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This is a Safe Space: My Experience in Portland’s Progressive Bubble

Portland Oregon Skyline

Portland Skyline (Photo: GoGayToday)

By Ali Dopp

Having moved to Portland from Washington, D.C., I’ve traded in my weekends of lesbian brunch and bottomless mimosas for hikes topped off with lunch and beers at a brewery. I’ve donated my business professional black suits and replaced them with jeans, sneakers and an endless supply of flannel. I feel comfortable and cozy. Here we are facing a Trump presidency, the very existence of which hurts my soul, and I am weathering it in my own bubble, a safe space I curated for myself in Portland, Ore. I am living as a queer white woman in one of the most progressive cities in the nation.

A year and a half ago, I could walk out of my apartment, step into the crosswalk, gaze over my shoulder, and catch a glimpse of the White House. These moments never grew old. As my home through the challenging times of coming out and finding a partner, D.C. was a safe space for me, too. But with the way I was living at the time, I was never able to be my authentic self in all aspects of life. There was the buttoned-up work me, the me that was a chameleon across friend circles, and the real me. While I was out to most of the new people I met, the need to out myself to close friends and casual acquaintances who knew or perceived me as straight for many years weighed on me.

So what makes my experience of being queer in Portland different from that of other cities? For me, it’s that things move a little slower, people are a little nicer (even when they’re being Portland passive aggressive), and it feels like no one cares if I’m queer here. When I was first looking to move to Portland, I asked a friend where I should live, “Where is the gayborhood?”

“Um, all of Portland is gay,” she replied.

Now I see what she means. Who I am is a non-issue everywhere I go. I am out at work, to friends, to service providers and have never had an actual or perceived issue. I don’t have to put so much effort into proactively outing myself to avoid that awkward moment when someone makes the assumption I am straight. I am more real and less calculated.

It was the day after the election—when I began running through all possible worst-case scenarios of what a Trump administration could do—that I really saw how Portland took me in and made me one of its own. I went to my coffee shop as I usually do on my way to work, but that day was different. People with puffy eyes were gathering, strangers were grieving together. I wasn’t alone.

Later that day, I had a doctor’s appointment. It felt like I had a lump in my throat. Like I couldn’t swallow. Tears began streaming down my cheeks as I told my doctor I was worried my partner and I needed to get married as soon as possible. And how terribly unromantic would that be – getting married out of fear? I was grieving over the hatred unleashed across America. I was sad some Americans thought gambling with the rights of others was their best option. My doctor grabbed tissues for both of us and showed me empathy as tears welled up in her eyes.

Later that week, desperate to practice some self-care, I got a massage. Again, as I spoke with the massage therapist about how I was doing, I started to cry.

“This is a safe space. You can do whatever you need to do here,” he said.

Those words were everything. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. This is my experience of being queer in Portland. I have so many people, even strangers, holding space for me. In each of these experiences, I awoke from a state of simply going through the motions to a deeper connection with humanity.

In my 16 months in Portland, I quickly found queer friends to fill my life with movie nights, dinner dates, lesbian camping trips, and the occasional dance parties that always leave me home before midnight because for me, life in Portland runs early and I’m going hiking in the morning anyways.

There are amazing queer events that I attend out of desire for an engaging evening, not out of necessity for a safe space. When my girlfriend and I kiss on the dance floor of the neighborhood bar, I don’t feel eyes on me the way I have in other cities. We walk down the street with the luxury of no one noticing us. No one rolls down their car window to objectify or harass us. There are no swarms of young men to accost us for walking down the street holding hands as they have in other cities. It’s almost like we are invisible. We just blend in. And it’s a relief.

So if Portland is progressive America, is this as good as it gets?

If anything, this tells me we’ve got more work to do. I acknowledge my privilege in that I feel safe in Portland while some do not. We saw this recently as numerous Women’s Marches across the country struggled to address intersectionality. For the Women’s March on Portland, discussion of lack of inclusiveness for immigrants, people of color, and queer and trans people came front and center in the weeks leading up to the event, spurring withdrawal of NAACP support and a change in march leadership. If I am a queer woman living in one of the most progressive cities in America and I take comfort in not being noticed, I can only imagine what it’s like for those who feel excluded, or even worse, feel unsafe.

Feeling invisible is a nice break from unwanted attention, but it’s not the true end game. If any good can come from life in a progressive bubble, it’s that I have the freedom to speak up from my safe space and use my voice to fight for the future I want to live in. As we look ahead at the defense we will have to play to protect LGBTQ rights and the physical safety of many, I hold onto a future that is so much more – one in which we all have a safe space. Until then, I must step outside the relief I find in just blending in and emerge empowered to be seen.