It’s a Saturday afternoon in Autumn. The large board-room of a rented out tech office space has had it’s one polished 20+ person table removed in favour of 6 different smaller tables. One or two people are seated in each space with large sheets of paper pens and other paraphernalia associated with ‘brainstorming’.
There’s a cluster of more the 30 people that have entered this room as one group with wildly different age ranges, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
The reason these 30+ people are there? Well, we’re all from the South West of the UK and we all identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
We’ve not met each other before, but we’re here for the same purpose: to share with each other and the organisations around the various tables the kinds of issues that are affecting us, as marginalised folks with the hope that what we offer these organisations in terms of information, opinion and experience can go some way towards making a safer more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ folks.
Of the topics covered, we talk about how mental health services can specifically support trans folks better, about how to get young and old LGBTQ+ people spending more time together and sharing life stories and new experiences.
Then we come to a large map of the centre of the city of Bristol and when this idea that when we’re outside our homes, we map all day, every day.
“Is there anywhere you feel you can be your full self and don’t have to hide? Is there anywhere you avoid?”
“I don’t feel safe walking around this particular area of the city holding my girlfriend’s hand” a young woman sat next to me says and points to a popular area of the city.
“But I do here and here and it’s funny because those are the ‘upper-class’ parts of town and that is not where I’m from”
She goes on to talk about the kinds of harassment she has experienced being in a visibly same-sex relationship in public and also the particular struggle of being a person of colour and how she has been perceived within her communities and families.
We then go on to further discuss the areas where we feel safe expressing simple affection (such as hand holding) with our partners. They are shockingly few outdoor public places. One person talks about having a family picnic in a public park disrupted by heterosexism and slurs.
A trans woman talks about where it’s safe to express their gender identity and areas where they still have to be careful and perform a certain expectation of gender. She fears the impact this may have on the places she is not ‘out’ in yet.
A young queer person, a member of a well-protected youth group, talks about where they’ve had homophobic slurs hurled at them, even when out walking solo.
Most of us talk about where we feel safest, other cities where we have no work, family or wider community to be wary of, certain areas where LGBTQ+ establishments cluster and thrive, events like Pride festivals or this event, hosted by charity Stonewall, we’re at right at that moment.
It’s then I realise something we’ve all be doing, I’ve been doing, all my life: Cataloging where it is safe to exist as our authentic selves.
- How to dress.
- How to act.
- What to say.
- Who we’re with.
And we don’t just map places, we map people as well.
- Has my workmate said anything generally homophobic?
- What was my friend’s expression when a trans person was on TV?
- Who in my family will still talk to me if they know my sexuality?
- How much can I tell this person about who I really am?
This cataloguing of what we can do safely and in which areas gets difficult the more your world expands. Post-school, post-college and university and then into the world of work, keeping a list of where you know you can be yourself is complex and exhausting and it’s no wonder that statistics like these exist:
- One in five LGBTQ+ people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last 12 months. Source: Stonewall UK .org
- Over one-third (35%) of LGBTQ+ employees lie about their personal lives at work Source: Human Rights Campaign .org
And quotes like these ring true for so many LGBTQ+ people struggling with swinging between being out and being closeted in different areas of their lives:
“Going back in the closet hugely affected my performance. I felt constrained, I didn’t laugh at work, I was less confident and the elaborate cover stories about my personal life introduced a barrier between me and my colleagues.”
It is deeply confusing, on top of mapping our physical environments, to map our omissions to friends, family, and colleagues. To catalogue our mannerisms and clothing, for the sake of existing in relative safety, at the expense of living as honestly and proudly as some would like.
It’s easy to talk about the problems and what we want to change, but having a good idea of the path to get there isn’t always clear and can rarely be carved by a single person. It needs a diversity community behind it so that the spectrum voices can be heard.
If you’re reading this as an LGBTQ+ person, if it’s safe for you to be part of the conversation, then I urge you to find a way and place to raise your voice and be heard.
The ways that the Ushahidi platform and other mapping platforms are able to help LGBTQ+ folks with this complex mapping of our lives and experiences is one of the many reasons that motivated me to join Ushahidi.
This is why projects, like being LGBT in Asia and Queering the Map, are very important to me personally, as I see myself reflected in my global community and through sharing there may be a point in the future where we don’t need to internally map constantly.
For those that consider themselves allies of LGBTQ+ folk, I would ask you to support those that want to speak out, read widely from LGBTQ+ authors, encourage safe environments free of harassment and foster acceptance in your communities and your workplaces.
I can’t wait to see more uses of the Ushahidi platform to raise LGBTQ+ voices and I’ll be right there by their side raising mine with them!
Addendum: This was written from my own perspective as a person identifying as Queer, Non-binary person who is white. I acknowledge within the LGBTQ+ community discrimination can stack and, for example, a person of colour who is also LGBTQ+ may have to deal with racism as well as LGBTQ+ erasure and discrimination within a specific cultural context.
It’s also important to note that my experience and examples come from a UK perspective where there are laws and protections in place but in some countries around the world, being LGBTQ+ is criminalised.