What Does It Mean to Be Queer-Friendly?

I found myself disappointed the other day when I googled, “What does it mean to be queer-friendly?” The search results only yielded articles, think pieces and click bait that attempted to define the word “Queer.” But, googling “what does it mean to be queer-friendly?” got me pretty much nowhere. I was looking for a checklist that gave me all the easy answers to life. But its just not that easy.

What Does It Mean To Be Queer-Friendly? - www.ShayAuLait.com
Photography Credit: Dennis Manuel

I googled that phrase because I had recently received a message with a simple question that threw me down a rabbit’s hole for a few days.

“Can you recommend a pole dance studio in NYC that is queer friendly?”

That’s such a simple ask. An associate said she had a friend who pole danced but was new to the NYC scene and they wanted my recommendation on studios that were queer-friendly. That was new to me. I’m often asked for pole dance studio recommendations but its usually with other prerequisites. I wasn’t sure how to qualify a studio as being “queer-friendly.”

My initial response was, “From what I’ve experienced, every pole studio is queer-friendly. To narrow your choices, you’d need to decide what more you’re looking for as they all are different. I recommend taking an intro class at S Factor, Body&Pole and Incredipole. Based on your experience decide which one suits your preference. I’ve always taken classes at every studio. Right now my favorite is Incredipole in Brooklyn. Honestly, I’m not sure what qualifies as “queer-friendly” for you, so it would be hard to make recommendations without knowing more of what you’re looking for in a queer-friendly studio. I’m bisexual and identify as queer and every studio I’ve taken classes at have felt queer-friendly to me. But what that means for me may be different for you.”

There’s so much ignorance in my response but we will get to that later. What I will give myself credit for is recognizing my own ignorance. As my response to her felt a bit off, I turned to a few friends and google.

“What does it mean to be queer-friendly?”

I asked myself that question so many times, that I began to think the question itself was ignorant and borderline offensive. Imagine googling, “What does it mean to be black-friendly?” or “What does it mean to be woman-friendly?” Does one have to actually ask that question? Rephrasing it shifted my views and definitely the search results. Ultimately what I was after was guidance on how movement and fitness spaces could intentionally be inclusive, specifically for those who identify as queer. So after changing my search terms, I happened upon, “Queer 101: Identity, Inclusion and Resources.

In the article, the first thing they do is define the term “queer.” I appreciated the numerous ways they broke the word down. I identify as queer but I haven’t been able to articulate why and I always felt I wasn’t “queer enough” for the community, but still I identified as queer. To be honest, I’d always just say I was, “other.” One of their definitions that helped me articulate myself was the following:

Queer (adj.): not fitting cultural norms around sexuality and/or gender identity/expression.Queer can be a label claimed by a person who feels that they personally don’t fit into dominant norms, due to their own gender identity/expression, their sexual practices, their relationship style, etc.

– Unitarian Universalists Association

That specific definition fits my queer-ness. I identify as a woman. I’m also bi-sexual. I’m also poly by blood but am in a monogamous, hetero-normative relationship. I’m also deep in kink and have some quirky to outrageous fetishes. Gas masks, anyone? Latex rubber dolls? No? Add into that that I’m black. I’m a pole dancer and burlesque dancer. My entire life is TABOO. And yet what feels the most taboo is that I’m in a monogamous relationship with a somewhat conservative man, who goes by Savage. So yeah, those things and more have always made me feel queer.

The next thing the article addressed was “10 Ways to Be More Welcoming and Inclusive of Queer People.” I think that’s the closest I was going to get to a google search of “What Does Queer-Friendly Mean?” I encourage you to read the article.

The next thing I did was a google search for “queer friendly dance studios” and “queer-friendly fitness studios.” I happened upon, “Queer-Friendly Gyms Grow in the East Bay.”

“You’re not going to go to the gym if you don’t feel comfortable, safe, included, or welcome,” said Huerta. “Going to the gym alone for any person can be a challenge, and then when you layer that with not feeling safe in the locker room, or being gendered at the front desk, that’s a lot of barriers.”

