Are Brooklyn’s Minority-Centered Spaces Headed For Legal Trouble?

New York’s anti-discrimination law could prevent marginalized groups from lawfully protecting the sanctity of their spaces.

In January, something uncomfortable contorted to life inside the tranquil walls of the Daya Yoga Studio in Brooklyn. A client who did not identify as queer wanted to attend the studio’s queer and trans yoga class. 

After a staff member explained the class was meant primarily as a space for those who identify as queer or trans, the client left. But not before making it clear that they felt excluded.

Sasha Sigel, who teaches the one-hour yoga class, shared her candid thoughts on Instagram. 

“My understanding is that the request was met with a lot of pushback and an expression of frustration that not ‘everyone’ was welcome in the space,” Sigel wrote. “My loving but firm response to this is: no, not everyone is welcome in this space.”

In a society where public spaces can at times feel unwelcoming toward minorities, gatherings for individuals of marginalized communities are precious. But providing such spaces becomes a challenge when their inclusivity is criticized as exclusionary particularly from those outside of the communities that the spaces are intended to serve.

“It is a very common phenomenon,” Sigel, who identifies as queer, told Bklyner. “I’ve gotten that conversationally of people being like, well, why do you need a space that’s just for queer and trans people? Why can’t everyone practice together?”

Credit: Amandla Baraka/ Courtesy of Ethel’s Club


Creating Safe Spaces For Marginalized Communities

Ethel’s Club is a community and wellness space located in Williamsburg. Founder and CEO Naj Austin created the space following her frustration over being unable to find a black female therapist. Austin also found it difficult to find community venues where she could feel at ease as a black person. 

“When you think of beautiful spaces on earth… most of them were not designed with people who look like me [in mind],” Austin said. “I want there to be many places where people of color can go in and feel comfortable and feel like they’re not gonna have the cops called on them, and then they can connect with people in a way that’s not intimidating or weird.”

metaDEN co-founders and life partners Joss Martinez & McKenzie Angela Martinez wanted to create a “healing incubator” that centered on queer and trans folx of color. Based in Bushwick, the metaDEN space functions as a multipurpose community venue for coworking, workshops, art exhibits, spiritual and wellness practices, and more. Providing a community space for queer and trans people of color was important for the couple who built the space through crowdfunding and their own resources. 

“Unfortunately, even in spaces that are meant to be for healing, our community has experienced tremendous amounts of discrimination, exclusion, and trauma due to racism, heterosexism, and transphobia,” the Martinezes wrote in an email to Bklyner. “We wanted to facilitate safe spaces for folx to interact, network, build, hold each other accountable, and heal without the microaggressions and misgendering that we have witnessed in other wellness spaces.”

The fear of discrimination and marginalization against minorities gets amplified in settings where people open up and are vulnerable.

“In terms of yoga, in particular, the relationship with the body can be quite different for folx in the queer community. There’s often part of the hate that gets directed at the queer community that is body and image-focused,” Sigel, who is trained in trauma-sensitive yoga, explained. 

“Particularly with people who are gender-nonconforming or trans, there is oftentimes a lot of unprocessed trauma that is held in the physical body.

The Wing DUMBO interior. Via The Wing.

Welcoming or Exclusive?

Despite the positive benefits inclusive spaces can have for their intended audience, creating minority-centered spaces is easier said than done. When Austin first pursued her business plan to build Ethel’s Club, she was unable to convince white investors to commit to the project. 

“They didn’t get it… they didn’t understand the audience most likely because they don’t know any people of color. So for them, it was sort of like… I don’t understand who this is for,” Austin said. “Once I kind of fixed who I was talking to, they would say like, I can’t believe this doesn’t exist.” Among the club’s earliest investors is black feminist author Roxane Gay.

Then there’s also balancing the tightrope of providing a welcoming space for marginalized individuals without falling into the legal trap of discriminatory practices. 

There is perhaps no better case example than The Wing which just opened its second Brooklyn location in Williamsburg. The company’s objective is simple: to give professional women a safe and empowering space to work and connect. But what was supposed to be a haven for working women turned into a legal quandary for The Wing.

In 2017, The Wing’s “women only” rule was scrutinized by the New York City Commission on Human Rights after the agency launched an investigation into its membership practices. A group of prominent NYC law professors signed a petition in support of the investigation.

Then, a man sued the company for $12 million on the grounds of gender discrimination. 

The company has since changed its membership policy to allow membership by all, and female members have since reported inappropriate behavior from men inside The Wing offices (a spokesperson declined a request from Bklyner to comment on the impact of the policy change). 

New York City’s Human Rights Law prohibits “public accommodating” businesses from discriminating against customers based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship, disability, and a whole plethora of other identifiers. The Wing’s previous “women only” rule was considered a violation of the law. 

metaDEN’s co-founders at the night market: McKenzie Angela Martinez (left), Joss Martinez (right). Arno Pedram/Bklyner.

Or Is It A Private Club?

“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,” the ACLU wrote of the case. 

However, the ACLU pointed out it could be argued that The Wing is a private club — not a public accommodating business — and its mission is to serve women — one of the groups the law was designated to protect — rather than to discriminate against men.

As Melissa Murray, a professor of law at New York University, put it: “Leaving aside the fact that so many workplaces seem to be rife with incidents of sexual harassment, now, after #MeToo, I think there are a lot of men in positions of authority who are going to be really skeptical and afraid to mentor women and that might make a space like this even more necessary.”

Even though antidiscrimination laws like New York’s are meant to prevent prejudice against minorities, the legal issues faced by The Wing means other minority-centered spaces could face similar legal threats. A commenter online already threatened to sue Ethel’s Club after its opening was widely publicized. 

“I think it ends up being the most marginalized communities that get the most pushback,” Sigel said citing men’s circles, which though important do not receive as much antagonization. 

Toeing the line of offering a safe space for marginalized groups and excluding others who aren’t part of that demographic is a conundrum minority-centered spaces are left to address on their own.

metaDEN said their space is for all people of color so long as they are “queer and trans-affirming” and non-POC identifying allies are welcome to check out their shops and seasonal markets.

Austin said Ethel’s Club prioritizes membership approval of anyone who has “centered communities of color” through their work or their day-to-day, not only those who identify as a person of color.

“I don’t think we do anything that’s specifically for people of color but we do a lot of things that when people of color enter our space, they feel celebrated and sort of seen,” Austin said. “If you want to be in a space that uplifts, celebrates, supports, and empowers people of color, we want you in our space.”

While the topic leaves much up for debate, one thing is certain. At a time when hate crimes in New York City are on the rise, allowing inclusive spaces for minority communities to safely gather and connect is crucial for the wellbeing of its residents.

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Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is an immigrant and journalist covering community issues and politics in New York City. Got a tip? Get in touch!

Comments

  1. Anti-discrimination laws are a double-edged sword. That is as it should be. If we’re going to live together, as one community, then let’s do that and open the doors to everyone. Otherwise, have your exclusionary club, but don’t complain when you, in turn, get excluded.

    Just pick one and be it.

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