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Preserving our tapestry: Navigating European elections, empowering queer women and the imperative of safe spaces

EU elections will take place in June 9

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The German Reichstag in Berlin in 2022. EU elections will take place on June 9, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

As the European Union anticipates the upcoming elections in June, a disconcerting wave of transphobic rhetoric has swept across the continent, notably in 21 EU member states, according to a recent report by ILGA-Europe. The 13th Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTQ People in Europe and Central Asia stresses the alarming rise in hate speech targeting the LGBTQ and intersex community. This growth in negativity — which particularly is directed at transgender people — raises profound concerns about the state of inclusivity, human rights and democracy within the EU. 

The alarming surge of transphobia in European politics

According to the report, there is a trend of hate speech coming  from politicians across 32 European countries of which 21 being EU member states. Painting a stark picture of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. In a staggering list that includes Austria, Germany, Spain and others, politicians have increasingly weaponized anti-trans rhetoric. Exploiting children is a tactic often used as part of scare strategies to create opposition to trans minors’ access to healthcare and educational facilities, extending this divisive approach to a broader trend where politicians argue that restricting information about LGBTQ people is a necessity to protect minors.

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on LGBTQ rights in the country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The rise in transphobic rhetoric is not only confined to politics but it has other tangible consequences. The report highlights a concerning escalation in suicide rates and mental health issues, particularly in LGBTQ youth. Violent protests outside schools and libraries have created unsafe environments, adding to the growing list of challenges faced by the community.

The far-reaching impact of demonization by politicians and the introduction of restrictive legislation underscores the need for urgent action. Hate speech is not merely an affront to people’s rights, it is an assault on the very core values upon which the EU was founded. As ILGA-Europe Advocacy Director Katrin Hugendubel notes, human rights, especially those of LGBTQ people, are facing a significant challenge from far-right forces. The exploitation of LGBTQ rights to undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law highlights the divisive nature of the current political landscape. 

As ILGA-Europe prepares to launch the “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign in response to these alarming trends, the need for visible and supportive queer female spaces is more apparent than ever. The campaign, seeking commitments from European Parliament candidates to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, underscores the urgency of safeguarding human rights, democracy and freedom. 

The crucial role of queer women in European elections

Belgium, amid this backdrop of rising transphobia, is preparing for the European elections on June 9, 2024. The importance of this electoral process cannot be overstated, especially for queer women. With citizens aged 16 and above casting their votes to elect 22 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), it’s a pivotal moment for the LGBTQ community.

The voting process in Belgium follows EU law, utilizing a proportional representation system. Voters choose one party, either by marking the box above the party list or selecting individual candidates on the list. The total ballot forms for each party determine seat distribution, and preferential votes then decide which candidates secure a seat in the European Parliament.

Educated voting in the European elections is essential to queer women and the importance cannot be stressed enough. Throughout history they have faced unique battles, but this community holds the power to shape policies that directly influence their lives. By engaging in the democratic process, queer women can actively challenge the current surge in hate speech towards trans people by voting for electing representatives who actively advocate for LGBTQ rights. 

Representation is more than a mere buzzword. It matters. Understanding candidates’ positions on LGBTQ issues is key and requires educating oneself on candidates’ stances as to allow queer women to vote for representatives who genuinely champion LGBTQ rights. A diverse and inclusive representation ensures that the concerns and voices of the queer community are not just heard but which are acted upon. Decisions within the European Parliament influence policies ranging from anti-discrimination laws to access to healthcare. An informed vote makes sure that legislation promotes equality, acceptance and the protection of LGBTQ rights.

By being educated on the European elections and its candidates, queer women embark on a journey of self-empowerment. By supporting candidates who prioritize inclusive curricula, they contribute to addressing LGBTQ history, health and rights, encouraging a more accepting future.

The undeniable need for physical queer women spaces

Since the European elections are nearing, the importance of physical spaces for queer women to gather and discuss voting and the candidates becomes increasingly evident. While online spaces offer the chance to connect and discuss, they come with their own unique challenges, including the spread of misinformation and miscommunication. In navigating the democratic landscape, the value of in-person gatherings for education and discussion cannot be stressed enough.

The world is saturated with digital information, and misinformation can easily infiltrate online spaces. Physical gatherings allow for a more controlled environment with direct feedback from peers, where queer women can share accurate and reliable information, ensuring a more nuanced understanding of candidates, policies and the electoral process. 

