When Kate Ross first came out, she would go to lesbian bars and parties by herself. She didn't exactly get a warm welcome. At the lesbian dance party She Rex, which used to pop up at Chief Ike's Mambo Room, she says a fellow partygoer took one look at her high heels and long hair and called her a "confused straight girl."
"I shaved off all my hair and had a mohawk," she says. "No one questioned me after that."
Moments such as those led the 33-year-old, who works in small-business management, to help found the Coven, a safe space that has expanded to include a monthly dance party, a book club, theater trips and panel discussions over the past few years. Though the concept has gotten backlash on college campuses for potentially threatening free speech, safe spaces have become increasingly important at bars and nightclubs, activists say, particularly in the aftermath of last year's attack at the LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando.
But what constitutes a safe space isn't the same for everyone, and organizers such as Ross — who seek to welcome all, regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identification — are facing resistance, including from the very community they're trying to welcome.
Critics have accused Ross's parties of not being "really queer," raising the question of whether safe spaces must be exclusive to be truly "safe." For some, it's a requirement; for others, a space can't be safe if it isn't exclusive to the audience it represents.
For everyone, it seems to be a conversation in progress.
"There is a lot of alienation and silos in our community," Ross says.
Promoters like Ross see safe spaces as addressing the pitfalls that the nightlife world can present to marginalized groups, including discrimination by doormen and bouncers, disparaging remarks, and unwanted sexual advances. At her parties, held at Ten Tigers Parlour in Petworth, Ross tries to create a welcoming environment by introducing herself to people who look like they're there by themselves.
Kristy Chavez-Fernandez, who co-founded the Anthology of Booty and Maracuyeah collectives, the latter of which typically throws parties at the Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant Judy's on 14th Street NW, also hosts events that are "mixed" and never exclusive. "We learned a lot of lessons about the different needs, identities and stories of the people who were coming to the party" by having it be inclusive, she says.
For her, creating a safe space means continually being aware of the various dynamics — "gentrification, class, race, ethnicity, language, migration status" — at play.
That has led to a variety of policies: free water for dancers, de-escalating situations that could lead to police intervention and not charging the restaurant's regulars so they aren't displaced by a dance party. At Anthology of Booty events, hosted by an all-female DJ collective, organizers riffed on the Ten Commandments — "thou shalt honor thy neighbor's booty" — to let patrons know that sexual harassment would not be tolerated.
Chavez-Fernandez also encourages diversity among performers, since so many DJ lineups are occupied by men.
"You can create a space where there are stronger norms around what is okay and what is not okay," Chavez-Fernandez says. "Have fun with it, but remind people they will be asked to leave if they don't respect" the rules of the dance floor.
Chavez-Fernandez acknowledges there's still a need for exclusive spaces, and Lee Levingston Perine, founder of Makers Lab, a D.C.-based collective that hosts events for the queer community, agrees. Along with Ross, Perine was among the promoters who started to speak up about segregation in queer events last fall, eventually teaming up with several others for an inclusive New Year's Eve event at Old Engine 12 in Bloomindgale, attended by about 700 people.
"Most, if not all, of our events are open and inclusive to allies. However, we are also very comfortable and will unapologetically design spaces for specific audiences," says Perine, who hosts dance parties, film screenings, body-positive workout classes and a music festival. "There are times, especially in this current political climate, where certain identities need to be centered and affirmed."
Bars are also seeing a need to engage in these conversations. In May 2016, the D.C.-based grass-roots organization Collective Action for Safe Spaces officially launched its Safe Bar Collective initiative, a training program that executive director Jessica Raven says "helps bar staff recognize subtle signs of aggression and signals that someone might feel unsafe or uncomfortable." For example, if a bartender senses that a customer feels unsafe, they could make up a distraction — "You asked when the bathroom would be open and it's open now" — to help.
The initiative, which ran as a pilot program from 2013 to 2015, consists of a two-hour training and costs $500. If 80 percent of a bar's staff is trained, the bar receives a "Safe Bar" distinction and decal. So far, the organization has certified 38 local establishments, including Big Hunt, ChurchKey and Mackey's Public House.
"When people who host events at bars are committed to creating safe spaces where people are treated with dignity and respect," Raven says, "that makes it less likely for harassment and violence to occur."
U Street Music Hall is now a part of the Safe Bar Collective, and owner Will Eastman trains staffers to be open and accommodating. For him, creating a safe space is a constant effort that's involved in every decision he makes, from booking to staffing.
A few years ago, he says, a contracted security guard tried to throw out two shirtless men who were dancing together. "From that guard's background, he thought that a couple guys dancing with their shirts off was inappropriate," recalls Eastman, who fired the guard on the spot.
"It's an ongoing thing," he says. "You don't just open your doors and say, 'We're a safe space for the queer community' — you gotta keep thinking about it."