East Bay Express

While everything in the article didn’t resonate with me, some things stood out like that quote. When you go to your dance or fitness class, aside from your own issues that are yours alone to deal with….do you feel comfortable, safe, included and welcomed? Other things that stood out were:

  • Queer Gym, the main studio profiled in the article develops workout routines that help trans individuals prepare and recover from gender reassignment surgery. I never thought about this before. I’m always conscious of a pole or burlesque studio teaching in a way that includes the “male” body, as so much is taught to the “female” body. But what about trans individuals or anyone non-binary? This makes me check myself for biases in my dance curriculum. I account for men. But honestly, I’ve only been taking into consideration women and men. Even my partner, after taking an Intro to Pole class, emphasized the need to not teach towards “men” and “women” specifically but to almost teach in an androgynous way. I think the lesson is to teach in a way that accounts for the fact that we all have different bodies.
  • Every session at Queer Gym begins with members introducing themselves by name and pronoun. I learned from Bernadette Pleasant’s experience at Touch&Play, as well as some speciality training that she took, as well as in completing her Femme! Teacher Training program that I had to take this into account immediately. I begin every burlesque dance class sitting in a circle with my students. In my printed lesson plan for the day, I also have a checklist form with columns like, “Name,” “Pronoun,” “Burlesque Experience” and “Notes.” And then I go around asking each student what their name is and their pronoun. Every single class. Every time. I fill in my worksheet and keep it in my SpeakEasy Burlesque bible. Asking about pronouns is an intentional step towards ensuring I use inclusive language when giving instruction.
  • It appears that its mandatory for staff to undergo Queer 101 training. I think this should be required. Any type of sensitivity or inclusive training would be very helpful to staff, teachers and even students! I think that there are people who are qualified, who should go around the pole and burlesque and other boutique fitness or dance studios offering workshop trainings. If you’re going to have these kinds of trainings, it should come from people within the community who have created safe spaces that center on that particular topic. You can also contact any organization specific to the sensitivity training you’re doing to inquire about their offerings. Doing this internally, in the way I see companies handle it, is honestly a load of shit and just another way to protect biases.

There are certain people who come to mind too, who have a body of work or resources on sensitivity training

  • Roz “The Diva” Mays – She offers a workshop titled, “Coaching Plus Size Athletes.”
  • Rashida Khanbey-Miller – She has an article titled, “5 Tips to End Sexual Shaming in Your Sensual Dance Classes and Studios.” Its basically Queer 101 and can easily be turned into a workshop
  • Bernadette Pleasant – She teaches a workshop titled, “Emotion in Motion” which explores emotional expression, emotional intelligence and emotional healing. Many dance teachers love evoking emotions, especially heavy ones in their movement classes, especially the freestyle ones but they don’t always know how to handle “Emotional After Care” which what they’ve unleashed in their students.
  • Dalijah Franklin – As she is the Creator of Black Girls Pole, I’m pretty sure she could be tapped to lead a training or seminar on inclusivity as it pertains to race specifically.

Just imagine as a studio owner having a weekend of workshops that your staff and teachers take that will help them to be inclusive on all types of subject matter from race to gender to sexual orientation, body types and more! Or maybe that needs to be a conference or a summit. And students should come too.

So lets go back to my shit storm of a response to her that I regret initially sending. After stating that every studio was queer-friendly, I began qualifying things for myself.

Queer-Friendly LANGUAGE

There’s one particular studio that comes to mind that is specifically geared towards mostly heterosexual cis-gendered women. The language they use and how they teach is meant for that kind of women. So while I love them and highly recommend them for other reasons, I can’t say they are queer-friendly. If my pronoun were they or I was trans or asexual, I more than likely would not feel comfortable, safe, included or welcomed.

Queer-Friendly REPRESENTATION

Now personally, the only representation that I need in a studio are teachers who vibe in the same energy of eroticism as me. I need a place where people hold requim for pleasure, sensuality and a self-proclaimed “floor fucker.” Studios that are focused on technique, training and raise a nose to exotic or erotic movement…they don’t work for me.

If I translate that though, that means is their representation for a queer person in a studio? People think of racial diversity, right. Are there other black students or black teachers like me, a newbie might wonder. Well, I’m sure there are queer students who ask the same thing for many reasons. So I thought back to all the studios and there were some that I could say are “queer-friendly” based on representation alone. There’s so many categories to think about with representation from race to body type to gender and more. There’s one NYC studio where there is representation in the teachers and students. Another studio moreso, has representation in its student-body make up, but not really with its instructors. And the same studio that isn’t queer-friendly with their language…also isn’t queer-friendly with representation.

