Bed-Stuy Businesses Offer LGBTQ Safe Spaces

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Tremaine Wright, who operates the Common Grounds coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, does not identify as a member of the LGBTQ community but considers herself an ally.  Being a safe space, says Wright, is about letting everyone know what the limits are in your establishment.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Tremaine Wright, who operates the Common Grounds coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, does not identify as a member of the LGBTQ community but considers herself an ally. Being a safe space, says Wright, is about letting everyone know what the limits are in your establishment.

Bedford-Stuyvesant has never lacked a queer presence, but the LGBTQ community’s feeling of safety there has often been fleeting—and complicated by the tense relationship between police and the LGBTQ community.

“What happens more in black community than in other places is that people can be physically harassed in broad daylight without anyone intervening, including the police, and when that happens over time that becomes normal,” says Chelsea Johnson-Long, a program coordinator for the Audre Lorde Project, a local nonprofit community-organizing center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender nonconforming people of color. “When you experience a higher level of policing and violence on a daily basis, very often it harassment goes unchecked or unnoticed.”

An area once known for its high crime rates—now much safer, in no small part, because of the police—Bedford-Stuyvesant has become one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city, and amid its rapid gentrification the queer community has thrived. But because of its distrust of the NYPD, the LGBTQ community there has taken an alternative approach to ensuring their own safety.

One Saturday in August , Bed-Stuy’s LGBTQ community gathered at Herbert Von King Park for the third annual Bed-Stuy Pride, which aimed in part to publicize Audre Lorde’s Safe OUTside the System Collective and its Safe Neighborhood Campaign.

Originally founded as The Working Group on Police and State Violence in 1997 in response to police harassment and Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” policies, the SOS Collective has advocated for people like Jalea Lamot, a trans woman of color who was attacked and arrested by housing police in her home in 1998. Lamot later filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and was awarded $360,000.

The Safe Neighborhood Campaign recruits local businesses to become Safe Spaces, where those who feel their safety is being threatened because of their gender identity or sexual orientation can seek refuge without relying on law enforcement.

A call to businesses

There are no firm indicators on how much harassment and violence against LGBTQ people occurs in Bed-Stuy, and whether that neighborhood sees more or less hostility to gays. But often, Johnson-Long says, hostility towards gentrification is so great that regardless of whether you have lived in Bed-Stuy your entire life, if you are perceived as queer than you are also perceived as part of the problem.

When approaching businesses to become Safe Spaces, ALP (named to honor a pioneering black lesbian writer) favors establishments that are well-respected and rooted in the diverse culture of Bed-Stuy.

“We mostly try to target businesses that have been in the area for a while. Businesses that are people-of-color owned. And that generally have pull in the neighborhood. Some places where people hang out or share stories. Places that will influence the culture of the neighborhood,” Johnson-Long says.

But because of the rapid speed of gentrification, finding and maintaining local businesses to become Safe Spaces has become no easy feat.

“Over the past year and a half we’ve lost about nine Safe Spaces. They’ve either closed or moved because of the gentrification in the neighborhood,” says Johnson-Long. “One thing we will be looking into over the next three months is how do we shift our strategy in order to meet the changes that are happening.”

Common Grounds, a Tompkins Avenue coffee shop, has been a Safe Space for over six years. “I think defining ourselves as such makes it a comfortable environment for everybody,” says Tremaine Wright, the owner. “So that people don’t feel like they can pick on any particular group or that they can ostracize anyone.”

After a business is approached and agrees to be part of the campaign, they go through training and eventually are given a sticker to put in their window to signal to patrons that they are a queer-friendly and safe environment. Every space is very different so every training is unique, Johnson-Long says. But the program usually includes a discussion of what homophobia and transphobia look like in the neighborhood and a discussion of any incidents that might have happened nearby, along with safety planning and discussions about what that space can do to intervene or prevent bias events.

The training helps business owners and workers develop tools to deescalate situations, says Wright, who does not identify as a member of the LGBTQ community but considers herself an ally. She says that she wasn’t always aware of the violence that took place in the neighborhood. “I had to learn that it existed in our neighborhood and I think a lot of other people are blind to it as well,” she said. “So, when you begin the conversation, people become sensitive to the fact that it exists, and then they are proactive to make sure that it is not going to continuously occur.”

Being a safe space, says Wright, is about letting everyone know what the limits are in your establishment.

Lloyd Porter, owner of Bread Love in Bed-Stuy, a Safe Space establishment for the past four years, was also at Bed-Stuy Pride and says that it is his job as a merchant to make people feel safe. “The vibe is clearly ‘just be,'” he says of his establishment, which, he boasts, wants to offer customers two things you can’t live without: bread and love.

Broader reach

Not all businesses represented at the Pride event were Safe Spaces, but their workers or owners came to support the community and get the word out that their establishments are also LGBTQ friendly.

Funda Buthelezi, an employee at Madiba, a South African restaurant in Fort Greene, approached her boss about coming to the event. “I wanted to come here to show support on my part,” she said. “I am South African. I am LGBT.” Buthelezi, who is seeking asylum in the U.S., fears that if she returns to South Africa she could become a target of homophobia, specifically of corrective rape, a hate crime that is intended to turn gay individuals straight. Buthelezi says that she wants to call attention to the fact that there are queer people in other countries still fighting for their lives.

Michele Boulais, a Bed-Stuy resident who heard about the event from a friend, says that she’s not sure if LGBTQ people feel comfortable in the area yet but that events like this show that there is definitely a presence in Bed-Stuy. “Events like this definitely imply that change is happening,” says Boulais. “It’s a positive reaffirmation that you have a community.”

It might even offer benefits outside the LGBTQ community. A few years ago, Wright says, a middle-school student was being harassed by her classmates and came into Common Grounds seeking help. Staff called her parents. The girl did not identify as a member of the queer community, but somehow knew that Common Grounds would be a safe space for her. Says Wright: “I think it has the ability to create community beyond a specific group.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story reported incorrectly that Ms. Buthelezi was a victim of corrective rape..