Queer safe spaces in a post-pandemic world—what’s that going to look like?

Two bars, a church and an online mapping platform

Around this time last year, we were marching. Though the verb isn’t quite accurate—it was pouring, the traffic was impossible, we were shoe-deep in muddied grass and bits of soft, torn-up protest signs, and the most we could do in the way of actual movement was trudge forward after 20-minute intervals, an exercise in repetition-turned-temporary-reflex. Not that that mattered considering anything but convenience and comfort and the literal meaning of the word march. June 29 at the Marikina Sports Complex was loud, and the people (it was all about the people) were themselves—partly, completely, parading different permutations of selfhood. The agenda was love as dissent, dissent as love. And though, as in many things, some cracks were visible, the point was we were there and it’s the stories that count. 

Also: We were free to gather then. It’s a startling concept these days, a gathering. A year ago, we were free to think about what the Pride March and queer safe spaces meant, and what else needed to change before we could truly call this place a gay-friendly country. (The friendship remains superficial.) We can still do all this now, but not without first fearing for our health, not without first thinking of death as taking on a renewed sense of immediacy or arbitrariness. The practical facts are inescapable, rules are rules (read: some government officials think otherwise): intimacy has been prohibited, and the spaces that run on the deep, momentary bond among strangers have been deemed non-essential. 

On June 19, Today x Future (TxF), a fixture in Cubao nightlife, permanently closed. It would’ve celebrated its 12th anniversary this year. The bar, above anything else, was a safe space. “Much of what makes it safe is not just the people who run it, but also those who are in it. There is a shared responsibility to ensure that Today x Future and Futur:st will be spaces that inspire and empower,” says Samantha Samonte, one of the co-founders of TxF and Futur:st.  

For more than a decade, the owners and regulars shared a tacit dialogue about community and freedom and sexual identity; it was an institution deserving nothing less than an outpouring of lamentations and personal testimonies in reaction to its closure, and of course a Facebook group where people pretended to be at TxF. “Thank you for letting us be your space, your home where you grew up, fell in love, fell out of love, discovered so much, learned a lot, met so many people we’re sure you hold close until now,” its statement read.

Yet the fact that it closed down despite the unwavering patronage, frequent food service (and occasional pick-ups and deliveries), a brief AV collaboration series called Future Isolations, rent forgiveness from landlords, and some help from fundraisers and donations can—as is the case these days—be almost perfectly explained by the pandemic. Still, how to make sense of such a loss? Maybe we can’t; maybe we shouldn’t. Because for now we can only turn to the fact of closure and its many meanings and repercussions, worst of which is the loss of jobs. But also TxF closing means one less refuge for queer people in a country that sorely needs it, perhaps all the more so during an indefinite period of mandated isolation. “Countless queer people are not out, and are not accepted by their families within the households they’re living in. They’ve had to endure and suppress even more so during lockdown [where] how they are made to feel have been inescapable,” says Samonte.

Months into quarantine, Samonte and her business partners Leah Castañeda and Sharon Atillo did everything they could to keep both businesses afloat, relying in part on the kindness of patrons and strangers alike while exhausting their savings to keep paying their staff the same wages, as the term “non-essential” signaled an end. The owners of these so-called non-essential businesses have had to reconcile the nature of what they did for a living and the communities they’ve built with the immediate effects of a lethal virus. But for those who ran businesses that also served as queer safe spaces, the dilemma seemed not necessarily more complicated, but certainly a lot more far-reaching in its effects. It wasn’t just about not having a place to drink.