I Am a Queer Person With Straight Roommates — Here’s How I Assert My Boundaries

published Jul 11, 2021
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As a queer person, community can often feel like a luxury — one that I always seek out but that is never guaranteed to me. I don’t take for granted that a space will be safe for me, nor do I walk into a room with the assumption that it will be full of people who acknowledge and respect my identity. This is especially true when it comes to finding queer-friendly housing, and why a number of LGBTQ+ people often look for apartments that are explicitly LGBTQ+-affirming in order to feel secure (and even then there’s always the risk of falling victim to false advertising). 

“Home should be a safe space for everyone, but particularly for LGBTQ+ people who experience higher rates of stigma and discrimination in the outside world,” Kevin Wong, The Trevor Project’s Vice President of Communications, told Apartment Therapy. He pointed to a recent survey by the group, which found that only one in three LGBTQ+ youth feel that their living situation affirms their identity. That can quite literally be life-saving: “Our research shows that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all of the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected by anyone with whom they lived,” Wong noted.

The reality remains that renting is tough, and people who are on a budget, working, and/or going to school often don’t have a lot of room to be picky. Consequently, many LGBTQ+ people may end up rooming with non-LGBTQ+ roommates in cramped spaces that don’t feel all that welcoming, no matter how many rainbow flags a well-intentioned roommate might staple to the living room walls. In circumstances like these, it’s easy to succumb to feelings of alienation and isolation. 

In the past, I let my less-than-stellar housing situations get the best of me. I would avoid bringing my partners over, and made sure to keep my sexual expression confined to the outside world or locked up quietly in my room. While it’s easy to look back on those memories and blame myself for being too timid, the truth is that this is the reality for a lot of LGBTQ+ people. Rather than keeping quiet and growing resentful of non-LGBTQ+ roommates as I once did, here are eight ways to establish a safe and affirming home as an LGBTQ+ person in a cis- and heteronormative world.

Call Out Microaggressions

While writing off microaggressions and off-color remarks as “not a big deal” might seem like an easier option in the moment, this is one of the quickest ways to feel like a persona non grata in your own home. If you feel safe doing so, calling your roommates out on offensive behavior can be a vital step in creating a less hostile environment.

“Regular microaggressions, no matter what the person’s marginal/intersectional identity, are exhausting to deal with,” Chris Grant, MBACP, a queer psychotherapist and counsellor, told Apartment Therapy. “Almost universally, repeated actions of aggression, undermining, ridiculing and dismissing behaviors, even on a microscale, will take their toll. We often see, particularly in the LGBTQIA+ community, the burnout and exhaustion as a result from living in environments like this.” 

According to Grant, such environments can cause the person at the center to develop a certain state of hypervigilance, an evolutionary trait meant to keep you safe from threats. “Hypervigilance is useful over short periods of time to kick in your adrenaline and help you make potentially life saving decisions. But imagine how exhausting it must be to feel like you’re hanging off the edge of a cliff, all day, every day,” Grant said. “It’s not uncommon for people to withdraw and socially isolate from their family or flatmates as a result of these microaggressions”

Finding ways to call out these kinds of behavior is not always very simple or straightforward — and in some cases it can even be unsafe, so gauge your situation accordingly. “This very much depends on your relationship with said roommate. If they tell you they are supportive, but their actions do not match this […], then it’s important to hold them accountable,” Grant said. “Giving specific examples is always a great start, but don’t get too bogged down in blame mode. It’s often far more effective to talk about how some of their actions have made you feel and to give an alternative scenario for how those examples could have played out.” 

“Queer” Your Space in Whichever Way Feels Most Meaningful to You

Asserting yourself and your identity and expression in the broader space of your apartment can go a long way. “Delineated personal space in any shared living space is incredibly important, and your comfort in that personal space can come from whatever you find calming, supportive and empowering,” actor and activist Devin Lawrence Wright tells Apartment Therapy. 

