The Power of Inclusive Spaces: LGBTQIA+ Health and Well-Being

“Beginning more than a half-century ago, sexual and gender diverse (SGD) community organizations emerged and began to provide spaces for people not only to name and recognize their identities but also to establish venues and strategies for collective action toward visibility and, ultimately, social recognition and legal rights. These spaces, whether physical, virtual, or institutional, have been instrumental in providing the resources and physical ability to convene for SGD communities.” (Understanding the Well-Being of LGBTQI+ Populations, Chapter 7, pg. 168 - The Importance of Space to Sexual and Gender Diverse Communities)

The History of LGBTQ Spaces

The history of LGBTQ spaces is rich and varied, evolving alongside the broader social, cultural, and political changes affecting the LGBTQ+ community. The first recognizable LGBTQ spaces began to emerge in the 19th century in urban centers like New York, London, and Berlin. These were often covert and underground due to widespread legal and social discrimination. The early 20th century saw a relative flourishing of LGBTQ spaces in cities like Berlin, which was known for its vibrant queer culture during the Weimar Republic. Bars, nightclubs, and cabarets served as social and cultural hubs. In the United States during this time, the Harlem Renaissance in New York City was notable for its relatively open LGBTQ culture, with many LGBTQ artists and writers finding community in Harlem’s speakeasies and salons. 

After World War II, LGBTQ spaces became more widespread but also faced increased scrutiny and policing. This era saw the rise of gay bars as central community spaces, though they were often subject to raids and harassment. In the 1950s and 1960s The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were among the first LGBTQ organizations in the U.S., providing spaces for socializing, support, and activism. During this period, lesbian bars also began to emerge as important social centers for women.

In 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York City marked a turning point, catalyzing the modern LGBTQ rights movement. The riots occurred at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, highlighting the importance of such spaces in the community. The 1970’s decade saw the proliferation of LGBTQ spaces, including community centers, bookstores, and political organizations. Pride marches began, creating public spaces for LGBTQ visibility and celebration. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of LGBTQ cultural spaces, including theaters, film festivals, and art galleries, which provided platforms for LGBTQ voices and stories.

In Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1980s and 90s, inclusive spaces like The Crazy Ladies Bookstore, Carol’s Cafe, The Dock, and the Northside neighborhood were environments that welcomed and accommodated people of different backgrounds, abilities, identities, and preferences. They were designed to foster a sense of belonging, respect, and dignity for everyone who visited them. 

Role of Space in LGBTQ+ Well-Being

Spaces play a crucial role in fostering a sense of belonging within the LGBTQ+ community. Inclusive spaces are environments where all individuals feel welcomed, valued, respected, and supported, regardless of their identity, background, or experiences. Inclusive spaces are intentionally designed to accommodate and affirm the diversity of the people who use them. These spaces aim to remove barriers to participation and ensure that everyone can access and benefit from the environment, services, and opportunities provided. They provide a sense of acceptance and validation and help reduce feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression that often result from discrimination and marginalization. Inclusive spaces play a pivotal role in enhancing the health and well-being of LGBTQIA+ individuals by fostering supportive communities, ensuring access to specialized care, and promoting empowerment and advocacy. 

Conversely, unsafe spaces have profound negative impacts on the health and well-being of LGBTQIA+ individuals—increasing exposure to violence, discrimination, and stress, and reducing access to essential health services and supportive social networks. For example, in educational settings where homophobic or transphobic bullying is prevalent, LGBTQIA+ students may experience heightened levels of anxiety and depression, leading to poor academic performance and higher dropout rates. In workplaces where discriminatory practices are tolerated, LGBTQIA+ employees might face harassment, exclusion, or unequal opportunities for advancement, which can result in lower job satisfaction and economic instability.

Combating the negative effects of unsafe spaces on LQBTQIA+ community members requires creating safe, inclusive, and supportive environments. These Inclusive spaces not only reduce harms, they strengthen well-being, build civic muscle, and lay foundations for advancing more just communities for all.

