who are usually marginalised in society. Most club spaces are safe spaces for creeps, so we want to reverse that! We’re always having conversations about cultural appropriation, consent, body shaming and correct pronouns with people who come into the space who might not be as ‘aware’ as we’d like them to be. This helps everyone have a good time, free from harassment or victimization.”
Kat: “One of the key things in maintaining safety and inclusion is to listen. No matter your own story or how much you think you know, it is always important to listen to the community and take on board what they have to say.”
FEMMI-ERECT / GENDER FVCKER
Katy Jalili saw a distinct lack of nights which centre trans and POC DJs and performers. As a result, they created Femmi-Errect — a party to represent the whole femme spectrum. Their other night — Gender Fvcker, which they co-founded with Kat Hudson — is a non-binary drag competition removing drag from the world of glossy female impersonation to a messy space celebrating exploration and failure, for performers of all genders and expressions.
“The key to making these nights work is to ask your community what they want, don’t make the same mistakes everyone else is making. For example, the most important thing for me is making sure you are hiring people fairly, don’t tokenize people, hire people of color because of their talent not their skin color, but make sure every time you do an event there’s a balance representation of people of color. Obviously don’t feel like I need to tell everyone about the general misogyny, transphobia, and ableism issues, do I?
As for door policy it really varies for each night. For Femmi-Errect it can be a bit more challenging since it’s a club night, but we have a safe space policy that we advertise online and provide on the night as well. We have consent fairies, who are volunteers who dress up in fairy lights and are generally there for people to approach if there are any issues. I learned about this system from a similar thing PxssyPalace do. It’s also important to trust your venue, and their staff and to be reassured that they will support you throughout the night.
And it’s all worth it when I see girls kissing! I love seeing people coupling up and making out, especially women and femmes. When it’s the end of the night and you see some girls are so busy kissing they don’t even know the night is over, that’s when I know it’s all worth it.”