In 2018, on the day before Toronto’s Pride Parade, the Star publishes a story asking seven people in the LGBTQ community about their cherished safe spaces in the city. Three out of seven people name party spaces.
On Halloween weekend, my friend and his housemates bring me to Crews & Tangos. It’s my first time here, and I’m the only sober one in a group I don’t know very well. Almost immediately, I’m overwhelmed: the costumes, the club beats rattling my ribs, the perfume-alcohol-sweat cocktail in the air.
Within the span of several hours, I field at least two sets of grabby, unwanted hands on my hips, and another around my shoulders. After that, I spend the rest of the night on watch.
Still scanning. Always scanning.
A trio of half-empty glasses. A stranger staring intently at me. The exit sign.
Aches in my feet. Sticky floor. The heat of a stranger’s eyes on my neck.
Three things I can see. Three things I can feel. This is a grounding technique my therapist has taught me. I am safe here. Remind myself. My body is safe here.
what is this queer community that everyone keeps talking about? i see you there teetering on the edges of dancefloor and consciousness
— Kai Cheng Thom, from A Place Called No Homeland
One of the first poems I wrote, back in 2016, was about queer dance parties, though at the time, I had only been to one. I called it “flying lessons,” after my heart on that dancefloor: one bird attuned to a system of many, maintaining a safe and watchful distance. Would any of these people want me—as a friend, as a date, there at all?
About half a year before that party and that poem, I kissed a woman for the first time. She was a book-loving, beer-drinking neurosurgeon-in-training I convinced myself I could fall in love with by the time we said good night. I’ve smoothed the edges from this memory by the sheer number of times I’ve turned it over in my palms. But, as it was happening, all I could think about was who was watching us. Whether they wished us harm. Whether we were the kind of people they didn’t think should have a right to exist.
I don’t think I was wrong. I could have loved her. It wasn’t safe for that desire to exist in public, or I wasn’t ready. We never saw each other again.
I often want to hide the concision of my personal queer history, the newness of my roots. I shave my head to earn my place in this community. I practice wearing a binder in pursuit of belonging.
It’s been three years since I came out to a friend for the first time, over snail mail. Two and a half since I kissed the neurosurgeon. One year since I slept with a cis man. One year since I’ve been able to wear my “sad gay” hat without being felled by imposter syndrome. One year since I was touched by someone who loved me.
this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay and mean we.
— Danez Smith, “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar”
What makes some risks worth taking, even if you know that your safety is not guaranteed? When I kissed the neurosurgeon, I was afraid. When I walked into my first queer party, I was afraid. What makes me feel safe enough to be brave?
This year, I had very few ambitions for Pride Weekend. In fact, I took a decidedly dismissive stance against “corporate, depoliticized Pride,” until the week landed in my lap and suddenly the urge to be part of a march, a get-together, a party became an imperative. By Saturday, when I began texting friends (many of whom are also sick or disabled), most either had plans already, or not enough spoons to make any. And somehow, in that moment (and against all my rationalization), imagining a flock of queers I didn’t know who were partying without me on the other side of the city, it felt like I had no community at all.
After a week whose pockets have been stuffed to overflowing with work projects, interpersonal tensions, seasonal depression, writing deadlines, secondhand grief, and panic attacks, I meet a few friends at Glad Day for Lavender, one of the queer dance parties I actually regularly make it out to.
Going out can feel like an exercise in joy or in loneliness, depending on the night. Tonight, the people I want to dance with aren’t here, and the people who are here don’t want to dance with me. And yet the music is perfect. And yet my friends are miracle. And yet there are too many cute queer couples to count, publicly parading the kind of cute queer love it still shakes my heart to see. Every time I lock eyes with a stranger, they are the first one to look away.
June 2017: I am at Glad Day for a reading featuring racialized queer and trans writers. Exactly one year has passed since Pulse, and the sticky grief of it clings to every word that gets traded between us. We know the identities that have brought us together are the same ones that allow us to inhabit this collective shadow, to live inside of a smoky, formless fear that follows us down the street.