In the lead-up to the European elections, we have to recognize that physical spaces for queer women are crucial. They do not only combat misinformation, disinformation and miscommunication but also serve as a vital space for shared learning. In-person gatherings create the foundation for an informed and engaged electorate, promoting a collective voice that resonates in the democratic process. The power of change lies not just in our votes but in the shared wisdom and unity forged in the physical spaces we create together.

The plight of the Crazy Circle and the call for investment in queer women spaces

After the closing of Brussels’ iconic Crazy Circle, a feminist queer space that has served as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, it becomes increasingly evident that the struggle for queer women-only spaces in Belgium is a critical issue demanding our attention.

For the past five years, Crazy Circle has been a testament to the resilience of the LGBTQ community, creating a safe and celebratory space for queer women and their allies. However, its closure after the previous management leaving for unknown reasons and current fundraising attempt by the new owners to reopen highlight the challenges faced by such spaces in Belgium. These establishments play a vital role not only as social hubs but as catalysts for education, empowerment and advocacy. Fortunately for the new owners they recently reached their fundraising goals and raised over 50,000 euros to reopen Crazy Circle. 

The loss of a space like this underscores the broader struggle faced by queer women-only spaces in Belgium. Beyond being social hubs, these spaces are vital agents of change, providing a haven for education, empowerment and advocacy. We must recognize that our commitment to the LGBTQ community extends beyond words.

The “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign by ILGA-Europe serves as a proactive response to the alarming trends in hate speech. It calls for clear political commitments on safeguarding human rights, democracy and freedom from candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June. Belgium, with its own elections on the horizon, stands at a crossroads where the choices made will resonate far beyond its borders.

If we want to inform queer females about campaigns like “Come Out 4 Europe” we need spaces like the Crazy Circle. Its closure is a stark reminder of the fragility of these vital spaces. It’s a call to action, urging us to invest more in preserving and expanding queer women-only spaces. The struggle faced by Crazy Circle is not an isolated incident; it reflects a broader challenge that demands a collective response all over the world. 

By fighting to preserve and expand queer women-only spaces, we are not merely safeguarding physical venues. We are investing in the education, empowerment and advocacy of the LGBTQ community. These spaces are not mere bars or gathering spots; they are crucial agents of change and empowerment.

Building a future of inclusivity

As we see what happened to Crazy Circle in Belgium, let us use this moment as a catalyst for change. It is time to rally together behind existing queer women spaces, ensuring their survival and actively working towards expanding and creating new ones. By doing so we empower individuals to educate, advocate, and, most importantly, vote for a future where safety, equality and acceptance prevail for all members of the LGBTQ community. It’s not only a matter of choice to preserve these spaces; it is a commitment to a world where everyone has the right to be safe, heard and celebrated. 

In navigating the complex tapestry of the European elections, the empowerment of queer women spaces through informed voting and the preservation of physical queer women spaces become integral threads. As we stand on the precipice of change, our choices today will shape the inclusive and accepting future we envision. Together, let us weave a tapestry that celebrates diversity, protects human rights and builds a future where every voice, especially those of queer women, is not just heard but cherished.

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When queerness and art collide: My journey as a writer

Peter Pan, ‘Poor Things,’ and the power in pleasure

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Gay Carrie Bradshaw. Wannabe Dan Savage. Writing about barbacking like it’s some sort of mission trip. I’m not unaware of the perceptions surrounding this column, which, when directed toward me, often presents as, “How exactly did this happen?” 

That question is valid, in part because it happened so fast that I never processed the events leading up to it. It’s even more valid considering my dream was never to be a columnist at all, if one could call me that (delusional blogger, maybe?). No, instead, I wanted to write science fiction.   

That’s right — for years, I dedicated thousands of hours typing away at my laptop, making up plots, characters, settings, and sometimes laws of physics out of thin air. For most of that time, it was a hobby I kept close, telling few in my inner circle to avoid what others might think. Despite this insecurity, I managed to complete three-and-a-half full-length novels that now sit patiently as PDFs on my hard drive. 

Here you thought this column was weird. Oh, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. 

So how exactly does one go from science fiction to sex column? Buckle up for the unfiltered, unadulterated, and likely unrequested story of how that abrupt shift came to be. It all took place during a cold week last February, when three events aligned like planets to pave the way. 