Queer-Friendly Inclusive Specific Programming

Honestly, I haven’t seen this at any studio. I haven’t seen queer-friendly programming and seldom do I see inclusive programming of all the sensitivities. This could range from having programming like Queer Gym that has a special offering for those who are pre/post op. But it could also focus on other things too. When I asked around about what it meant to be “Queer-friendly,” one response was….

I think I was a bit spoiled by my classes back in Oakland, which were taught by a queer black woman and were designated for queer and trans people of color only. It was a really special space and my introduction to pole. I have heard of another QTPOC pole class here in New York, but it is only offered once a month and is held up in the Bronx, over two hours from where I live.

– P

For this person, queer-friendly means sometimes having classes that are specifically for QTPOC. I get it. This is probably why organizations and communities popped up like…

  • Black Girls Pole – “Black Girls Pole is an organization striving to diversify the pole community by inspiring, empowering, and educating women of color about pole dancing. BGP is a movement to  both celebrate and introduce new faces to the transformative power of pole. BGP aims to provide a platform for women of color to embrace their bodies, challenge their body, mind and spirit and express their own unique individuality.”
  • Queer Pole NYC – “An inclusive space to connect with other Queer Polers, share our struggles and successes, and discuss how to make the pole world a more inclusive place for people like us. “
  • Queer Pole London – “Pole dancing lessons for people who identify as LGBTQ+. Queer Pole is founded on the principle that pole should be accessible; as such Queer Pole aims to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people which is financially viable for everyone. The lessons aim to be explicitly inclusive of QTIPOC, trans & non-binary people, and queer sex workers. In order to be as inclusive as possible the lessons run on a tiered payment system with no-one turned away for lack of funds.” They have a bullet point list of how they are being “queer-friendly.” Check it out actually. The intention to use “ungendered marketing” caught my eye.
  • 100% Queer NYC “A NYC based all genders queer pole & sensual arts squad. We curate our own events, add flavor to yours, and collaborate with other pole, aerial, and sensual arts communities.”

Queer-Friendly and Inclusive Marketing

There are many studios who tout themselves as being inclusive and saying everyone is welcomed and yet their marketing speaks to cis-gendered women who like pink. The way you market your brand, business or boutique attracts a specific type of clientele to you and repeals the people who are not for you. However, you can’t say all are welcomed and yet your messaging doesn’t reflect that! That could be in the words, the images and more. For instance, is it possible to have a pole dance studio who’s logo is not a woman on a pole? There are so many design options out there. What is we took both those elements out? As a queer person, if I were to look at your last event flyer, your website or your last instagram post, would I feel comfortable, safe, included and welcomed?

Those are some of the main things that came to mind besides what’s shared in the articles I’ve linked to. I’m sure there’s more but as its clear, I’m working through my own ignorance and I’m queer myself.

I asked others what “Queer-Friendly” meant and here’s an explanation that came via Instagram.

“I feel any form of expressive dance is queer friendly. It’s implied in the  format of the class. Its creating an expressive, emotional, open, loving, and supportive environment. I feel these expressive dance classes help me grow mentally and physically. These classes, in my opinion, have taught me self love, and a willingness to be more open and positive. I’ve also learned how to become more supportive of one another no matter what the situation. The better you feel about yourself the more positivity you can put out into the universe. I feel it’s all semantics, if your intent is to create an open, expressive, safe, loving, tolerant, supportive, and comfortable environment, and I felt you accomplished that, then mission accomplished.”

– C

This works, only if a studio is ensuring that every aspect of their business is inclusive and safe and expressive and open and such. Some places say that are “open” and “all are welcomed” but the language they use or how they act implies something else. Their biases could be subconscious or just plain ignorance. Or it could be the truth of how a person feels.

Imagine going to a studio and the staff, teachers and/or students are giving off the vibe that they are uncomfortable with your presence. So in general, if you’re an “open and safe” studio, that’s awesome. However, there is usually more work to be done.

My mind is still racing as I still feel that I need to explore this topic some more. I want to create a list of bullet points of what it means to be “queer-friendly” or actually “inclusive” taking into account race and other things as well and then I want to honestly evaluate pole studios, burlesque academies and pole and burlesque shows, productions and events. On the surface, it seems like we are doing awesome. But that’s not true.

