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It’s Time to Make All Queer Spaces Accessible

“Another reason I struggled to identify as gay was the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras was the first introduction to my people,” explained Hannah Gadsby in her 2020 Netflix special Douglas, “I used to sit there and watch it and go where do the quiet gays go?” 

In her comedy special, Gadsby revealed that she was diagnosed with autism in her thirties, the delay partially because she did not match the prototype of autism, and the prototypical LGBTQ+ individual she saw on her TV screen.

Incorporating accessibility into queer community safe spaces is about acknowledging the diversity within our own community and welcoming people of all ability levels into spaces we create for expression, acceptance, and identity. 

I first came out to my family in December 2021, but long before that, I had visited my first queer safe space. It wasn’t a gay bar, even though there was one—the Mark III Tap Room—that predated Stonewall and was the oldest gay bar in Indiana right in my college town. 

Instead, it was a sober safe space, The Queer Chocolatier, run by Morgan Roddy and her wife right off Ball State University’s campus in Muncie, Indiana, created with the intention of serving as a “marketplace for chocolates and artwork for decorating homes of queer and trans*folx.”

Safe spaces are few and far between in Indiana, but Roddy was interested in creating something different: a sober safe space, one that welcomed in young queer people who can’t visit a bar and those seeking spaces away from alcohol and high sensory input. 

At the time, I thought all queer spaces were like this, and despite waiting to come out while living in Indiana for safety reasons, I felt this space could be mine, was mine. 

As someone with chronic illness, where high-energy environments and late-night bar crawls are nearly impossible with fatigue, sensory overload, and nausea, I felt comfortable in a space with low noise, soft lights, and no alcohol—I can’t drink because of my chronic gastritis. 

Moving to Washington, D.C. this past year for graduate school, I was finally living in a place where I felt safe to come out to friends and family. The spaces I encountered were wonderful but all high energy and high sensory input, and alcohol-oriented, making it difficult to feel I had a place in these spaces, to make friends and to feel a part of my community, part of “my people,” similar to Gadsby. 

This issue relates to the accessibility of queer safe spaces and events. To date, I have never been to a drag show with ASL interpretation, captioning, or audio description. 

This past summer, I served as the Acting Accessibility Coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where I oversaw mobility device rentals, space accessibility, and access providers for all these services, including on our livestreaming platforms. The Festival’s goal was to go above and beyond ADA compliance and consider access needs from the development stages onward. 

For the LGBTQ+ community, cultivating accessibility can involve small steps. Seats and signage are critical. Accessible seats with handrails and backs, along with clearly, marked accessible gender-neutral bathrooms help those like me who need breaks and assured certainty about where the restrooms are located. 

Allergen listings on food and drink menus help people know what they are consuming and take the pressure off guessing what that mojito and brunch special has in it.

Having braille and large print menus readily available and adding alt text to queer space social media account posts and the space’s website conveys intention to welcome in the queer disabled community.

Having accessible entrances readily marked showcase their importance to the queer space, that it is actively thinking of and welcoming in the disability community. 

In terms of bigger changes, this may mean developing new queer spaces that specifically cater for individuals with sensory sensitivities, like The Queer Chocolatier.

As part of my work, the Folklife Festival collaborated with Access Smithsonian to host two Morning on the Mall events, free, sensory-friendly programming for families with children, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities who are neurodiverse, autistic, or have other sensory processing disorders or cognitive disabilities. 

Armed with a sensory guide I created, people of all sensory sensitivities were able to curate their experiences and participate as informed visitors at the Festival. 

Gadsby shows that there are queer people who are seeking out sensory-sensitive events and spaces so that they feel a part of the community. The same is true for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking out sober safe spaces, still searching for community without contact with substance. 

Given its prevalence, alcohol-free safe spaces are critical to the LGBTQ+ community, and growing numbers of sober safe spaces speak to their importance for those in recovery from addiction and alcohol abuse and younger members of the LGBTQ+ community, who may struggle to find support outside of gay and lesbian bars. 

Similarly, sober safe spaces, like The Queer Chocolatier, also have the possibility of catering also to individuals with different levels of sensory sensitivity, who want the community of places like coffee shops and cafés. 

This past July, my favorite queer women’s bar in D.C.—A League of Her Own (ALOHO)—was called out for inaccessibility in a viral Twitter thread. Located in a basement, sharing a building with the gay bar Pitchers, a patron using a power wheelchair and her group were prohibited from accessing the dance floor, located on the third floor and only accessible via stairs, by a security guard. After initially being stopped using the main street entrance, the group tried to carry Shruti Rajkumar’s wheelchair up the stairs before they were stopped by a security guard. 

ALOHO has since responded apologetically and developed action items, including posting accessibility information on their social media platforms and website, rethinking accessibility in and of their space, and listening to community feedback—all critical steps. 

However the incident speaks to persistent inaccessibility of queer spaces and events. I’ve visited Pitcher’s often, and the lack of ramps and widely available elevators signals a lack of consideration, a lack of uplifting the voices of members of both the queer and disability communities. 

Promoting accessibility is so important to be considered in all parts of your space, it may also mean shifting how we approach existing safe spaces. This may mean bars creating sensory guides to inform visitors about high sight, smell, and sound-oriented spaces, so that can opt in or out of certain experiences. 

It may also mean offering ASL interpretation or audio description at queer events, like drag shows and brunches, or captioning and interpretation at live-streamed events, so more people can enjoy them. It means addressing existing inequities in our safe spaces to make others feel welcome. 

It’s about extending an intentional invitation to all people who are part of LGBTQ+ community. 

As someone eager to find shared experience, having a queer safe space consider my access needs in their development, widely share these resources on their platforms, and incorporate the voices of other disabled queer individuals into this process makes me feel understood and accepted—critical to what makes queer safe spaces important in the first place.  

Making your LGBTQ+ space accessible shows that all queer people are safe in your space, something we all deserve. 

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