First came some disappointing news. After being in talks with a literary agency for an entire year about one of my novels, the opportunity slipped through my fingers and crashed to the ground like the glassware drunk customers seem to love dropping, which, in both instances, leaves me sweeping the mess away. I should have expected this, for breaking into publishing is no small feat, particularly given my experience, or lack thereof. I have no MFA. No publishing credits. No formal creative writing training of any kind. I’m completely self-taught, relying on books and YouTube to learn both craft and industry. Given this, recognition from an agency as someone worth considering should feel like an accomplishment on its own. 

Still, the news was devastating, especially after abandoning my old career to pursue writing. I’ll never forget when Dusty, one of the bar owners, found me in the kitchen to ask if I was OK. I held back tears as I nodded back yes, but the voices in my head scolded me on how pathetic I probably appeared to the world. Sounds harsh, but let’s be honest: You’re only praised when your art makes it big, but when it doesn’t, you’re just another weirdo. More on that later.  

Fortunately, I had a bar shift to take my mind off the matter, which led to the second event. A few regulars sat at the bar and, as usual, gave me a friendly hello. On this wintry day business was slow, enabling me to chat more than usual. Naturally they inquired about my life outside the bar, which I’ll admit put me on edge. I mean, what do I say? Something told me, “I’m a twice-fired loser who thought he could write but just learned he can’t,” would bring down the mood a bit. 

Instead, I kept it vague with, “I like to write,” before turning the question back on them. As it just so happened, one of those regulars was Brian Pitts, co-owner of the Blade. 

“Maybe you could write for us,” he suggested. When I asked what they were looking for, he shrugged and suggested show reviews. I smiled, told him I’d get back to him next week, then walked away dismissing the idea. I mean, show reviews? Was I even qualified? I wasn’t sure I could write a story, let alone critique one. 

Then again, what more could I lose? Figuring a review was at least worth a try, I stumbled into the third event following my shift that Super Bowl Sunday. Instead of the Big Game, I hiked to Atlantic Plumbing to catch “Poor Things,” starring Emma Stone. I vaguely knew the premise but not much else, other than buzz around Stone’s performance. 

For those who haven’t seen it, “Poor Things” is a Victorian-era, somewhat-steampunk fantasy about a mad scientist who brings a deceased, pregnant woman back to life by replacing her brain with her infant’s. It’s a bonkers plot in which Stone’s character, Bella, becomes a woman reset—quite literally in this case—but as her young mind develops in her adult body, she experiences life uninhibited. Then come the most shocking sequences of all: Bella having sex, and lots of it. At one point she even becomes a prostitute, using the gig to explore her sexuality while building in free time to pursue other interests. 

I watched mesmerized, both appalled and intrigued, equally awed and revolted, while I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that me up on that screen?

I haven’t been shy about my own sexual journey, which I had assumed began and ended with my coming out. But damn was I wrong, and “Poor Things” showed me why. Notably, Bella’s sexual liberation shares a likeness to the queer experience. “Polite Society will destroy you,” one character tells her, which holds true for all queer journeys. Yet once we break free from these social chains, we often enter a reset—an infantile stage, if you will—to relive our robbed youth through fresh eyes. 

Unfortunately, not all queers leave this phase, instead remaining caught in an eternal adolescence often referred to as Peter Pan syndrome. Bella only escapes it through critical self-examination, understanding better what she truly wanted from life. Here “Poor Things” depicts sexual liberation as more than a moment; rather, it’s a process where rebirth is just the beginning. How far Bella’s liberation went relied entirely on her willingness to explore herself. Consequently, her liberation didn’t end with sex but rather her self-actualization, so by the final throes of the film sex is rarely mentioned. Herein lies the Power in Pleasure — the unabashed pursuit of all things you enjoy to become your happiest, most well rounded, most fully realized self.  

Later that night, instead of writing a review, I sat there reeling from the similarities between Bella’s life and my own. Bella taking on frowned-upon work in pursuit of herself mirrored my becoming a barback to pursue writing. And the sex? My God, I was amid a slut phase already, though I wanted to believe I was more than that. But wanting and believing are different things, aren’t they? I realized then I was holding myself back. My Peter Pan must grow up. 

As for my art, I bought into this silly notion that I’d open up as a writer if I ever made it big, as if that would shield me from rejection. Not so coincidentally, my mindset was similar before coming out as gay: I thought, let me hold off until I’m successful, then show the world successful people can be gay. Both experiences felt too similar to ignore, until I finally saw the profound connection between art and queerness. 

