Queer life can feel complicated. For many, nightlife is a life-saving foray into the queer community—a chance to defy gender, indulge in sex and body positivity, let go of the closeted version of yourself, and dance among others who just simply get it. Despite improvements around the discussion of mental health in recent years, the community as a whole still has a complex relationship with drinking and substance abuse. And, in 2023, these safe spaces are still subject to discrimination—even in the supposedly most queer-friendly cities—and generally risk closure as a result of systemic failures.

But among the chaos that often comes with being queer is hope, innovation, and adaptability. A new generation of business owners is taking LGBTQIA+ spaces into their own hands—from expanding out of nightlife and into the everyday, creating radical sober events both online and off, and even finding harmony in the gym. We spoke to 4 founders from different sectors to learn how creating safe spaces starts by making space first.

Redefining and reshaping gym culture

Nolan Hanson, Trans Boxing

From his Bronx apartment, Nolan Hanson (he/they) is redefining the term "gym bro" one jab at a time. Originally from Wisconsin, the art-major-turned-professional-boxing-coach moved to New York City after accepting a flexible residency MFA program out of Portland State University, with the plan to develop an experimental art project. His idea, Trans Boxing, which has become a fully functioning business, was born out of the need to find connection with his community after moving to a new city—as well as an admiration of the sport.

What started as a donation-based project in an unassuming gym in Brooklyn has turned into regular training classes in New York and LA, as well as workshops across the US. Since launching in 2017, Trans Boxing has developed partnerships with gyms, schools, and art institutions. Most recently, it partnered with Gleason’s Gym—one of the most recognized training grounds for boxing in the US and the filming site of Clint Eastwood’s film Million Dollar Baby. Hanson explains how to pitch a project like this and get others onboard.

Setting the tone from day 1

“The owner of Gleason’s Gym is a man named Bruce Silverglade. I knew him through a friend of mine, Sonya Lamonakis, who’s a former heavyweight world champion. When I started teaching there, I chatted with them about how a lot of the folks that come into the gym have really never been in a space like this. Bruce stops me right there and says: ‘Look, your fighters are going to be treated like any fighter that walks [through] that door.’ I asked him explicit questions about basic safety. I explained the New York State bathroom laws and regulations around gender expression and locker-room usage [it's illegal to discriminate against an individual on the basis of gender identity, including denying access to bathrooms]. They were totally onboard. I felt safe trying this experiment there, but I've actually never called Trans Boxing a safe space. Boxing’s not safe. These definitions are really nebulous and contextual and situational. But, I felt confident enough that I—and any fighter that I brought into the gym—would be supported and taken care of if we did run into a problem.”

Getting integrated into the ring

“It took about a year of me being at the gym every single day until I felt that the tone of the experiment shifted. It went from us being a separate group to just being a part of the environment. Working anywhere, especially a very established place like Gleason’s Gym, [where] a lot of their staff have been there for decades, was intimidating. Thankfully, they knew my trainer, who now trains at Gleason’s as well. Through those connections, I was granted some legitimacy. I feel a moral duty to use the privilege that I have—of knowing how to box and having a connection to people in the boxing community—to make space for people that don’t have those same privileges.”

Taking up space for the greater good 

“The gym is a good place to learn different types of risk [and] how to tolerate discomfort, awkwardness, or clunkiness and work through it. It’s a really brave thing to do. We’re not just helping queer people feel comfortable in the gym. We’re also helping people who aren’t queer or trans—maybe they’re divorced from that concept. We’re showing them that you have a connection here to somebody who has this identity. This gym wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people like us every day walking in and paying the dues and training.”

Providing a space to share

K Bailey Obazee, PRIM

Named “London’s coolest librarian” by ES Magazine, avid reader K Bailey Obazee (she/they/prince) is the founder of PRIM. With its name coming from the phrase “prim and proper,” PRIM is a dynamic archive and storytelling platform amplifying the voices and experiences of Black creatives across the globe. 

Launched in 2019, PRIM provides a space for the queer Black community to share their stories and experiences through a variety of media, with the longest standing avenue being OKHA—a monthly book club hosted in some of London’s finest spaces, such as The Standard hotel.

The platform is committed to preserving and sharing the rich history and cultural heritage of the African, Caribbean, and Afro-Latinx diaspora and promoting a more nuanced understanding of Black culture and identity, starting with books. With its innovative approach to storytelling and community building, PRIM aims to inspire, educate, and empower the QTBIPOC (queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color) community through events and collaborations with high-end brands, such as luxury fashion brand Burberry—connecting a global network of more than 5,000 queer and Black creatives in one safe and continuously evolving space. Here's what Obazee has learned.

Collaborating with big brands can pay off

“It took a whole heap of confidence to get here. The idea [was] to have partnerships and work with companies, like Burberry, that operate within a luxury space from the beginning, in the hope that they’ll continue to work with us when we come to create an actual space. Brands need to start putting their money in different places and start cultivating and creating something that isn’t about selling clothes. It’s about building community, creating an environment that serves the models and photographers that they work with. How do we create a continued journey for them through other means? Books are a way to do that. Curating events is a way to do that.”

