‘Safe Spaces’ for LGBTQ in Bed-Stuy Businesses

Tremaine Wright owns the Common Grounds coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, which has been a Safe Space for the LGBTQ community for over six years. “I think defining ourselves as such makes it a comfortable environment for everybody,” she said. “So that people don't feel like they can pick on any particular group or that they can ostracize anyone.” Wright is pictured in Brooklyn's Hebert Von King Park during the 3rd Annual Bed-Stuy Pride event on Aug. 17, 2013. (Photo by Adi Talwar via Brooklyn Bureau)

Tremaine Wright owns the Common Grounds coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, which has been a Safe Space for the LGBTQ community for over six years. “I think defining ourselves as such makes it a comfortable environment for everybody,” she said. “So that people don’t feel like they can pick on any particular group or that they can ostracize anyone.” Wright is pictured in Brooklyn’s Hebert Von King Park during the 3rd Annual Bed-Stuy Pride event on Aug. 17, 2013. (Photo by Adi Talwar via Brooklyn Bureau)

As the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn undergoes rapid gentrification, its LGBTQ community “has thrived,” finds Brooklyn Bureau‘s Sara Sugar. But with a history of not trusting the police, members of the group have conducted their own grassroots efforts when it comes to staying safe. A staff member of an LGBTQ organization for people of color describes the circumstances that have led to the distrust.

“What happens more in the 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 goes unchecked or unnoticed.”

When it comes to an alternative to depending on the police, that’s where the Safe Neighborhood Campaign steps in.

The campaign is part of the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System Collective (SOS) Collective, which began in 1997 as The Working Group on Police and State Violence as a means to confront “police harassment and Mayor Giuliani’s ‘quality of life’ policies,” as Sugar describes.

Sixteen years later, as gentrification looms and struggles with the NYPD continue, the Safe Neighborhood Campaign has asked local businesses to become Safe Spaces. In these locations, members of the LGBTQ community can seek a sanctuary if they sense that their safety is being compromised. However, gentrification has hindered some of their success.

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.”

Once a local business joins the campaign, they undergo training and receive a sticker indicating their status as a safe place for members of the LGBTQ community. The sticker then goes on their window. According to Johnson-Long, each training is adapted to the particulars of the business but for the most part, training involves “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.”

Sugar elaborates on how the trainings have benefited staff members of businesses that became a part of Safe Spaces.

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.

The Safe Neighborhood Campaign website provides a list of Safe Spaces.

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