The Age Of Segregated Co-Working—Is It Leaving Out Non-Binary Femme & Butch Queens?

The influx of co-working made for just women—But as a feminine gay man, I want a gorgeous space to be included in too.

As a premise to this letter, I completely understand the need for spaces built for women and their power. Women are not equally treated in the boardroom, to remedy this, spaces such as The Hivery, The Assembly, and The Wing have created gorgeous floor plans for women to think, create, and speak freely. But sometimes I wonder, how come there aren’t any spaces for gay feminine men who crave the same level of gorgeousness. Does it feel like a form of discrimination? In my head, no, in my heart, slightly.

I can’t help but not feel included in the clique or club these spaces have created. Revel in your high school days when the cool girls wouldn’t let you sit with them—I want to feel the light pinks and beiges help my creative process. But in turn, as a male-identifying… male, I get spaces that look and feel cis-gender. Interiors that scream 40-year-old out of touch business men who value coldness over warmness. Spaces like WeWork that offer low rates to members but inhabit no sense of community or growth. All I get is the ever-reoccurring reminder that tech is prevalent and that creative spaces don’t exist unless you’re a group who builds it. It makes me feel like I need to choose one side or the other to fit in.

It makes me feel like I need to choose one side or the other to fit in.

But why do women need dedicated co-working spaces? Simply, they are tired and sick of unwanted male attention. As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements shine a light on some of the hazards of working while female, co-working hubs for women are popping up around the country.

“A lot of women are really experiencing a world that in many respects was built by men, and, whether intentionally or not, for men,” says Liz Giel, an advertising creative strategist and cofounder of The Coven tells The Week in an interview. “It can be a struggle. A part of it is learning how to navigate those struggles, and a part of it is just having a place where you can go and be yourself, and not have any of the pressure to act a certain way or look a certain way. We’ve always talked about The Coven as a place where you can show up as any version of yourself.”

The Wing SF render, photo courtesy of The Wing SF.The Wing SF render, photo courtesy of The Wing SF.

The Wing SF render, photo courtesy of The Wing SF.

The newly opened, The Wing SF, launched with an 8,000 square-foot retreat, community, and social space in the FiDi. The Wing’s mission, “is the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community,” says their website, “we believe that the act of coming together in furtherance of The Wing’s mission creates new opportunities, ideas and conversations that will lead to greater mobility and prosperity for womankind.” Though with this query, we had to do some of our own investigation. Femme queens who are inherently men, want to be involved, is it discriminatory? The ACLU reports similar findings on The Wing, “judging by The Wing’s success as both a business venture and a place for women to gather, it has undoubtedly met a real need,” says the ACLU’s site about the legality of women-only co-working spaces, “yet the commission’s job is to respond to reports of discrimination it receives, as in this case. By limiting its patrons to women only, The Wing may not be in compliance with New York’s public accommodation law — a law that exists for good reason and furthers gender equality.”

New York, like nearly every state and many cities, provides that places of public accommodation can’t discriminate against members of the public based on characteristics including race, religion, disability—or sex. Antidiscrimination laws like New York’s are why we have the freedom to go about our daily lives without fear of being turned away from retail stores, banks, and hotels simply because of who we are. So how do places like The Assembly, The Hivery, The Coven, and The Wing continue to operate.

When our team was invited to attend a free work day at The Assembly, we could feel the energy in the room. Especially because half of our team is gay men. We felt a little on pins and needles with various side-eyes from members alike. Though as the day progressed, attention was averted from us and we started to feel the magic around the room. We got shit done, we planned out content, and it was great to be apart of a space that (after a couple of hours) felt welcoming and warm. We approached the staff about why it had to be women-only when a gay man felt super at home and not judged? They responded to us with, “well… if you identify as female, we can discuss a membership here.” Which revolves back to my original question, “why do I need to choose one side or the other to fit in?”

Let’s also talk about how gay men have had to deal with cis-gender male attention in the work place, where can gay men who are more feminine go when all co-working spaces are either women-only or cis-gender male dominated? In the workplace, it’s no better, The University of Los Angeles reported studies on workplace discrimniation for those identifying as LGBT “although sexual orientation and gender identity have no relationship to workplace performance, during the past four decades a large body of research using a variety of methodologies has consistently documented high levels of discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people at work,” UCLA reports. “Evidence of discrimination has been reviewed and summarized in two recent reports by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law: a 2009 report focused on discrimination in the public sector and a 2007 report focused on employment discrimination in the private sector. This review excerpts key findings from those reports and updates those findings with results from recent studies.”

But I pose the question again, I’m a gay man with a feminine sense of self, where do I go to feel inspired, be surrounded by gorgeous things, and feel apart of a community that’s not a month long nor a gay club? Why not a Queer centric co-working space in San Francisco? Well, for those left in the dark, one did try to pop-up. And with a lack of creativity, was dubbed to be called “Yass”, a queer co-working space backed by tech money and linked to Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Though, ironically, a gay conservative who donated $1.25m to Donald Trump and joined the president’s transition team, is the sole investor behind Yass, described as a “headquarters and hangout for a new generation of queer people”. Yass, announced in November and set to open in the spring of 2018, would provide LGBTQ people who pay membership dues access to events and a co-working space and social club, according to founder and CEO Brian Tran. After major public push back, the project was scrapped all together.

