Why community spaces matter

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Giovanni’s Room has been a community space for over 40 years.

There was a recent opinion article in The Guardian titled “With queer spaces closed due to Covid, I feel more disconnected than ever from who I am.” The author writes that many queer people rely on connection and shared moments with other queer people to remind themselves of who they are, and he laments that those shared moments have been dramatically reduced or cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic. He states, early on in the piece, “lockdown began, and in the months following, I forgot how to be queer.”

Everyone has been forced to do some soul-searching during this unprecedented time. Whether it’s due to the pandemic, systemic racism, an election that seems to have been going on forever, or the continual political threats to LGBTQ rights, it’s a safe bet that none of us are the same as we were on December 31, 2019.

Rest assured, though, that the LGBTQ community will weather this moment and emerge even stronger than before. We’re a creative community, we’re a smart community, and we’ve had years and years of practice in remaking ourselves. We know what it’s like to change, to adapt to tough circumstances, and to build on momentum. We are who we are no matter what.

But it’s also worth remembering that for many in our community, safe spaces are vitally important. Whether it’s a community center, a bookstore like Giovanni’s Room, or a bar or restaurant, some LGBTQ people can only feel truly free in spaces like those. Perhaps it’s a young person who still lives with their unaccepting parents. Perhaps it’s an older person who lives in an unaccepting living community. Or perhaps it’s a person of any age who, for whatever the reason, doesn’t feel completely comfortable being queer in the place they live.

Safe spaces can be difficult to recreate virtually, not only because of the technological requirements but because it’s simply difficult to put onto a flat screen the physical and emotional safety that those spaces bring. More than that, we live by more than just our sense of sight. When we go to safe spaces, we smell familiar smells, we hear familiar sounds, we sit in familiar chairs, and that contributes to our sense of well being. Those are impossible to replicate if one is not there in the physical space. Even the creak of a trusty old floorboard can bring comfort.

So it is completely understandable that people can feel detached from who they are when such spaces are closed. Until those spaces can safely reopen, we’ll have to find ways to help ourselves and help those close to us continue to reaffirm who we are.

We have plenty of things that draw us together during this time. We are all living during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We’re all living through perhaps the most divisive time ever in this country. But perhaps most importantly, we all know what it’s like to have to fight to exist, and we all know the value, the hard-won freedom, of being who we are. And that bond is stronger than almost anything.