Give the energy you want to get 

“I think one of the key things is thinking about myself and what my output is. If you want to foster a safe space for others, then you have to be a safe person. Think about the language you’re using, think about whoever you’re working with to help manage the space—security, bar staff, general staff. Make sure to brief them on how you want your members to be treated.”

A support hub for the community

Sarah Moore, London LGBTQIA+ Community Centre

From working on the communications teams for LGBTQIA+ charity Stonewall and the Labour Party, now the Mayor of London, Sarah Moore (she/her) has become a prominent figure for LGBTQIA+ activism in London. 

After years of hosting queer pop-up events, Moore and her tight-knit team opened the LGBTQIA+ community center in 2021. The physical space, which neighbors the Tate Modern art gallery, was brought to life through community crowdfunding—with more than £100,000 raised through some 2,000 individual donations. In November 2021, an entirely LGBTQIA+ team of architects, carpenters, builders, and electricians worked together to open the venue. 

The center is now a sober hub for social, cultural, and educational gatherings and provides a range of support services to individuals in the community. It serves as a beacon of hope for those who face discrimination, isolation, and marginalization in the city, and offers a place to simply just be. Here’s how Moore and her team did it.

Designing an inclusive physical space

“We started conversations in January 2021 with the council, looked at the space in June, and on December 1st, we opened. That process of opening was amazing because we used an all-queer team. Martha Summers (she/her), a queer architect, did all of the interior design. We knew we needed to have a really movable, flexible space that had multi-use areas, was wheelchair accessible, and had a separate quiet room. We also really wanted it to have as minimal impact on the environment as possible, so we worked with resource platform Design Can and got all the furniture donated from outlet showrooms. But even in that, we knew that the color palette needed to be really specific to make sure that it was welcoming for people who have neurodiversity. That part of it was just really special because everybody could make a physical impact.”

Safeguarding is paramount

“We’ve created a code of conduct with explicit anti-racism, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies. All of our staff are trained to the highest level of safeguarding. We have safeguarding for children training as well, and our volunteers also have this level of training. We’re a space where anybody could come in. You don’t have to be LGBTQIA+. You don’t have to be of a certain age. You don’t have to be accompanied by a parent, and so there’s a lot of trust placed within us as staff and volunteers.”

A sober club night for QTIBPOC

Aisha Mirza, Misery 

Aisha Mirza (middle)

Aisha Mirza (they/them) is a DJ, writer, and founder of Misery, a London-based mental-health collective and sober club night for QTIBPOC. Eight years ago, they accepted a scholarship to study and train in mental health and social work at New York University. After becoming a sexual assault and domestic violence counselor, Mirza merged those skills with various other passions, including music, wellness, and activism. After experiencing firsthand the loss of peers and realizing the lack of support and preventive care for suicide and substance abuse in the LGBTQIA+ community, Mirza set up Misery as a call to action.

To set itself apart from other queer nightlife experiences for people of color, Misery has become a multidimensional sober space. The collective offers workshops and panel discussions and has created a network of QTIBPOC herbalists for guided nature walks and herbal medicine education—all while keeping its core nightlife events.  

The power of sobriety

“Being sober felt important because we realized that making a mental health intervention [for] the community was more important than creating a hot new club night. I don’t feel like you can talk about mental health in queer and trans communities without talking about substance abuse issues. They just go together and there’s a reason for that. Nightlife is part of capitalism. I didn’t feel comfortable coming out with a new kind of collective and claiming that it was about community care and mental health but not disrupting that cycle. We’re very careful [with] our language around sobriety because [there have been] years and years of judgmental attitudes towards being sober.”

An ever-changing rulebook

“The basic rules are simply to treat each other with utmost kindness and respect. Misery events are so gentle and they do attract a certain crowd. For the most part, it kind of manages itself. But we have to think about wider issues at all times. At our events, we have trained mental health professionals so, if anyone needs support, they can speak to the therapist on site. We just rewrote our safeguarding document and created a radical approach to involvement with police.”


Key learnings from our 4 case studies:

  • Nolan Hanson, Trans Boxing: Finding a location for your business isn’t always easy. Consider reaching out to other members of the community for references on locations, check that inclusive policies are already in place in your chosen spot, and be prepared to educate staff on LGBTQIA+ protection laws. 

  • K Bailey Obazee, PRIM: Brief partners and collaborators on how you want your clients to be treated. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a big brand name like Burberry or your local community center—sharing your project’s values beforehand can help align others outside the community on approaching your members with care and respect. 

  • Sarah Moore, London LGBTQIA+ Community Centre: Create a firm safeguarding policy that’s implemented by all staff members. Check out this toolkit created by UK-based LGBTQ+ charity Consortium, which includes a template to help others shape their organization’s policies.

  • Aisha Mirza, Misery: Be brave and take care of your community. Start your idea with friends, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as you’ll learn along the way, and understand that one event—no matter how small—could be a lifesaving experience for an LGBTQIA+ person. 

Note: These conversations have been lightly edited.