Seattle, WA & Vancouver, BC: Choose Your Own Queer Adventure

safe spaces, choose your own path, choose your own journey

2SLGBTQ+ Safe Spaces

Too many LGBTQ+ people seem to spend some time along their journey trying to fit certain “queer stereotypes,” which is ironic for many of us defining ourselves by a word that has increasingly come to embrace a celebration of being different than the norm.  I think these stereotypes can be helpful in some ways – if many of your traits and interests fit an established queer stereotype, then it can help you find your community where you can both express your interests and know you’re welcome as a queer person.   If not … where do you find queer friendly groups that also align with some of your unique interests as an individual?  One option is to start creating your own spaces, and invite others in. 

(Some of these photos are actually from a 2011 trip to Seattle since I took more leisure photos on that trip – they just seemed oddly fitting to the themes in this travel post)

Choose your own path, Seattle

There’s room to do this anywhere.  In urban areas it’s easier in some ways; you can create a space and someone out of the millions in your metro will have the same intersections of identities and interests.   In rural areas, this is trickier, but now we have no shortage of online spaces that help overcome geographical distance.   Two areas on this road trip that seemed to allow an abundance of room for creating these unique, queer spaces were Seattle in Washington, and Vancouver in British Columbia. 

Both of these socially progressive, rainy cities nestled between towering mountain ranges and the coastline, have such different vibes being only 140 miles apart on the opposite sides of an international border, but they have enough similarities that I wanted to write about my experiences visiting these two places in the same article/blog.  I also want to touch on the shadow side of Vancouver’s progressive rainbows, something that is present in every city, but being in a new country and wanting to learn about another culture, I just tuned into this a little more in Vancouver. 

The Journey to Seattle

In early May, I was still only a couple weeks into this project.  Perhaps starting off this project in Seattle seems a little cliché, with Seattle being known as an urban queer hub.  However, I just needed a place to get things off the ground while travelling, and when I was mapping out my route a couple months earlier, my partner’s old college friend called him up with a wedding invite in Seattle during the same time frame I was headed to Alaska.  A 10 day housesitting opportunity for free lodging in the Seattle suburbs fell into place in shortly after, so Seattle it was!!  

I didn’t dive into the city’s queer culture as extensively as I would have liked during a full two week stay, but still got a surface level feel.  I was a little wiped out after most of my initial trip time was consumed by cross-country driving hours from Virginia, some light touristing of national parks, and a lot of coffee shop time to network for locations further down the road.  I also got to meet up with the first person I photographed for this project, a transgendered park ranger in rural Wyoming who had no qualms about meeting up with a stranger to be photographed for a budding creative project in the middle of a chilly late-spring snowstorm. 

In Seattle, a lot of my time was spent working out photography processes as I met up with four more people for All the Genders, reconnected with my visiting nesting partner from the East Coast, celebrated our friends’ wedding over multiple days, and reconnected with a handful of other old friends and family too.  At a few points, I was asked by new friends if I grew up here, after I described a week loaded with social outings with both family and friends.  Nope, I’m just a huge Seattle fan on my fourth visit to the city, and this city seems to be a magnet for other people who have been part of mine and my partner’s past lives in Texas, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.  And since I was so bad about taking selfies or any photos outside of portrait sessions in Seattle … decided to pull some photos of my first trip there in 2011, to include a few of my nesting partner and me 12 years younger. 

PHOTOS: one of my first visits to Seattle with my married partner 12 years ago; we were both just as captivated by Seattle then!

Creating your own Queer Adventure in Seattle

After reflecting on my time in Seattle and Vancouver, I was struck by how much cultural space there is in both cities for queer people to create new spaces that fit them.  Sure, it helps to have the population of large cities to support this; if you create a space that works for you there is bound to be someone else in the 4 million+ humans of Seattle-Tacoma’s metro area who wants to be in that space with you.  Many other urban areas I’ve visited and lived in around the U.S don’t seem to hit quite the same level of pioneering queer adventure as you find in Seattle and Vancouver.   

People I met in Seattle choosing their own adventures: 

On the drive from East coast to West Coast, I spent extensive time scrolling social media and putting together outreach posts at coffee shops on the road for groups in the Seattle and Vancouver areas.  At this point, there wasn’t a lot of project to look at yet – strangers reading about my vision couldn’t see much of the vision yet.  I suspect this was why queer Facebook groups across the Seattle/Tacoma area declined to share this project citing group rules that barred promotions.

One of my social media posts must have gone through somewhere though – a couple in the Seattle suburbs reached out online.  After meeting up with them, learned about how Jeni and Cal are carving their own path by passionately sinking most of their waking hours (while also raising four kids!) into growing their business (PowerfuLove) as relationship transformation coaches, speakers and educators who are welcoming to queer and polyamorous people.  

