The Intersection Of Space And Identity: How Queer Women Navigate Heterosexual Public Spaces

The concept of the glass ceiling was introduced to highlight an unacknowledged barrier to professional advancement for both women and minority communities.

The places and spaces we occupy are not merely physical environments; they have the potential to significantly affect our self-concept. The homes we live in and the shared public spaces we visit mould our identity on several levels. We learn social cues; we regulate our behaviour to match those around us, and in the process learn things about who we are and how we want to express ourselves. The interactions we have with our physical environments create a continuous sense of self. For the LGBTQIA+ community, spaces hold an elevated meaning. The scope for discrimination in shared public spaces is vast, thereby making it extremely difficult to navigate. Coming to terms with your queer identity in conventional, shared spaces that are designed and predisposed to heterosexuality as the norm is an arduous process. Queer women have to negotiate discrimination and stereotypes in shared spaces on two levels – their sexuality and their gender. How do they assert their identities in public spaces that are designed to see them as anomalies?

The concept of the glass ceiling was introduced to highlight an unacknowledged barrier to professional advancement for both women and minority communities. Women in the workplace have constantly struggled to prove themselves, to find ways to declare that their contribution is significant and worthwhile. Despite sustained efforts, the presence of the gender pay gap and global accounts of gender discrimination in the workplace continue to pose a hurdle to equality. For lesbian and queer women, because discrimination at the work place exists because of their gender and their sexuality, it has resulted in the phenomenon of the ‘double-glazed glass ceiling’. Queer women often have to hide aspects of their personal life to avoid negative reactions from their co-workers. Research in the US has shown that 62% of LGBT graduates who have been out throughout college will hide their sexuality from their first employers.

The fear of being looked at as the ‘other’ is a major cause of unease and anxiety for queer women in the workplace. Meera Kale, a 24-year-old, bisexual woman who works as an educator has found herself altering her behaviour for fear of being judged. She says: “I find myself censoring details of my personal life or avoiding colleagues altogether for fear of making them uncomfortable or being judged. The staff room is a relaxed, informal space, with teachers freely sharing what’s on their minds, including their spouses and in-laws and children or even mental health struggles. Initially, as a cautionary measure, I found myself actively drawing and defending the line between personal and professional.” Gender presentation is also a matter of concern for queer women who may have different ways of expressing themselves that don’t necessarily adhere to what is considered conventional at the workplace. Meera says, “I prefer to present androgynously (or generally gnc) through hair, makeup and clothing, but there was a strict, gendered dress code at my workplace. I felt I could safely and subtly “express” my queerness through rainbow backpack stickers and jacket patches.”

Subashree, also a 26-year-old bisexual woman educator, explains how she has to assert herself at the workplace, “I tend to be more stern than I actually am at work. I also have to remind people not to interrupt me (or anyone) and to wait for their turn to speak.” Negative experiences are not the norm, there are queer women who find it relatively easier to assert their identities in their workplace. Trina, a 25-year-old lesbian woman, who works as a client servicing executive is comfortable in expressing herself. She says “I think because I’m in a space where my colleagues are all very young and from similar backgrounds, so they will listen if I have something to say. Clients are more different, sometimes I’ve had to take a male colleague along (depending on the client) to be taken seriously.”

There’s an inherent cognitive dissonance when queer, especially queer presenting, women find themselves in spaces that force them to behave in ways that go against their attitudes and beliefs. The workplace is only one example of a shared space that has the potential to evoke mental stress. Restaurants, bars, malls, spaces that inhabit huge crowds can also become a task to navigate. Heterosexual hegemony keeps power structures in place, upholding a culture of conformity that stigmatises anyone who rejects it. The fear of disclosing one’s identity in a space that sees it as an anomaly can be very disconcerting for queer women. Meera explains her anxieties in public spaces saying, “I feel safe and comfortable in most establishments where I am a paying customer. I expect surprise and confusion from staff but am not daunted by the possible judgement from other customers and clientele present – as such I am freely affectionate and explicit/uncensored in these settings. I feel very differently in public, uncontrolled environments. Depending on who’s around and which city and neighbourhood I’m in, I may fear for my safety and be on guard, and move quicker and wear my hair down and avoid direct eye contact. I speak extra high and soft and sweet to “throw off” the average straight person’s perceptions of gnc people as threatening, dangerous or antisocial.” 

For queer women, there seems to be an overwhelming need to project yourself as someone else entirely to feel safe and accepted in public spaces. Meera adds, “I feel watched most of the time that I am in public, simply on account of my appearance. Sometimes, I feel judged as pretentious or attention-seeking, but that is easier to ignore than when I perceive disgust and fear. When I do perceive disgust or a more threatening flavour of disapproval, I seek reassurance from those around me. I walk directly behind them or help them navigate their way out of a crowd in the quickest way possible.”

The emergence of queer spaces is a result of such fear and panic. The need for a space that allows you to express yourself authentically is sorely lacking in most public, shared spaces that exist in our modern society. While workplaces make attempts to be more inclusive and incorporate rules that promote acceptance, lesbian and queer women still find it exceedingly hard to assert their identities in a manner they deem appropriate. The pressure to be accepted is daunting and can cause major conflicts in the way they view themselves. Passing laws and laying out protocol for more tolerant behaviour is in conflict with cultural mindsets that still privilege heterosexuality and a heteronomative understanding of the way women  (should) express themselves. For public spaces to be truly inclusive and allow queer women to exist without fear and shame, there needs to be seismic shift in how society at large perceives women and the LGBTQIA+ community. 

About the author

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.