Op-ed: Considering LGBTQ2+ Safety Beyond Stickers

Photo taken by Cheryl Costello at a Peel Pride picnic in 2013, used as part of the author's personal collection.

This week, Peel Regional Police unveiled a “safe place” campaign wherein businesses can place police-branded stickers in windows to demonstrate that they’re safe for LGBTQ2+ members of the community to report or seek safety from hate-motivated crimes. 

I cannot help but ask myself what we should be seeking safety from: the people who do violence to LGBTQ2+ bodies and minds, or the systems that avail themselves of responsibility to meaningfully change the ways they reproduce violence or create entirely new forms of it.

Safety, but for whom?

When you’re part of the LGBTQ2+ community as I am, you learn quickly that safety and the ways we cling to it are based on achieving a largely fictional end. We can feel safe in our homes but not from those who might make laws that change our ability to share those homes with partners on paper. We can feel safe at work but not from gossip, harassment or inappropriate comments. We can feel safe walking down the street, but only so long as we don’t hold hands or show affection. We can feel safe, but only so long as the world understands where your gender fits on the binary. We can feel safe, but not if we’re Trans in nursing homes or want to be surrounded by memories of a life with our partners. We can feel safe, but not from politicians using sexual orientation and gender identity in curriculums as target practice to stretch their proverbial political muscle. We can feel safe but not from the psychological damage that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia do to our communities and who we might be if we did not have to spend a lifetime both making a life, and trying change a world determined to erase us from it. We can feel theoretically included, but I’m still waiting for the day that we all get to truly feel “safe” because the reality is that we do not live in a world where safety is a tangible reality.

Safe places and spaces are necessary for our community, though I wonder: what exactly are we hoping for safety from and who decided that this was the specific form of safety we needed?

LGBTQ2+ voices are telling us right now that police presence does not make them feel safe in the Region of Peel. This should be sufficient. Problematizing people who disagree for very real reasons create spaces that harm, erasing lived experiences and ongoing realities. This campaign is primarily for those privileged enough to never experience police violence and who do not wonder if a particular call for help will mean very real harm for them because their life operates in an easy-to-understand way when held up against societal norms. It also uses the financial influence of businesses who place these stickers in their window to reinforce that we don’t need to listen to those telling us that the police do not make them feel safe. This emphasizes barriers and prevents full participation.

Safe places, defined by the community.

Safe place campaigns need to consider the whole experience a person has in relationship to what safety means for them. Safety is not simply the absence of violence or the measured response to it, and when we view LGBTQ2+ safety in this manner, we reduce it to a series of actions that individuals take, rather than a series of decisions that organizations and institutions do, or do not make.

There is no part of me that feels the promotion of safe spaces in general, is a bad idea, though if it were truly for the community, it would mean removing the police “brand” from the stickers so that these safe places were free to take on self-determined meaning for LGBTQ2+ people. The logo limits conversations to the brand to which the logo belongs. It means that these safe places cannot evolve beyond police conceptions of safety, failing to create spaces that do not perpetuate or cause harm in the first place.

This campaign also limits Peel’s understanding of the LGBTQ2+ community to being victims of crime, or unpalatable enough to commit crimes against, neither of which imagines the potential of LGBTQ2+ people thriving in the places we call home. Once again, we can feel safe, but never enough to determine what safety means for ourselves so that it “sticks”.

From allies to accomplices.

Exceptionalizing ally-ship to the extent that businesses and spaces get to use our identities as a means of contributing to their perceived market value because they are allies, does not measure up to the safety I want to feel as an LGBTQ2+ person. Safe places are not the exception, because they are a constitutional right protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Human Rights Commission. It is quite literally against the law to give us anything less. Safe place campaigns with these stickers in business windows tell other businesses that giving us respect, dignity and treating us equitably need not be the norm because others are doing this so they bear no obligation to operate in an inclusive way.

When we applaud the ally-ship that extends to this bare minimum of not breaking the law, we limit the definition of ally-ship to hanging a sticker in a window. This means that when we desperately need our allies to come to non-violent protests or to write their MP’s and MPP’s, we become as the “angry” and less acceptable LGBTQ2+ community and become the targets of more violence, because they’ve already been told by an organization with tremendous power in the community that they were an ally by just being okay with us. We live in a time however, that requires so much more than stickers if you are to be our allies or coming to memorials when people take our lives.

What about when we need you to speak with your local representatives about what they’re doing to increase the number of gender inclusive washrooms throughout the city? Will you have conversations with people who still think it’s okay to say, “that’s gay”? Will you have conversations that challenge people who make transphobic jokes? Will you use someone’s pronouns correctly without making jokes behind their back? Will you ask people in your business to leave when they call us names or make us feel uncomfortable when we reach across restaurant tables for our partner’s hand? Will you financially support festivals and events that elevate LGBTQ2+ voices? Will you commit to paying LGBTQ2+ people for their knowledge and value the life experiences that shaped the articulation of how your organization could make change? Will you write to or speak with your MP’s and MPP’s when people re-write harmful legislation that erases us from the classrooms where many of us first learned how hate can harm us, that not all of us survived? Will you listen to LGBTQ2+ Black, Indigenous, People of Color who tell you what does not make them feel safe? Will you look around the room when you’re at work and in the community, asking yourself why there are so few LGBTQ2+ people in senior management and then commit to change it? Will you defend our right to live free of violence without requiring that you first understand and know our gender identity?

There have been so many wins for the LGBTQ2+ community and with experience as the former Chairperson of Peel Pride, LGBTQ2+ representative on the City of Brampton’s Inclusion and Equity Committee, a former Board member for Toronto’s INSPIRE Awards for the LGBTQ2+ community and current co-organizer for Harmonize, I’ve seen so much change in the city I’ve called home for 18 years. This safe place initiative is another change, but I’m not prepared to welcome it as a solution that will create more of the safety it aims to promote.