A friend of a friend of a friend in my extended Alaskan network online happened to be an Alaskan transplant to Tacoma, and was brave enough to be only the second person I photographed for the project. They create their own escape rooms, design themed children’s parties, and are in the process of developing their own business to create a life that works for them. Mount Rainier’s continual monumental presence behind the clouds always seems to be a uniting force behind the diverse journeys of these two cities (Tacoma and Seattle), and when we met up, were lucky enough to share in the excitement of capturing Mount Rainer on a rare sunny day in the background of our photos. 

A friend who I spent time with when living in West Texas had just started embracing her queer side after recently relocating to Seattle for a unique opportunity in her career field.  It’s hard not to embrace the endless possibilities that Seattle can offer even when queerness is a more subtle part of your identity. She’s another person truly carving her own path, being passionate about making the male dominated field of geology more inclusive and diverse, while also spending years teaching yoga in her home city.  I was ecstatic that my beautiful and ambitious friend wanted to be part of this budding project; we had a ball taking sunrise photos that were quintessentially Seattle with a train rolling through a coastal park as my camera got warmed up, and mountains catching the rising sun on the other side of the water. 

Queer Groups Choosing Their own Adventures in Seattle

A cursory Google search of queer groups in Seattle brings up … well, it seems everything you could possibly want!  There are meet-up groups, non-profits, and other resources for queer people of all different cultural backgrounds, sexualities and genders, ranging from Entre Hermanos for LGBTQ+ Latinx people to Noor for LGBTQI safe spaces for LGBTQ+ Muslims.  If you’re a Seattle’ite without a group to meet your individual needs, it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream here to just create something that does.  

On my last night in Seattle, my old Texan friend invited me to a queer climbing night at a rock climbing gym.  A group of awkward personalities circled around to formally introduce themselves, then fuzzy rainbow wrist bands were handed out so members of the group could find each other on the walls after dispersing to offer warm words of encouragement for both experienced and new climbers. My climbing skills were pretty questionable, but what a wholesome way to end my stay in Seattle!  

Creating Your Own Queer Adventure in Vancouver, British Columbia

Only a few driving hours north of Seattle and an annoyingly long wait to cross an international border, Vancouver seemed to have just as many, if not more colorful avenues for queer people creating and navigating their way to unique safe spaces.  I only got to spend five days here, but it was a FULL five days of exploring the greater Vancouver area and learning about local queer culture through people who live here.

Choosing my own Mini-Adventures in Vancouver

For the most part, my Vancouver adventures were tied into the people I was photographing, but still left room to gravitate towards other things I enjoy while travelling.  While Seattle and Tacoma’s cityscapes host the promise of mountains further in the distance, Vancouver’s stunning location nestled much closer to the snow kissed mountain ranges had me in awe with every new neighborhood I explored.   And the dessert cafés are unreal!  I don’t really drink alcohol, and didn’t dine out much here to save money, but did indulge my sweet tooth in the abundance of dessert cafés!  

After my stay, I came across an article titled “The Seven Gayest Things to do in Vancouver;” half of the suggestions revolved around places to drink and seeing a drag “supergroup” in the queer district known as Davie Street.  While noisy bars and other places that result in sensory overload aren’t always part of my personal adventures, I did inadvertently hit up a couple other highlights on the list while creating my own adventures, to include “Little Sister’s.”   Someone directed me toward this historic pillar of the city’s queer community to help with my mission of finding a rainbow umbrella for rainy day shoots.  Opened by a couple in the 1980’s who was frustrated with the dearth of queer books in the city, it quickly turned into a queer community center, which over the years fought government censorship and seizure of books.  After several failed trips to giant boxstores over the two weeks prior searching for rainbow umbrellas, I walked into “Little Sisters,” and found the most gorgeous rainbow umbrella right in the entrance. To this day the store still maintains a delightful sense of underground debauchery, with tall bookshelves giving way to walls stocked to the brim with leather handcuffs and dildos.  

Other items on the list of Seven Gayest Things to do in Vancouver?   Walking the seawall, which also fits into how I choose my travel adventures.  I’m not entirely sure why the scenic walk loved by locals from all walks of life is one of the gayest things to do in Vancouver, but ironically enough, I ended up walking a long stretch of the seawall as a third wheel photographing a first date of two young queer people (funny story … check out Aramesh’s and Cole’s stories), both of whom ended up being a part of the photo project.  This 5.5 mile long seawall path flanked by sea, mountains and Vancouver neighborhoods also happens to be the longest uninterrupted waterfront path in the world! 

People I met in Vancouver Choosing Their Own Queer Adventures

Now, enough about myself traipsing around Vancouver, the main reason for the title of this article was more about the awesome people I met while here and being blown away at the number of different groups and resources available to different pockets of Vancouver’s queer community. 

One of the people I met for photographs has put their time into creating a queer art collective.  They organize a quirky and fun recurring event as part of a collective called Hot Fruit Figure Drawing that centers queer artists and models.  Participants can model for classical nude figure drawings or bring their sense of fashion to the table.  When I took a figure drawing class close to 20 years ago, I couldn’t imagine people being allowed to model who fell outside of a conventional cisgendered look.  If you don’t see yourself included in a space and you want to be welcomed in a similar space, be the one to create it! 

