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Shawn Coleman facilitates queer-only events in Chicago. Their main offerings are cuddle events, How to Fall in Love in 36 Questions or Less parties, and queer spa takeovers. Learn more about Shawn’s events on their website or on Facebook. I talked to Shawn about the need for intentionally platonic events and what they’ve learned from fostering queer community.
Jera: When I started thinking about interviewing you, I wanted to talk about cultivating queer platonic spaces. Most spaces are by default platonic, and yet there’s something special about intentionally calling something a platonic space. Can you talk about that?
Shawn: I have so many thoughts. You’re right — most spaces are seen as being platonic, and it’s pretty obvious that you can’t take off your clothing in the park or wherever. But there is something powerful and liberating about intentionally stating it and making it very crystal clear where the line is.
When I first started attending spaces where there was this clear platonic touch happening, going out to places like the Emerald Palace where strangers were connecting in a way that was beautiful and transformative, it was really powerful for me to be in a space where I could hold hands with a stranger and know that it was simply holding hands. I could be in a cuddle party and receive a massage, and it was clear that it wasn’t leading up to something else, because it is clearly stated in the rules. So I can be fully present for that touch. I don’t have to think about, ‘Is this person trying to lead up to something? Do I want this person to lead up to something? Or how do I escape the situation if it does lead up to something?’ All of which ultimately might cause me to not even want to receive the massage. It feels so so so liberating to be able to simply receive the massage, and it’s opened me up to be able to touch and connect with people in new ways.
For example, for most of my adult life I’ve dated women, cis women specifically. Prior to doing the cuddle events, I hadn’t touched a beard maybe since I was a kid. Touching someone’s face is a very intimate act, and it’s usually reserved for a significant other. I hadn’t had a significant other with a beard, because those cis women rarely have them, you know!
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This was a space where touch is encouraged and where it was clear that it was platonic, so I didn’t have to worry about whether I was sending the wrong message or if I was causing people to feel uncomfortable by the request.[/perfectpullquote]
Being able to go to the cuddle events and ask if I could touch beard was incredible! This was a space where touch is encouraged and where it was clear that it was platonic, so I didn’t have to worry about whether I was sending the wrong message or if I was causing people to feel uncomfortable by the request. It was clear that this was a place for connections and exploration in a way that felt safer than typical scenarios. If I just went to a nightclub or something like that and asked some random guy like, ‘Hey can I touch your beard,’ either he’d be creeped out or like, ‘Oh yeah, come on baby.’
Your spaces are sometimes focused on the body, sometimes just body aware, which probably separates it out from other similar queer spaces where it might just be like going and staring at a stage or on the Internet where there’s no physical presence. But, to me, there’s a healing that happens when you’re allowed to be vulnerable in a safer space where your body and your heart are allowed to both be there.
My events are places where people are not only allowed to, but also encouraged to, bring their whole selves. To be aware of what’s occurring and not ignore the discomfort and excitement that comes up. The impulses or desires to snuggle with a really fun person next to them or to stare into the eyes of the person with the cool superhero T-shirt that reminds them of a comic that makes them happy.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] It’s a way of being seen that many of us don’t even realize that we desperately need and desperately want, because it’s oftentimes so rare and forgotten, and we become accustomed to not being seen. [/perfectpullquote]
It’s important to be able to have a space where we can bring all of ourselves, to have a space where we don’t have to ignore things. In the cities like we’re just go go go! And for people who have more traditional or corporate jobs, there’s nearly always this expectation of leaving things at the door. If you need to take a moment, then you step out, go to the restroom, cry or yell into the void, and then come back and be composed.
It’s incredibly liberating to be a person going from an 8 to 5 where you’re trying to ignore your feelings, and then the CTA where you’re getting crushed and pretending that you don’t even see that person whose thigh is pressed against your thigh, and then commute to a place where you can talk and connect and laugh with people who are opening up. You’re talking about the fact that your knees are connecting with someone else’s knees, because you asked permission if it was OK to sit next to them, and you checked in and said, ‘Hey, our knees are touching, is this OK?’
It’s a way of being seen that many of us don’t even realize that we desperately need and desperately want, because it’s oftentimes so rare and forgotten, and we become accustomed to not being seen. We’ve become accustomed to being ignored and to ignoring. We’ve come to this place of thinking that it is the norm. But just because it’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s OK, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need something more.
What’s often missing in queer friendships or other platonic relationships? What have you seen through these spaces that you feel like add to them?
I think, in general in our society, authentic connection is something that’s missing. People, myself included, often feel afraid to share things that make them uncomfortable — things that they’re ashamed about or make them feel lesser than or different.
I think that prior to a person coming out, their sexual orientation and/or trans status can definitely be a barrier in mainstream society or with their “normy friends.”
As we dive deeper into queer community and come out into those spaces and embrace those parts of our identity, authenticity can still be a barrier. I think that in general queer people are better about connecting because of sheer struggle and necessity, but when queer people first come into community, there’s this idea that you might not be “queer enough” or might not fit in fully.
I think it’s kind of natural, at least within the first few months or maybe even for a few years or decades — whatever, not judging —to feel that and to try to compensate in some way.
And I think that we’re getting more and more into a place of realizing that there isn’t one way to be queer or lesbian or trans. And there are more people who are identifying as nonbinary, which I think is really powerful and liberating — I identify as genderqueer.
It’s also liberating for all those little baby queers of whatever ages who are trying to find themselves and figure out where they fit within the community because it opens up more options for them. There’s not just one or two ways to be queer. It’s kind of fun and amazing to be a part of that.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When you’re struggling, it is an incredibly humbling place to be, and you may have to choose between being really vulnerable in new ways that may seem scary or just completely bottoming out.[/perfectpullquote]
But, circling back, authenticity and connection are key, and I think that in our society in general that people don’t open up enough. We’ve talked a lot in our society the last few years about suffering in silence, especially following some notable suicides and discussions of depression by celebrities. Things like the ‘How to Fall in Love in 36 Questions or Less’ events that I facilitate allow people to play with the experience of opening up to someone that they don’t know so well — someone perhaps they’ve just met that night — and share some things that they might not have even told their best friend yet. So that’s cool and awesome.
Because of the struggles that exist for queer folks — being targeted by cops and by different institutions — there are more times when queer folks in the community need help in different ways.
I find that a lot of poor people are also willing to open up more quickly out of necessity. They may be really struggling to find a job, for example. When you have additional barriers — if you are a nonconforming person in some way — and you don’t quite fit in to what an employer thinks you should look like and you can’t quite pull off the you know the “perfect look” of a business person because of it, you are more willing to reach out for help.
When you’re struggling, it is an incredibly humbling place to be, and you may have to choose between being really vulnerable in new ways that may seem scary or just completely bottoming out.
We can all make it through if we just lean into each other and help each other out, but it requires us to be open about what we need and allow other people to really see what’s going on for us.