How do we foster safe spaces for queer people?

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A file photo of the now-closed Today x Future. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

The Gay Liberation Front was born out of the struggle to exist in public. The riots that took place at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 was a pushback against police raids that targeted visibly queer and gender non-conforming people — a historical precursor to what we now know as Pride.

Around the same time, the concept of the “safe space” emerged in both the feminist and LGBTQ+ rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. Essentially, it meant that people could be protected from forces of oppression and inequality within a performative utopia. Classroom discussions between activists were a popular example. Later on, gay bars became the predominant model for a queer space — although not strictly so. The 2022 book “Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQ+ Places and Stories" documents the cacophony of safe spaces beloved by the LGBTQ+ community all over the world: including historical mansions, ice cream parlors, and hair salons. There are three entries from the Philippines in this index, contributed by the visual artist and architect Isola Tong. Of the three locations mentioned, only one still exists: Futur:st in Makati City. Both XX:XX and Today X Future closed down during the first wave of lockdowns.

With the return of nightlife, new queer spaces have emerged within Metro Manila. The Dirty Kitchen in Quezon City gained popularity among LGBTQ+ artists and musicians for its unique layout and programming. Interestingly enough, the same is true of Katipunan food park Pop-Up. These spaces are for nightlife, which point to a larger need for all-ages establishments and daytime programming.

While often criticized as “snowflake” behavior, safe spaces were — and still are — essential both practically and academically in improving conditions for women, queer people, and those of other oppressed genders. They’ve enabled discussions on intersectional activism and allowed queer communities to thrive. When safe spaces are lacking, LGBTQ+ individuals are put at risk.

Knowing the many forms and functions of a safe space, we spoke to four people who have helped foster such in their communities through art, athletics, and nightlife.


Gab Villegas (he/him), The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture

The closest Gab Villegas had come to running a coffee business was a part-time job as a barista in college. Now, you can find him running the show at The Den — a coffee shop found in the historical First United Building on Escolta Street, Manila.

The collective of establishments found at the ground floor of First United, now known as HUB Make Lab, was initially created as a response to the dominance of hyper-consumerism. Villegas, a founding member, wanted a place for artists and artisans to thrive. As he puts it, “to put the soul and spirit within the commercial exercise.” As for The Den, it was just about being able to find a good cup of coffee in the area.

“When The Den started, there was almost a deliberate effort for me to just separate it from what I was doing for the other organizations and activities in the neighborhood,” he says. After a change of management in 2019, Villegas felt more free to express himself as a gay man through the business. He enlisted the help of visual artist Derek Tumala for programming and exhibitions within the space. Later on, the coffee shop rebranded into The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture and evolved into a cultural center for many LGBTQ+ artists, writers, and DJs. A queer rave held at a gallery opening wouldn’t be a rare sight here.

The Den also is notable for being a queer-friendly venue that’s also open during the daytime. Villegas notes, “Just as LGBTQ+ safe spaces are associated with the nightlife, there is also a need for us to be seen in the daylight where we can be in public places where you can hold your boy/girlfriend’s hand, or kiss them. It should be a mundane thing: to express affection. It should not be relegated to the dark, but celebrated also in the day.”

Photo courtesy of JERIC RUSTIA

Jeric Rustia (he/him), Climb Central Manila and The Bouldering Hive

Jeric Rustia began rock climbing a decade ago — entering a culture that looked very different than it does today. “Back then, the climbing community wasn’t any different from how the rest of society was: it was toxic. Queer people were just tolerated, and respect was earned only if you were confident in your queerness or asserted yourself,” he recalls.

Manila’s climbing world is notorious for exclusivity among its old guard. Newcomers were expected to tolerate a longstanding “kupal culture” unless they demonstrated a certain level of skill. That is, until the establishment of more gyms significantly broadened the community. Two of Manila’s most recently established gyms — Climb Central Manila and The Bouldering Hive — are credited for bringing more first-timers into the sphere and dramatically changing local climbing culture into a more inclusive space.

“I think it was a collective realization for everyone that diversity and inclusivity is not just good, but also inevitable.” Just last year, Rustia came out as a gay man. He now participates in the first-ever Pride Nights held at CCM and Bhive, coaching newer climbers and even sharing about his own experiences as a queer athlete. "When I came out to my mother last year one of the things she told me was that she was afraid for me. She said, "Mag-ingat ka, anak. Kasi ang mundo sa labas, marahas. Hindi kita kaya protektahan palagi." And I understood her because I've known that my entire life.” Rustia admits, “I never expected the climbing community to do this ever. But it's here. It's happening. And I feel grateful.”

