Identity / Life

Who Is Safe in GLBT Spaces?

ShannonShannon is a lesbian housewife with two homeschooled daughters. She and her partner, Cole, were extra-legally married in 2003 and adopted their children through domestic, open, transracial adoption in 2005 and 2007. Shannon has been writing about culture, politics, race, religion and family since 2000 both online and off. She writes at her personal blog, Peter’s Cross Station, and in places like LiteraryMama.comBabble.com, Adoptive Families Magazine, Gay Chicago Magazine and BlogHer.com. She is also a budding novelist and a serial hobbyist. Her latest addiction is crochet. Shannon has too many degrees, including, but not limited to a PhD in American literature and accompanying student loan debt that will probably outlive her. She and her family live near Lake Michigan in Chicago.


IMG_5909Recently, my family took our first ever vacation for just us, to Saugatuck, Michigan—a place hailed as one of the top GLBT travel spots in the United States.

Everyone we told about our trip was excited for us. Lots of our friends had been there—some went regularly—and loved it. We were excited, and looking forward to letting down our guard as a queer family—you know, that guard that rises so slowly and so silently sometimes, that you don’t notice it until you feel the relief of letting it down. We would be able to relax. Be ourselves. Be free from worry about what others were thinking of us or if they might say or do something hurtful when we were least expecting it.

We stayed in a small RV park with its own little beach on a spring-fed lake and by the second day there, our older daughter had declared that she much preferred living in a trailer to living in our house. Sharing a sofa-bed with her sister was far better than having her own room if it meant getting to watch “Bewitched” DVDs until well after dark on the bedside television.

We kayaked. We biked. We swam. We caught minnows. We rode horses. We kayaked some more. We made s’mores. We rode horses some more. We collected snails from the lake bottom.

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But then one afternoon, my partner took our older daughter souvenir shopping, leaving her sister and I at the beach. About a half hour after she left, my partner called me, sounding frantic. She told me that while she was discussing silk screen options with a t-shirt shop owner, our nine-year-old daughter had taken down a few baby-sized shirts from a rack near the floor and laid them down to compare them and choose which she would like to get as a gift for her two-year-old cousin.

According to my partner, when the shop owner saw my daughter with the shirts, he flipped out and shouted at her that she needed to respect his property and to leave his store immediately. My partner was so shell-shocked, she took our confused daughter outside and called me.

But once she had taken a deep breath or two, she returned to the shop and told the owner she was appalled at his reaction. She asked him to consider the motivation behind such an extreme response to a child sitting on the floor trying to make a decision about what to buy. What she meant was, would he have had the same explosive reaction if our daughter had been white?

Both of our daughters are African American. Both of us are white. Yes, they are adopted. No, they are not from Africa. They were born in Chicago and we know their first mothers. They have been with us since they left the hospital at birth. And we have always taught them about race and its impact on people’s daily lives. But it has only really been in the past year that our older girl has begun to experience racial prejudice that she can identify and feel directly.

When I began to share the story with friends—mostly through social media—everyone was horrified and sympathetic and jumping to help in whatever way they could. I really appreciated the outpouring of support. When some of our RV Park vacationing neighbors heard the story—my younger daughter (age seven) had told them, while they were at the beach—they were horrified and supportive too. But the theme that emerged from my conversation with them was “Don’t let this spoil your opinion of Saugatuck. Things like this don’t usually happen here.”

I don’t doubt they were right. Saugatuck undoubtedly lives up to its reputation as a relaxing place to let down your guard and be yourself 99% of the time. But I have to wonder—is it because 99% of the people we saw on our vacation there were white?

If a place has only white people, the would-be racists don’t have any opportunity to show themselves. Too many well-intentioned white liberals assume that racism means wearing a hood, using the n-word or burning crosses on someone’s lawn. But what is it about a place that leads to its becoming so white that no one need ever think about race because everyone is the same?

And for whom is that kind of environment safe? It is certainly not safe for our Black children—not even when they are in our company. The shop owner who threw out my daughter threatened my partner with a call to the police after she challenged him on his behavior. (She told him to please call them and gave him her name. I later did the same.) So as long as we stick by our kids (and we surely better do so, or we aren’t worthy to be their parents), it isn’t safe for us, either.

Up until recently, our family has been plagued with the positive racism of strangers cooing over our darling little brown children and praising us for adopting them as if this were a feat of heroism and sacrifice (it is not—at least no more than any other form of parenting is). But at nine (our older daughter’s age), it appears that coin has flipped and now we get the uglier side, when Black children’s cute innocence expires and they become automatically threatening, simply by existing. Think I’m exaggerating? There’s research to back me up.

The truth is, we knew this day was coming, but it’s not really possible to prepare for watching the world unleash its hate on the people we love most in the world. Never mind preparing our children to bear that hate. And yet, could we not have been spared such a burden for a week of vacation in a place that claims we “are always welcome?”

I don’t know if Saugatuck’s unremitting whiteness is typical of gay “safe spaces” but it makes me very sad that queer culture can be so segregated when, in fact, our families come in all races, colors, classes, cultures, religions—and mixes of them. It makes me angry to hear white gay people invoke the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in their struggle to make same-sex marriage legal, while harboring racism in their ranks at worst and ignorance or disinterest of the issues faced by Black children in 2014, at best. After all, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Let’s examine what makes a GLBT “safe space” too white for the comfort of all of us. And let’s figure out how to change it. Otherwise, what are we really teaching our children when they’re playing at the beach?

PHOTO CREDITS: SHANNON LC CATE

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5 Comments

  1. Vikki Reich says:

    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Yes. These words are especially powerful today.

  2. This is crazy. And what bothers me – other than the obvious that your daughter was thrown into this man’s racism in such an ugly way- is that my daughter (born in India) probably won’t experience racism the same way that your daughters will even though she is brown and looks different than me. She has already experienced it in hurtful ways from her peers and some adults (she’s 13) but from adults it’s not that obvious most times nor is it so hostile.

    People’s perceptions (white people) are quick to judge our kid’s of color even when they are doing nothing but being polite children or just acting like kids.

    It’s too bad that our differences are not celebrated in the way they should be, but are instead made into positives or negatives due to stereotypes society has taken to heart.

  3. Sarah Kilts says:

    My 12 yr old (caucasian) daughter was thrown out of a souvenir shop for a similar incident last week (moved some t-shirts so she could see the display case). She was indignant and wanted to “report” the woman… then we told her about your daughters’ experience and it gave her pause. While she was asked to leave — no one threatened to call the police!! It was a good lesson in how she benefits from white privilege (which can be a difficult thing to teach). She then wanted to go “report” the shopkeeper you dealt with! Great to be raising gurls with a strong sense of justice. Wish the world didn’t have so much injustice 🙁

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