“Art was the precursor to fully allow me to embrace my queerness,” Scott would later tell me, who I’ve mentioned in the past is both my coworker and a performance artist. Scott was a theater kid in high school, which led them into a proud “Band of Misfits” that wore difference as a badge of honor. “I was able to find my queerness through art, through performance, and through training to become an actor.” 

My journey was the opposite: I came out as gay well before as a writer, which Scott assured me is normal. “We’re often told don’t express yourself, conform, conform, conform, and artists do the opposite of that,” said Scott. “Being an artist is hard. It’s a queering of what societal expectations are, particularly here in the District where there is so much ladder climbing professionally, socially, politically. The title of artist sort of queers the idea of what it means to be in Washington, D.C.” 

Scott was right. D.C., in comparison to other cities, feels uniquely difficult to pursue art. Even when we’re out — perhaps especially when we’re out — we D.C. gays tend to overcompensate for our perceived deficiency by ensuring everything else is in order, projecting a brighter image of what a good citizen ought to be, serving an ideal of a new normal, and leaping from one box only to scurry into another, albeit gayer, one. 

Yet was fitting into any box what I truly wanted? If polite society says yes, then fuck polite society. 

So, in a case of art imitating life imitating art likely imitating someone else’s life, I sat down and told my story, wrestling doubts of my craft, fighting my fears of what others might think, at times typing through my tears, all for the sake of my authenticity, since my repressing it was no longer an option. This is what it takes to bear your truth to the world. It’s what it takes to be an artist. No surprise, it’s also what it takes to come out queer, and to become the bravest version of yourself imaginable. 

I sent what I wrote to the Blade as soon as I finished, and the rest is history. And there you have it: the story about the review that never happened but became so much more, brought to you by my dramatic flair and ADHD. 

Though I must admit, gay Carrie Bradshaw has a nicer ring to it.

Jake Stewart is a D.C.-based writer and barback.

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Picking our battles and reminding the nation

Rainbow History Project creating exhibit on evolution of Pride

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In conjunction with WorldPride 2025 the Rainbow History Project is creating an exhibit on the evolution of Pride: “Pickets, Protests, and Parades: The History of Gay Pride in Washington.”

This is the first in a series of articles that will share the research themes and invite public participation. In “Picking our Battles and Reminding the Nation,” we discuss the period between 1965-1970 and how the Mattachine Society of Washington created an agenda for homosexual rights and freedoms before the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

On April 17, 1965, the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW) held the nation’s first organized gay rights picket at the White House. Led by Dr. Frank Kameny and Dr. Lilli Vincenz, the 10 picketers demanded action on MSW’s four major issues: the exclusion of homosexuals from federal employment; the punitive policies of the U.S. Military; blanket denial of security clearances to homosexuals; and government refusal to meet with the LGBTQ community.

MSW staged several pickets through summer 1965 and countless other pickets during the late 1960s. In January 1966, activist and picketer Eva Freund wrote in The Homosexual Citizen that “these groups include[d] housewives, clergymen, business executives, and laborers.” She also wrote that the public had “mixed feelings of disbelief and confusion” about the pickets. The casual observer was hard-pressed to distinguish the heterosexual from the homosexual picketer,’” she wrote, adding that these conversations included: “‘I don’t understand – how can homosexuals be learned and intelligent?’ and ‘I always thought you could spot a deviant: now I wonder how many of my friends are homosexuals.’”

The July 4, 1965 picket outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia recognized constitutional rights on the anniversary of the country’s creation. Thirty-nine people asserted “an inalienable right; the pursuit of happiness; for homosexuals too,” according to the signs. It was this picket that would become a yearly event called the Annual Reminder.

Vincenz, who died in 2023, filmed the 1968 Annual Reminder. She said that Kameny emphasized respectability and “normality” through their professional dress code and demeanors.

In a 2001 oral history interview with Rainbow History she said: “I felt this had to be recorded, this had to be taped… We did the first film, 16 mm, 1968, called “Second Largest Minority;” seven and a half minutes, black and white, which shows the picket line in front of Independence Hall; an interview with Frank Kameny. A very well-dressed picket line.”

The fifth Annual Reminder took place just days after the Stonewall Riots, in which, fed up with police brutality, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back during a raid of the establishment.