Historically, many LGBTQ+ people have, at one time or another, felt or were made to feel like it was necessary to make ourselves as small and as invisible as possible, either for our safety or for someone else’s comfort. That mentality can carry over into how we relate to and share spaces with non-LGBTQ+ people. “Not coming out, feeling closeted, or feeling uncomfortable or unsafe being yourself can look and feel different for everyone,” Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST, the Director & Sex Therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City, explained. “We sometimes have to hide or shield parts of ourselves in certain situations, and the extent to which this feels difficult, painful, difficult, self isolating or self fragmenting is different for everyone.” To keep those kinds of feelings from manifesting in your home, it can be helpful that you make your surroundings feel queer where you can, as soon as you can.

Wright notes that queering the space can mean different things to different people. “For some people ‘queering their space’ in a shared situation might mean hanging [their] flags and decorations, or for me it was just the fact that in my personal area [was] explicitly private and personal, so when I was uncomfortable in the more shared spaces, I could find respite in my personal space,” he said. He also recommends finding community outside of your apartment, if you can.“If there are queer spaces in your area, engaging with them can make the fact [that] you have to return to a less comfortable place more bearable,” he notes.

Make Room to Express Your Sexuality

If you find yourself living with non-LGBTQ+ roommates who dominate shared living spaces, it might be worthwhile to set some additional boundaries. Not only can such situations create unfair power dynamics, but they can also leave you feeling too uncomfortable to express your sexuality at home. 

“Nearly all queer folks have experience living with non-LGBTQ+ roommates: their families.  If these formative ‘roommate’ experiences were not affirming, it can be especially re-traumatizing to live with cis, straight folks in adulthood,” explained Casey Tanner, an AASECT-certified and queer-affirming sex therapist at The Expansive Group. “I can’t overemphasize the positive impact of having our identities mirrored back to us by peers, and also can’t overlook the negative impact of feeling isolated in one’s identity.”

While Tanner suggests that LGBTQ+ people struggling to carve out room to express their sexualities and identities in front of their non-LGBTQ+ roommates find a new roommate or living situation, she knows that’s not always possible. “Many do not have this privilege, and instead must try to make the most of a homophobic environment — something that queer folks are, unfortunately, all too used to accommodating,” she noted. “If this is you, remind yourself that it’s not your job to manage your roommate’s discomfort or monitor their cis/hetero relationships.” Tanner recommended establishing which boundaries are the most important to you, such as establishing routines or asserting equity over shared spaces. 

Have Honest Conversations and Be Willing to Compromise

As draining as it may be, being honest and willing to talk can go a long way in terms of fostering a respectful relationship with your roommates. If there are problems that seem pervasive or aren’t being addressed, being frank about how these things make you feel might be all it takes for them to see eye-to-eye. In turn, you should be ready to hear their side, and be ready to come up with compromises as needed.

“It’s difficult to get non-LGBTQ+ people to see things from our perspective as no matter how much we tell them they just won’t ‘get it’ as they don’t have a similar lived experience,” Ian Howley, the CEO of LGBTQ+ health and wellbeing charity LGBT Hero, said. “But that’s not to say bridging the gap can’t be done,” he said, stressing the importance of talking and “active” listening. 

“LGBTQ+ people are not looking for advice or want to be told what to do,” Howley noted specifically to cisgender, heterosexual roommates. “Listen, acknowledge and let them know you’re there if they need anything. Sometimes it’s that easy. But it goes both ways, [and] we as LGBTQ+ people must do the same, otherwise it won’t work.”

Involve a Third Party

If you find that your roommates aren’t being receptive, or that they are struggling to empathize with you or understand how their identity as a non-LGBTQ+ person influences the situation, it might be time to bring in a third party who can provide an outside perspective of the situation. Additionally, having a trustworthy person assess the situation can provide reassurance that you’re not being unreasonable, thereby erasing the self-doubt and second-guessing that can arise when you’re the only LGBTQ+ person in a space. 

Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie, the Head of Research at the Mental Health Coalition, suggests this as a helpful tactic when dealing with particularly difficult roommates. “The key here, however, would be to make sure that the problematic roommate does not feel ganged up on or cornered in a two-against-one situation. That would only leave them defensive and even less able to receive your viewpoint,” she said. “You can avoid this by stating that this is not your intention but rather that having someone else there could help make the conversation more productive. If the third person is able to speak to their own experiences of realizing that they had been offensive, othering, or not affirming [to an LGBTQ+ person] in the past and how they came to understand more, this might also help open up the roommate to consider how their actions have had a negative impact.”

Seek Support

There will be times when you’re too tired, can’t muster the energy, or perhaps just don’t feel ready to assert your boundaries with your roommates. Whatever the reason, it’s valid to sometimes not have it in you to work for a part in a space in which you should simply be allowed to exist.

“Having an unsupportive or isolating living situation can be extremely difficult and can impact a person’s mental health,” Wong said. “If one’s home situation is not favorable, LGBTQ+ folks may find safe, affirming spaces online. Especially for LGBTQ+ young people, online spaces can play a truly positive role in their lives.” He recommended trying to find online resources like LGBTQ+ chat rooms, such as the Trevor Project’s own TrevorSpace, and finding representation by watching LGBTQ+ creators on social media platforms like TikTok and Youtube. 

“Regardless of your situation, there are always ways to find queer spaces and, most importantly, other queer people, to help you feel safer and more comfortable in your living situation and in your everyday life,” Wright said. “We as a community are brought together by shared experience, shared circumstances, and creating spaces for ourselves to support each other is a radical and powerful thing we’ve been doing for generations. So even if your living space can’t be made explicitly queer, the queer family you find and the spaces you create together will be.”

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

Especially in a world that doesn’t always acknowledge or respect LGBTQ+ identities and worth, ensuring that you’re stopping to take care of yourself and your mental health is vital to your overall well-being. “Because LGBTQ+ folks face more housing discrimination than other groups, this need is particularly important,” Dr. Naomi said, noting that home can and should serve as a place of safety first and foremost. “When the world tells you that you are ‘other’ or ‘less than,’ having a space in which you are certain that you belong becomes a matter of mental and emotional survival.”

When your home doesn’t necessarily guarantee these things, Dr. Naomi noted that “self-care is critical to your wellbeing. It’s not selfish, it’s self-responsibility.” She recommended the MHC’s Roadmap to Self-Love and Roadmap to LGBTQ+ Mental Health as good starting points. ”Find people who you feel affirmed by and authentic with, let yourself shine rather than shrink yourself, trust your gut by being guided by your own instinct rather than others’ expectations of you, and feed your assets by recognizing and appreciating your own strengths,” she said. “Taking time to focus on these parts of yourself can have a major impact on improving your wellbeing.”

And If You Have To, Seek Out Other Housing Situations

If you’ve done all of the above only to be met with a lack of improvement or with an increasingly unsafe environment — or if you haven’t felt safe enough to try in the first place — it’s probably time to explore other options. “If any one of our community is in a situation where they are concerned of real danger to themselves for speaking up or simply being their true selves, my first piece of advice would be to find a way to leave that space,” Grant said. “The long-term ramifications of suppressing and hiding your identity as a result of fear can be hugely damaging.”

In cases of extreme discrimination and/or truly dangerous roommates, you might involve your landlord, think about terminating your lease, and/or look into taking your roommate to housing court. As the latter two options tend to be financially untenable and the possibility of your landlord siding with you is slim, it’s worth it to research the housing protections your state and city offer you as an LGBTQ+ person, though you most likely will still have to take legal action in order to ensure a change.

If this is not a viable option for you, many cities offer shelter for displaced LGBTQ+ persons, or at least have LGBTQ+ resource centers that can point you in the right direction. Grant also suggested connecting with your LGBTQ+ community for support. “Above all, remember that all things are temporary and that there is a whole world of LGBTQIA+ folks out there who acknowledge, affirm, and stand by you,” they said.