This topic also made me think of my three sisters, as all four of us identify as bi-sexual. Our ages vary and its not like we have all been on a four-way call discussing our sexual orientation. (Though now that sounds like a fun sister chat to have.) I learned my 24 year old student was Bi many years ago when she was still in highschool. She called to tell me. But I had an idea it was coming after seeing that she binge watched, “The L Word” on my Netflix account in one night. Something told me I’d get a call from her soon. I learned my soon to be 20 year old sister was Bi via Instagram while she answered questions via her Stories and was asked specifically about her attraction to women. I learned my 14 year old sister was Bi over the past two years via her instagram too. And yet if you knew all of us, what it means to be Bi or Queer or even a woman of color is vastly different.

I wonder what our four separate responses would be if we all took a pole class together. I’m pretty sure results would vary. There’d be one sister saying how open and inclusive it was with yet another not really feeling it. So in some ways, its also subjective.

Thankfully, there are organizations like the ones I listed above that are more educated and they can speak on this matter. While some of this is subjective, some things are universal and a lot of studios could stand to do even more to be a truly inclusive and safe space for everyone…or for select groups.

In either case, these were just my initial thoughts as I tried to dish out a recommendation for a queer-friendly pole studio in NYC. Right now, place your bets on Incredipole. I’m sure this is just part one of a series of exploring Inclusivity, so just stayed tuned for more. I plan on interviewing a few peeps about this, talking with my sisters and creating this evaluation form too.

The Genderbread Person - www.ShayAuLait.com

Also check out these other amazing resources I found while digging around that cover different inclusivity topics:

  • Gender and Circus Coaching – “A guide to the sometimes complex world of gender, in the context of teaching and mentoring youth in circus arts.” But this can be applied to all forms of art, entertainment, fitness and dance.
  • The Genderbread Person – “A teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces.” This is my favorite thing ever.
  • Genderbread Person, LGBTQ Umbrella and a Lesson Plan – “Using the Genderbread Person as a guide, the activity leads participants to understand the important difference between gender, sex, and sexual orientation. “
  • The Black List by Black Girls Pole – “A list of black-owned Pole and Aerial studios in the United States and abroad so you can support small business owners in the black community!”
  • Black Burlesque Directory – “Created out of a desire to fill more dressing rooms and burlesque productions with black performers, this directory is meant to be used as a tool for both producers and performers.  it is my hope that this directory encourages the hiring of black performers across the globe.  so that on any given day a black audience member can enjoy a show having seen a reflection of their experience and beauty.”
  • The Asexual Visibility and Education Network – “AVEN hosts the world’s largest online asexual community as well as a large archive of resources on asexuality. AVEN strives to create open, honest discussion about asexuality among sexual and asexual people alike.”
  • LBGTQ Resource List via GlaadSelf explanatory resource list via Glaad.
  • Bisexual Resource Center – “BRC is committed to providing support to the bisexual community and raising public awareness about bisexuality and bisexual people.” God, I need to educate myself further on my own sexual orientation. I didn’t know this organization existed.
  • 10 Tips for Bi-Inclusivity – “Ten Tips on How to be Bi-inclusive in Your Programs & Services For LGBTQ Elders” – This can be applied to all forms of inclusivity.
  • Me and White Supremacy Workbook – “Part education, part activation, the Me And White Supremacy Workbook is a first-of-its-kind personal anti-racism tool for people holding white privilege to begin to examine and dismantle their complicity in the oppressive system of white supremacy.”
  • A Guide to Gender: – The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook – “When it comes to understanding gender, it’s best to begin with deep breath, then with section one of this book by social justice advocate Sam Killermann, who uses clear language, helpful examples, and a bit of humor to help the medicine go down. It is a couple hundred pages of gender exploration, social justice how-tos, practical resources, and fun graphics & comics.”
  • Sexualitree -“A comprehensive model to help us see how we experience sexuality in different ways.”
  • The Safe Zone Project – “The Safe Zone Project is a free online resource for powerful, effective LGBTQ awareness and ally training workshops.”
  • Taking Up Space Versus Adding to Space – “Questions to Consider. Unpacking the phrase “you’re taking up space,” and talking about showing up in a social justice framework.”
  • Facilitating XYZ – “A free online resource for all facilitators”

What does it mean to be a Queer-friendly dance or fitness studio to you? And what places would you recommend for pole, burlesque, sensual movement and/or boutique fitness?

Showing 2 comments
  • Liz
    Reply

    This was a super helpful read. I’m a yoga teacher trying to make the language I use when I teach more inclusive. I bookmarked a bunch of the resources!

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