  • Safe Havens: LGBTQ+ spaces serve as safe havens where individuals can express their identities without fear of judgment, discrimination, or violence. This is particularly important in environments where LGBTQ+ people may face hostility or lack of acceptance.
  • Foster Community: These spaces help build community by bringing together individuals who share similar experiences and challenges. This sense of community can be incredibly affirming and supportive and help people feel less isolated. These spaces also often embrace the intersectional nature of identities, acknowledging and addressing the varied experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, including those related to race, gender, disability, and other aspects of identity.
  • Cultural Preservation and Celebration: LGBTQ+ spaces often celebrate and preserve the unique cultures, histories, and traditions of the community. Events like Pride parades, queer film festivals, and drag shows are examples of cultural expression and celebration that take place in these spaces.
  • Support Networks: These spaces include community centers, affirming religious or spiritual groups, Employee Assistance Programs, social service agencies and often provide essential support networks, offering resources such as counseling, legal advice, health services, and support groups. These networks can be vital for mental health, well-being, and survival, particularly for those who may not have support from their families or broader society.
  • Advocacy and Activism: Many LGBTQ+ spaces serve as hubs for activism and advocacy. They provide a platform for organizing and mobilizing efforts to fight for rights, equality, and social justice. This collective action can drive significant societal change.
  • Education and Awareness: These spaces frequently host educational events, workshops, and discussions that promote awareness and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues both within the community and to the wider public. This can help combat ignorance and prejudice.
  • Visibility and Representation: Visibility in LGBTQ+ spaces helps challenge stereotypes and broadens the representation of the community. This visibility is crucial for normalizing LGBTQ+ identities and promoting broader societal acceptance.
  • Intergenerational Connections: LGBTQ+ spaces often facilitate connections between different generations within the community. These intergenerational relationships can provide mentorship, historical context, and a sense of continuity and resilience.

LGBTQ+ Identification and Space Impacts

LGBTQ+ identification in the U.S. continues to grow, with 7.6 percent of U.S. adults now identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or some other sexual orientation besides heterosexual. The current figure is up from 5.6 percent four years ago and 3.5 percent in 2012, Gallup’s first year of measuring sexual orientation and transgender identity.

According to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, 59.1% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 42.5% because of their gender expression and 37.4% because of their gender. And nearly a fifth of all LGBTQ students (17.1%) reported having ever changed schools due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. LGBTQ youth are also more likely than their peers to be forced to leave their homes, accounting for a disproportionate 40% of the youth homeless population.

In May 2021, the UCLA Williams Institute used a survey to explore the experiences of employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT adults, which constitute over 8 million workers in the U.S. Their analysis indicates that employment discrimination against LGBT people continues to be persistent and widespread. Over 40% of LGBT workers reported experiencing unfair treatment at work, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives. Overall, 8.9% of employed LGBT people reported that they were fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year, including 11.3% of LGBT employees of color and 6.5% of white LGBT employees. Employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT people have been documented in a variety of sources and found to negatively impact employees’ health and well-being and to reduce job commitment and satisfaction. 

Taking Action to Expand LGBTQ+ Inclusive Spaces

For decades there have been efforts to expand equitable and inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA+ community members. Many of those efforts have focused on the places we all need to thrive such as worksites, lifelong learning environments, and public spaces. The collective efforts share the following approaches in common:

  • Emphasize education and awareness to combat discrimination promote inclusivity based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors, and foster a sense of belonging and inclusion.

  • Provide programs, networking, and support systems to empower LGBTQ+ individuals and their families

  • Support LGBTQ+ youth through inclusive curricula, clubs, mentorship, and leadership programs.

  • Advocate for healthcare benefits covering gender-affirming care and clear reporting mechanisms for discrimination incidents.

  • Engage and co-create with the LGBTQ+ community to strengthen participatory processes, amplify local assets and leaders, and ensure ongoing involvement of diverse voices in decision-making.

  • Challenge suppressive legislation and speak up when seeing discrimination, othering, and unsafe environments 

  • Establish comprehensive non-discrimination