Finding a Queer Space.
I have found my queer space in cafès. I didn’t really expect to because there was no rainbow flag. I cannot quite remember the day or year that it actually happened. Unusual, because I can remember the first time I went to a gay bar or entered Bennets and the Polo Lounge in Glasgow.
I think I was looking for a liberated space that was beyond the gay pubs. One where you could meet and chat…yes, maybe that is it! All those Gaydar and Grindr dates in a city centre coffee shop to get to know each other before rarely meeting again. Although it did happen.
Now, I am attuned and fascinated by cafè life. I am romanticising them by calling them cafès; it is now coffee shops. Cafè resonates of romantic appeal I think. Particularly because I am reading At The Existentialist Cafè: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (2016) by Sarah Bakewell. For Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir cafè culture became essential for debate, writing and a place to huddle for warmth from cold-water flats with little heating, hence why Beauvoir wore a headscarf to keep her head warm during wartime occupation and austerity.
I don’t live in those times and a high percentage of coffee shops I go to are some construct of a chain; a few venues scattered around the city. But I chose my habitus wisely because they are a vessel for meeting friends and discussing our lives and loves. Our cultural capital might not way as heavily on us as Sartre or Beauvoir when we discuss RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I hear that they, as philosophers and writers, liked gossip too!
I am not biting the hand that feeds me! It is just sometimes the hand is scratching away at my sensitive skin.
Through coffee shops I have found an almost neutral queer space. This is particularly important because I am part of the LGBT+ community as an embodied person AND as an employee. I could never claim to be an activist because I get paid to work for the community. I agree with the performance artist Penny Arcade, that it is up to the community after decades of hard work to call you an activist. Not for self defining.
The coffee shop habitus that I have found, because I believe that patron’s use them for different purposes, is not one too far removed from Sartre and Beauvoir. The conversations I have overheard have ranged from lovers gossip, students angst, workers appraisals by managers, critiques of someone’s writing and the beavering away on glowing laptops in the hope of writing the next great Scottish novel.
That is why I have found a comfort in coffee shops because there is a quiet queerness in the tables for two and sofas for three. A gentle and comforting queer space, it neither drains nor inflicts itself upon you.
Because this is what I am experiencing at the moment. There is a frazzled feeling in the local, national and international LGBT+ community. In countries like Chechnya our bodies are policed and abused. Nationally and locally we are also policing and being policed about our language and terminology by our own brethren. There are many queer spaces to be and inhabit that, for once, you could be in a queer space nearly every night of the week.
These spaces, however good they are, can be intense experience. I imagine many have experienced this. There is a feeling that in a small community there is an awareness and experience of how people will react towards you as the community worker. As the individual I have freedom to be but as a community workerer I embody the community.
I can say this with some authority because I have found a few posts on Facebook, through friends of friends, who are taking a break from being active in the community. They and I may have found our habitus in the queer spaces, but many have not. Maybe because they are introverted it can be difficult to communicate when others are very extroverted. Other times, a person might not be in the right frame of mind to receive the community. It can be a test of resilience to find a way for that person to be, but sometimes people have to find that out for themselves. I am the community worker but I’m not a wizard! It is very gratifying and humbling when someone has grown and found their place, be it in a social space or through a community group.
Not everyone does and some need more assistance and channels to gain that access. Ultimately, in my opinion, they have to create that for themselves. Some, however, are so intent on being included that they exclude themselves. Like any community there is the insider/outsider complex. In some respects I tried hard to gain access as the insider to LGBT+ tribes but found that, unless I changed my being, I would always be the outsider. I’m settled with that now. Not everyone is and need someone to blame, so it can be turned on you.
Eventually I found my own tribes inside and outside the community; a mix of people and queer spaces. It took time but my habitus came to me, evolved through trial and through a purpose I had as a community worker to be in these spaces. I now try and open up spaces for others that help them. Sort of increasing others cultural capital to draw on Pierre Bourdieu. Essentially, socialisation helps our mental health but not everyone can reach that equilibrium. As a community worker we can push and be pushed to become so imbedded in the community that this habitus is the space where mental health is acted out. Because at some point we will be anointed with:
“I know it is your day off but…”
In that moment the queer space creates itself as the confessional box.
“You don’t have to be mad to work here but…!”
My coffee shop culture is my haven from some queer spaces and LGBT+ lives. Just like some queer spaces have been and are our haven from places that the LGBT+ community, even within itself, find problematic. I find that my authenticity feels at home here. I am not the LGBT+ assimilationist I thought I was but my ‘zaping’, as described by Lillian Faderman in The Gay Revolution (2016) is directed inside the LGBT+ community and outward.
There is an implicit queerness to my creation of my coffee shop space and it is one that I create for myself, as each table is created in the space of the temporary resident. What Sartre, Beauvoir and friends created through embodying existentialism my embodiment of queerness is not as grand as that. It is, however, a haven for peace for my own mental health. One thing we are reconciled on, it is the right place for gossip.
Bakewell, S. (2017) At the Existentialist Cafè: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails, London: Vintage.
Faderman, L. (2015) The Gay Revolution: The Story of a Struggle, New York: Simon & Schuster.