After a week of riots, dozens of additional picketers showed up to the 1969 demonstration, adding their faces and voices to MSW’s demands. By October of 1969, LGBTQ activists from Washington and their partners across the East Coast decided to hold the 1970 Annual Reminder not on Independence Day in Philadelphia, but, rather, in New York City on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on June 28, 1970. The CSLD March differed greatly from the demonstration policies of the Annual Reminders, according to both Vincenz and Kameny. But there was no doubt in Kameny’s mind that the Reminders laid the groundwork for the Christopher Street Liberation Day marches.

“Most of our actual ‘warm bodies’ for those Fourth of July demonstrations in Philadelphia came down from New York,” Kameny said in a 1991 oral history interview with RHP Archives. “And the whole idea of gays demonstrating became a much more run-of-the-mill sort of thing.”

“My feeling is that there’s a good likelihood that Stonewall wouldn’t have occurred, certainly not when it did, how it did, and the way it did, if we hadn’t been demonstrating here, starting in 65.” 

Our WorldPride 2025 exhibit, “Pickets, Protests, and Parades: The History of Gay Pride in Washington,” centers the voices of the event organizers and includes the critics of Pride and the intersection of Pride and other movements for equal rights and liberation. But we need your help to do that: we are looking for images and input, so look around your attic and get involved!

Vincent Slatt volunteers as the director of archiving at the Rainbow History Project. Visit rainbowhistory.org to get involved.

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LGBTQ people deserve freedom, a sense of home, and belonging

Latoya Nugent found refuge in Canada after fleeing Jamaica

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Latoya Nugent, center, at the March for LGBTQ+ Rights in Toronto on May 16, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Rainbow Railroad)

Seven years ago, my fight for queer liberation in notoriously homophobic Jamaica culminated in a violent and brutal unlawful arrest and detention. This was the peak of decades of persecution due to my sexual orientation and work as a queer human rights defender and activist. It completely broke me and silenced me. I suffered severe emotional trauma, from which I am still recovering years later. 

Following that life-threatening arrest, I became a shell of who I once was. I cut off communication with my community for several years, unable to face my fear of the police and the hostility of the world around me. 

In 2022, I was one of the 9,591 at-risk LGBTQI+ people who reached out to Rainbow Railroad for help. Through the organization’s Emergency Travel Support (ETS) program, which relocates at-risk LGBTQI+ people and helps them make asylum claims in countries like the U.S., I resettled in Canada where I’ve been living safely with dignity and pride. 

This Pride Month, I’m reflecting on what it means to be safe. Who has access to safety and why others are excluded from it. What is our collective role and responsibility in expanding safety for our queer and trans communities, especially those in the over 60 countries that criminalize LGBTQI+ people? 

Safety means different things to different people depending on our experiences and journeys. For me, it’s the difference between suffering and thriving, feeling worthless and worthy, and feeling hopeless and hopeful. It is the difference between displacement and belonging. 

Rainbow Railroad recently released a report that examines the state of global LGBTQI+ persecution, drawing on data from 15,352 help requests spanning 100+ countries. This report is significant for several reasons, chief among them is the reality that no other organization or government captures the breadth and depth of data on LGBTQI+ forced displacement, perpetuating the invisibility of queer individuals in humanitarian responses. The report is an important contribution to the discourse on the intersection of queer identity, LGBTQI+ persecution, forced displacement, and humanitarian protection systems. 

Of all the data and insights uncovered in the report, I was most struck by one statistic — 91 percent of at-risk LGBTQI+ individuals relocated through the ETS program reported an improved sense of personal safety. This statistic is particularly personal to me because ETS was the only relocation option accessible to me in 2022 when I reached out to Rainbow Railroad for help. 

I am in that 91 percent because I am now thriving. I feel worthy. I am hopeful about life. And I belong. 

Today, among the 120 million forcibly displaced people around the world, queer and trans individuals face compounded complications from homophobia and transphobia while trying to access protection and safety. And while the anti-gender movement continues to swell in some states, I firmly believe that the U.S. remains a global leader in refugee resettlement — which is why the U.S. government must uphold its international obligations and reverse its recent executive order that imposes severe restrictions on the right to seek asylum. 

Queer and trans individuals deserve freedom, a sense of home, and belonging — realities that flourish only when rooted in the bedrock of safety. 

There is a lot more work to be done. It’s challenging. It’s complex. It’s costly. But I have experienced firsthand what the transformative impact of Rainbow Railroad’s work has on someone’s life — that ability to lift people out of danger into safety is something worth celebrating this Pride. 

Latoya Nugent is the head of engagement for Rainbow Railroad.

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