We aren’t targets until we are. This place is ours until it’s not. Which of our sanctuaries is next?
Get home safe, we exhort each other as we leave parties, readings, dinners. Be safe, be safe—an incantation we repeat to ourselves until we get a good night text and allow ourselves to trust that the city has spit our people out whole, again, for now.
Asking for a friend:
What is the difference between acting out of love and acting out of fear?
What is love except a constant, vigilant striving in the direction of someone, or something, you are afraid of losing?
A non-exhaustive list of white men I am or have been afraid of: Bruce MacArthur. Jordan Peterson. My rapist. The kid in first-year gender studies who just wants to “play devil’s advocate” with other people’s humanity. The guy at the club. My ex. Brett Kavanaugh. Doug Ford.
In his poem “The Witching Hour,” Derrick Austin writes about what queer dance parties make possible:
Imagine the femme grinding against me,
granting me passage
into a pleasure at once theirs and only mine and ours.
Who we are to each other on the dancefloor shifts,
someone one hour, nothing another.
This is how the poem ends:
I will always be
my mother’s child. Even now she keeps me in attention
in the great night of her mind:
worry and hope and the skulking moon over hazy water.
Tomorrow she will text to make sure I’m alive.
Sometimes my therapist repeats statements she wants me to believe, and I tell her how it feels to hear them. She says, I say. She says: I am worthy of care. I say: from who? She says: I have value. I say: prove it.
She says: I deserve to feel safe.
I say: I’m queer, and I’m crazy. I mean: I’m used to negotiating the amount of space my body and mind take up in public. I mean: I would probably be dead if I had less race and class privilege. I mean: going non-verbal; sprinting down Dupont in bare feet, no pants, and a t-shirt in the middle of winter; ripping staples from telephone poles with my teeth; forgetting who I am, where I am, why I am.
It never occurs to me that I don’t feel safe until I am asked to believe that I do.
I don’t want to be “someone one hour, nothing another.” I want someone to bring me ginger tea when I have a cold. I want a forehead to kiss. I want someone to know my triggers and my trauma responses. I want someone to breathe with me when I’m having a panic attack. I want someone to take me on rainy autumnal walks. I want someone to wonder if I’m okay when I don’t text back for two days.
I’m afraid of being too much, of being someone most people don’t know how to love. I’m scared of losing support systems, scared that this amorphous thing called queer community won’t ever be there for me. I’m scared not having a partner means that I might go out of my mind and have no one around to call me back in. I’m terrified that my ugliest, most shameful parts show themselves only when I trust someone enough that they could really hurt me by leaving.
Mia Mingus, a queer Korean disability justice writer and organizer, calls us to consider what categories we push ourselves into to keep ourselves safe.
As disabled and gender non-conforming people, how deeply have we learned that our safety depends on our desirability? What shape does our internalized shame take? What are we afraid will happen if we are not desirable enough?
Mingus gives us something else to aspire to: magnificence over beauty. Intimacy over pretense. The ability to be with ugliness, over the normalization of violence and pain.
Some of my favourite queer dance parties have happened in sweatpants and pyjama shirts, in my friend’s living room, in mine, in bed, in pain, in tears.
I don’t feel closer to joy while dancing than I do while writing poetry alongside another sick queer artist friend, or while lying in bed simultaneously spooning two queers and two dogs, or staying in to drink chamomile tea and watch a gay movie.
What would it be like to define queerness not by our hungers, but by what fills us has filled us will fill us in a future where love and fear no longer mean the same thing?
I ask my friends what queer spaces in Toronto they associate with joy and safety.
They say: Glad Day. My apartment. My church group. Buddies. Queer and trans friends’ homes. My best friend’s living room. Small communities of daily disruption. Tenderness as disruption. Mundane joy as disruption. Disruption as safety.
I say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.