Unsafe Spaces: On pride, privacy, and the privilege of the urban queer

By J.J. Ulm

Let’s start with this: I’m a lesbian, and I’m openly, publicly, proudly Out.

It’s not that hard to be that way in Columbus, OH, where I’ve lived for the last 14 years. According to a 2015 Gallup report, Columbus has the highest percentage of LGBT residents of any Midwestern city. The city government embraces our Pride festival. And I can go into any business in a rainbow tee—or, you know, with a gal pal—and expect the same service as anyone else. In some parts of town, especially the fashionable Short North district, chances are the people tending the store are L, G, B, or T themselves.

I’m fortunate, too, to work freelance, and that primarily for a hard-left local newspaper and a gay romance publisher. But even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have to worry. Most of the city’s biggest employers are companies like Nationwide Insurance and Limited Brands, companies which could hardly afford the public backlash. Before I left the office life there were some awkward moments with conservative coworkers, but nothing that put my job at risk.

And I have my echo chamber of acceptance online, on Twitter and Tumblr and sites run by my fellow urban queers. So long as I avoid the darker corners of Reddit, I rarely feel threatened.

And then I’m reminded that not all of us are so lucky.

When I moved my prescriptions recently to an LGBT-focused Short North pharmacy that doubles as an AIDS charity, I was more surprised than I should have been to find just how devoted they are to privacy—their phone number was blocked from caller ID, their automated emails gave only the most basic details, even their URL was vague. Behind the counter, filled orders sat in unmarked brown paper bags. CVS had never been so circumspect about plastering their logo all over everything.

Even the publisher I work for is careful not to out those who don’t have my freedom. Their store site has an explicit privacy policy, and their newsletter is opt-in. (Editors work under pseudonyms, too, but for a different reason: to shield them from the occasional writer angry about what they did to his em dashes.) It even affects their decision not to use DRM, as that requires permanent registration to tie ebook files to a specific person.

In my little community, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was a big deal. But at the same time, a friend of mine in the rural South has a trans girlfriend who is terrified to stop pretending to be a man. What does marriage matter when you can get fired for your sexuality or trans status? When states are passing laws to gender-police bathrooms? When “conversion therapy”, which has been compared to torture, is still legal in 45 states? Where a member of the US House of Representatives can get up in front of that governing body and read Bible passages calling homosexuality “worthy of death”?

After the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, a staff member at Stonewall Columbus—our LGBT community center—told me that what had come up most in discussions that week was “privilege”. It reminded us how lucky we are in our little oasis of acceptance, and a reminder as well that it’s a small oasis indeed. For so many of us, our country is still an unsafe space.