Under RA 11313, or the Safe Spaces Act, athletic facilities are now sanctioned to prohibit gender-based harassment. But this doesn’t automatically entail that all gyms are safe spaces. More work needs to be done. Rustia hopes for even more consistent efforts from the climbing community to make its queer members feel comfortable in their own skin, and feel celebrated, rather than just tolerated.

Darla Mamuyac and Jello Tuble at the first Burning House event in 2018. Photo courtesy of DARLA MAMUYAC

Darla Mamuyac (she/they), The Burning House 6100

In 2018, a small queer community based in Bacolod City banded together to put together a Pride event. Named after the seminal 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” Burning House 6100 centers inclusivity as a main tenet of their organization. Lead organizer Darla Mamuyac explains, “The ballroom is for everyone. It is a safe space for queer folks especially marginalized, displaced, and confused young queers looking for a place to belong in. It is not a place where we can standardize and gatekeep, it is a home we build wherever there is an LGBTQ+ person that exists.” Burning House 6100’s events are modelled after proms and weddings in order to give queer folk the opportunity to reclaim the experiences that usually exclude them. The funds raised by their activities are used to provide HIV testing kits to provincial hospitals.

In 2020, in-person events were called off, but Burning House 6100 made a leap forward as an organization by spearheading Bacolod’s online Pride alongside Tribu Duag and Bacolod Collective. With the tagline #ComingOutWhileStayingIn, Bacolod Pride 2020 was celebrated through a series of virtual lip sync battles and film screenings featuring local directors. This year’s Pride Party, which is their first in-person event since 2019, will be a wedding-themed extravaganza held on June 29, 2022 in the Lunar Bar.

“Coming back to a physical party has its challenges in terms of ensuring safety from COVID. The protocols have eased up, but we are still following the usual procedures in terms of entering establishments,” says Mamuyac. “Having no constant physical structure to hang out and kiki has its difficulties and challenges. However, having people who want to get together and organize events that serve as safe spaces is the community you can come home to as a queer person.”

Superstarlet XXX performs at “The Queerification of QC” in the Dirty Kitchen. Photo by JACK ALINDAHAO

Superstarlet XXX (she/her), Elephant Party

Superstarlet XXX, the drag and performance persona of Shahani Gania (he/him), was first asked to throw a weekly queer party by the owners of nightclub XX:XX in 2016. Steadfast in her vision of centering her parties’ sound on techno, italo, and industrial music — Superstarlet’s queer nights were the first iterations of what is now known as Elephant Party. She notes the importance of maintaining their now-iconic sound, “Techno music in queer spaces wasn’t a thing back then. But historically, queer people invented techno and underground raves; it was something that I felt we needed to reclaim as LGBTQ+ people.”

Elephant held their events every Thursday night in XX:XX for around three years, before the nightclub was forced to close due to pandemic lockdowns.. Back then, an Elephant Party was defined by the revolving cast of characters that would walk through XX:XX’s doors. A group of regulars — including their resident DJs — swiftly turned into a loosely defined creative team. Although Elephant suffered placelessness during lockdown, this led them to evolve into a more defined collective of creative individuals. Superstarlet recalls, “When we all realized how much we needed to bring back and create more safe spaces for the community to enjoy, experience and share, so that the people in the community can thrive. We found our advocacy.”

During lockdown, Elephant was able to collaborate with the other international collectives such as Community Bread, Bubble_T, and Rice Rockettes in order to raise funds and help each other stay afloat amid a lack of in-person events. Upon the easing of COVID-related restrictions, Elephant was able to find renewed success — now as popular as ever. On April 9, 2022, Elephant held their first physical party in over two years at The Dirty Kitchen, called “The Queerification of QC.” Their Pride event “Makibak-la” was held on July 25 at the same venue, one of their biggest events to date. The event boasted an all-trans and queer lineup and opened an avenue for new drag queens to perform.

Lawmen and policy-makers won’t protect the LGBTQ+ community as much as actual queer people will. This is something Superstarlet asserts, “I really believe that safe spaces are made by and are for the ones who are most vulnerable to discrimination, harm, bullying and abuse. In safe spaces, we place the LGBTQ+ community on top because when we do that, the homophobia and transphobia disappear. We become more confident to be ourselves, to speak, and dance freely.”