The heartbreaking loss of 36 people and with many more injured or missing, the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire resonates with queers globally.
It is devastating and unsurprising that some of those who lost their lives in the warehouse which functioned as an artists’ studio includes members of the LGBTIQA community. On 48 Hills, Marke B. describes these people as “denizens of a tight-knit scene, much of it queer and of colour, that nourished itself on DIY dedication and a true family spirit.”
The Ghost Ship operated as a haven for creative queers across the Fruitvale neighbourhood of Oakland, California. A warehouse set amongst the burgeoning upper-class bougsie Oakland skyline, the Ghost Ship was an oasis in what (somewhere between 18 and 25) young artists considered to be a barren, classist wasteland.
The New York Times reports that criminal investigations are underway in light of the Ghost Ship violating codes that state it was able to function as a warehouse, but not as a residence or for a party. The Los Angeles Times stated that there had been more than three complaints of ‘illegal activity’ including one of illegal building brought to Oakland City building and safety officials this year. Yesterday, the same site published an article which spoke to the impacts of gentrification on the Bay Area of San Francisco and ultimately pointed to investment in high-end waterfront apartments producing potentially unsafe spaces for young creatives.
The narrative of young people living, working, partying and hanging out in so-called illegal places is well documented and is not the specific focus of this blog post. Rather, as Gabe Meline of kqed.org points out ‘…for many of us, these spaces are what have kept us alive. In a world that demands its inhabitants to be a certain way, think a certain way, or live a certain way, we gravitate to the spaces that say: Welcome. Be yourself. For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of colour, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand — or can’t, or doesn’t seem to want to try.’
Emerging details of those who did not survive the Ghost Ship fire indicate that at least three transpeople were unable to escape the blaze. It is little wonder that transpeople find community in these physically unsafe places when The National Centre for Transgender Equality shows one in five trans people face discrimination when looking for a home and one in ten have been evicted because of their gender identity. These figures are replicated in an Australian and New Zealand context which speaks to the overwhelming marginalisation of gender non-conforming youth in a global sense.
Where no funding and outright transphobia constrain opportunities to create safe(r) spaces for queer people, places like the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse are where queer folk gather because they are friendly and inclusive but, come with physical risk of harm. Kimya Dawson, an American musician posted to Facebook ‘…we meet in warehouses. Where we can just love on each other and escape from all the scariness and sadness. We take care of each other in our unsafe spaces that can feel so much safer than your safest spaces. Imagine you were on a sinking ship. And there is only one lifeboat. And someone screams that there is a chance the lifeboat might tip over. You’ll take that chance…. We’re not trying to put each other in danger. We are trying to save each other’s lives. We love each other so much.’
Queer people are, and have always been, claiming space. They do this not only in punk scenes but in relevant streets, buildings, rural and urban places. These stories of creating safe(r) spaces in unsafe places are at the heart of a DIY punk ethic; the building itself does not constitute safety, but the bodies who make it up do. The bodies are that which bring a space into being. And so, safe(r) spaces are temporal and mobile, they are generated around bodies and pulled apart where necessary. As Tammy Thomas writes ‘the most important safe space in my life is the one that travels with me, the one that’s made of my friends and our broader social network. When I’m part of a group of other gender and sexually diverse people I am at my safest.’
According to my observations as a researcher and contributor, and as a woman in the punk scene, there is a nuance of participatory action that points to the affect of fear, of feeling fearful, as an embedded distinction of safety. As a product of fear, the experience of any particular environment varies across individuals and genders (Mazey and Lee 1983; Tuan 1974). While gendered spaces have been documented extensively in ‘leisurescapes’ and critical geographies, very little empirical research has been recorded that describes queer(ed) spatialities and their relationship to safety.
And while much of mainstream media reports on the irresponsibility of warehouse managers and tenants to gain permits and allowing inspections of these warehouse spaces, little is mentioned in the way of inevitable eviction if they had done so. The punks who sought refuge in Ghost Ship would have one less place to be themselves. “If you can’t afford to buy a million-dollar home, then you can’t afford to live in this city unless you’re willing to risk your safety,” housing rights activist María Poblet told The Guardian, “And that’s unconscionable.”