Another Canadian I met here learned how to fully embrace their queer identities, not in Vancouver where they grew up, but initially through an extensive trip to connect with family in Mexico and get in touch with their own heritage.  Another long-time Vancouver resident, who is a jack of all trades in the theatre world, engages in a local Queer-ASL (American Sign Language) group and puts some of their professional effort into ensuring inclusivity of Deaf Queer individuals in the theatre world.  Another person I was corresponding with online, but couldn’t make the timing work for a meet-up, expressed that she and her friends were unhappy with existing dating apps for lesbians.  So, she and two friends started pioneering their own online dating site marketed as a safe space toward lesbian identifying people. 

Everyone I met here came from such wildly different backgrounds and cultural experiences, and also had no fear in paving their own unique path forward.  

Affirming Politics mixed with the Shadow Side of Vancouver’s Rainbows

When it comes to legal protections, Canada has historically always been a few years ahead of the U.S.  The Canadian Human Rights Act was specifically amended in 1996 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Same sex marriage was legalized at a federal level in 2005, an entire decade ahead of the U.S.  British Columbia as a province, also generally stays in line with federal laws that protect 2SLGBTQ+ people.  On paper, 2SLGBTQ+ residents are fully protected from a range of discriminatory practices. 

The city of Vancouver signals that it is a welcoming place by listing 2SLGBTQ+ resources on their city website and pointing out that signage for washrooms in city owned buildings was changed to be gender affirming.   Wow – pretty cool, and rarely seen in U.S. city owned buildings.  Good intentions from local government are visible.

Gender neutral washroom sign

What does the reality look like for queer residents of BC?  While I found Vancouver’s overall vibe to be incredibly welcoming and the locals I talked to seemed to be part of inclusive and vibrant communities, there is a shadowy side to Vancouver’s rainbows.  Like many other progressive cities on the surface, homophobia and transphobia are always lurking.  Some locals attributed the loud culture wars in the U.S. to “emboldening bigots” in British Columbia, while at the same time noting that the bigotry has always been alive and visible here in more subtle ways.  A new Canadian friend said with a sigh, “it’s just that the U.S. is always louder.”   

One of my new favorite websites, a worldwide knowledge base of LGBTQ rights, illustrates Vancouver and BC’s juxtaposition.  While residents enjoy complete legal protections, public opinion and the reality for some queer people here unfortunately lags behind this a bit.  

A school teacher I photographed in Vancouver in May comfortably talked about how accepted they were teaching in at an “inner city” public school, always being able to use their preferred pronouns and dress in a way that falls outside the gender binary without being questioned or putting their career at risk.  They had talked about the school hosting a mini-Pride parade around the block as a fun way for students to learn about queer civil rights. By the time I contacted them again a month later, ready to share their story and photos online, they politely asked me not to tag their social media accounts.  There were now loud protests against the school holding any type of Pride event; the teacher still felt comfortable remaining visible as a queer person in their workplace, but wanted to avoid potentially adding more fire to the storm. 

The reality for queer, Indigenous people in BC can more shadowy, as it is throughout much of Canada.  Later on in my trip, I met a two-spirited, Indigenous Canadian in Alberta who shared vulnerable parts of their story with the small group I was a part of that day.  While they were struggling with a mental health crisis in 2020, they carefully considered where to get help as an Indigenous person and decided on seeking help from a mental health facility in Vancouver that was partnered with an Indigenous group, hoping it would be a safe place for treatment.  As the first COVID patient at the facility, they found themselves involuntarily locked into isolation, cut off from any communication with the Elder on site, and experienced violations of their autonomy that almost sounded unbelievable to me in a progressive city like Vancouver.  In this case, much of the appalling treatment they experienced stems from Canada’s systemic abuse of Indigenous people.  However, these social issues are not completely separated from other marginalized groups in the same regions, creating a need for queer people of all cultural backgrounds to work together towards safer communities.    

The Importance of Creating Spaces that Work for YOU

Do you or I need other queer people to go climbing at a gym?  Or get out on a hike?  Or go to a figure drawing class?  Not necessarily, but I think so many group oriented activities can feel inaccessible to (particularly) visibly queer people (and perhaps more often queer people of color) due to legitimate fears ranging from not being welcomed to being openly harassed.  While I’m a strong believer in people being visible as themselves in “mainstream” parts of their communities to normalize our existence for others, it is also so important to have “safe spaces” where people can thrive to their fullest.  This takes on so many different forms, ranging from dedicating most of your hours to building a unique and safe space for you and others to more casually dropping into a space you take part in for just a few hours every so often.  This Northwest corner of the U.S. and southwest corner of Canada are not without transphobia and homophobia, but leave so much room for people to create their own spaces and invite others in.  

Where do you find safe spaces unique to you, or what are some ways that you’ve created safe spaces for others?   Feel free to share in the comments below!   

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