“The LGBT community in San Francisco, we need a space. But we don’t need a space that is tainted by the hate of Donald Trump,” said David Campos, a former elected supervisor who represented the Mission and is gay.

So how do we marry the gorgeousness of an Assembly and the concept behind Yass? Can we even marry the two? Or is co-working set to be segregated by these fine lines? The Times reported on how these two can’t co-exist in a co-working space, “economic hardship can be bonding, as can the perils of working in a certain industry or coming from a certain demographic.” Writes Times reporter Katy Steinmetz, “when asked why he is planning to open a co-working space called Serif for LGBTQ professionals in New York City (following a scrapped plan to open up one called Yass in San Francisco), Brian Tran recalls the pains of growing up as a young gay man in Texas. “What media and society showed me were bars and clubs,” he says of places where queer people congregate. He believes a co-working space will allow people to build more “substantial connections” and plans to host events like legal workshops where lawyers help transgender people change their identification documents. “It’s really just creating a space where people can give back to their younger selves,” Tran says.

Though there has been sustainable push forward as to why women’s co-working spaces are needed in an age of #MeToo, not a single co-founder or board member at WeWork, Industrious, or Rocketspace, some of the biggest co-working companies in America, is a woman. Unsurprisingly, this means that many of these spaces feel quite white, male, and techy. “The facilities were great, but it was all a ‘Move fast and break things’ culture,” said Priya Kubar, an Indian-American entrepreneur, of her early days working in male-dominated Bay Area co-working spaces. “I believe that sustained growth is only achievable if you have a balance in life.”

According to Amy Nelson, founder and CEO of the Seattle-based coworking company, The Riveter, neither WeWork nor The Wing-style coworking spaces were sufficient. Though she experienced frequent sexism as a lawyer and political activist, Nelson knew she couldn’t do her job without interacting with men—nor did she want to block men out of her workspace. However, once she left law to become an entrepreneur, attending business classes at WeWork, Industrious, and Galvanize in Seattle, she knew she’d never thrive in community they cultivated.

“I was going to these classes, walking into these co-working spaces, and I was like, wait a second, like if co-working is the future, then why does it still look like a frat house? Because it really did, to me,” she said.

And equally, if a male co-working, social club were to gain the same amount of traction—the world would be in an uproar. Non-surprisingly, many men-only co-working social clubs such as Nomadic Thinkers, was set to ablaze before launch. The concept was the brainchild of two entrepreneurs in Brisbane, Australia, who saught to launch a “hybrid gym and co-working space [to] assist men in developing their business and physical well-being.” Early reaction to the space has been unsurprisingly frosty with a significant online backlash. Among them, video bloggers Bondi Hipsters ridiculed the idea and even threatened to sue Nomadic Thinkers for using their imagery without permission.

Inside The Assembly in San Francisco, photography by Margaret Austin.Inside The Assembly in San Francisco, photography by Margaret Austin.

Inside The Assembly in San Francisco, photography by Margaret Austin.

And in 2018, are we going to see a truly inclusive space where people can be who they are, be surrounded by constant inspiration, and have the ability to speak their minds outside of traditional work? Places like The Assembly will be reveling in their haven, decorated with cacti and stained-glass windows, like a desert oasis in the middle of the city. There is a sense among some members that the very existence of the place is evening a score. The concept is very new. A majority of women are now discovering spaces like this to be and feel apart of a community.

“I’m a feminist, so what appealed most to me was working in a space alongside women who were interested in networking in a way that we think of as typically masculine, this clubhouse idea,” says Battle, a sex coach member and teacher who spoke to the Times about The Assembly. “Historically,” she adds, “women have been on the outside of that.”

Defenders of The Wing have rallied behind the notion that women deserve to isolate themselves if they want to, given the treatment they endure. Others have argued that excluding people based on their sex is a bad practice, however justified it might feel. The ACLU has suggested The Wing “may not be in compliance” with New York’s local discrimination law, which also bans many private clubs from discriminating based on gender.

While it’s understandable that the investigation prompted an outcry,  it’s now up to The Wing and the commission to assess whether there is a solution that will satisfy legal requirements without compromising The Wing’s important mission. “It is hard enough for women-and minority-owned businesses to get off the ground and we should be celebrating them,” Scott M. Stringer, 44th and current New York City Comptroller and a New York Democratic politician, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on The Wing’s legal battle. Like all government departments, the Commission on Human Rights “has limited resources, I wonder if this really is a priority.”

Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be many clear-cut answers to the assortment of questions that are being raised here. Are women-only collaborative spaces still relevant in 2018? What about spaces for women of color or other minority identities? What about spaces for non-binary folk who find themselves beyond the spectrum?

We’re far past the days of segregation or so we thought. In a city like San Francisco, we’re excited for the day when a co-working space opens its doors to women, men, and those who don’t identify as either openly and warmly. Here’s hoping.

// Feature photo by Margaret Austin, courtesy of The Assembly. Thoughts on the piece? Send us your responses and questions here.

The Age Of Segregated Co-Working—Is It Leaving Out Non-Binary Femme & Butch Queens?
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