Arts & Life, Music

Cootie Club: creating safe spaces, one show at a time

If you’re out at a venue, which bathroom do you use if you don’t identify as either male or female? What do you do if you’re a female musician playing a gig, and a guy has been harassing you all night? What about if you’re in a wheelchair and there’s no lift or ramp to get into the space? These are situations faced by people who want to go out and enjoy themselves, but for reasons of accessibility and safety, don’t. These are also the reasons for Cootie Club, a community-based and community-planned ongoing concert series that, according to committee member Kara Passey, “purposefully curates an evening of music and discussion that centers on women and non-binary identified people.”

Passey — who was involved with the now-closed NGTVSPC, a collectively run space which had a rule that each show had to have at least one female-identified performer — used that experience to reignite the conversation surrounding safe spaces for women, but also included non-binary identified people because, according to Passey, “their identities often get overlooked in feminist circles that are ‘women only.’”

While everyone’s gender identity is entirely their own, Passey, who identifies as non-binary, explains that, for them, it’s about a spectrum, and it’s about not feeling entirely feminine or masculine 100 percent of the time.

“Personally, as a non-binary person, I claim this identity as someone who often doesn’t feel like either gender, or as someone who fluidly moves along the spectrum. Sometimes I have masculine days — or weeks, or months — sometimes it’s feminine, sometimes it’s right in the middle.”

Hailey Primrose, who performed at the second Cootie Club showcase and whose partner is non-binary, echoes this statement, and adds that while someone may not feel they are particularly masculine or feminine, that doesn’t mean they are always androgynous.

“Many people assume this means non-binary folks will always express their gender in an androgynous way. This is the case for some, but the non-binary people in my life range from masculine to femme to androgynous.”

As for how to address someone who is non-binary, gender-neutral pronouns like them/they/their or ze are sometimes preferred, and if you’re unsure, just ask.

“It may seem awkward to you at first, but they’d really rather if you ask instead of assume,” says Passey.

With shared experiences ranging from bullying, sexual harassment and violence to fear, discomfort, non-inclusion, anxiety and generally feeling unsafe, the Cootie Club committee members come together to plan not only accessible, safe, considerate events, but also community discussions on various topics, with an overall goal of education and inclusion.

“The goal is to have them as often as the showcases, based on topics such as sexual violence, racism, trans inclusion, accessibility and basically anything that anyone could ever bring up,” says Passey. “The purpose of the discussions is twofold: to educate those willing to listen, and to provide a platform for voices that often get silenced,” they add.

While Cootie Club is still in its infancy, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The response has been rad,” says committee member Wanda Wilson. “It’s wonderful to see bands, artists and musicians get motivated and even excited to showcase their work. People can express and share in a safe place about what is going on in and around their community(s),” she adds.

Indeed, Passey says people have come out to get involved and show their support, which leaves them excited for what this evolves into.

The extra thought and support that goes into a Cootie Club event doesn’t go unnoticed, and is certainly appreciated.

“Playing a Cootie Club event was immediately different in the way support was organized for the performers, from making sure everyone had gear and transportation to making sure everyone felt safe,” says Dorreen Girard, who performed at the last Cootie Club showcase.

That extra support could be seen as a great example of not knowing you need or want something until it’s just given to you.

“I’ve developed pretty tough skin over the years, and feel like I don’t ‘need’ this kind of support, but having it made me consider the ways I try never to ask for any kind of assistance, lest I am labeled incompetent, flaky or demanding, and have that be attributed to being a girl,” she says

While the response has been positive, Cootie Club is always evolving, and part of that is realizing what’s lacking, or what needs to be done within, to attract a wider spectrum of people, and Passey and the rest of the committee are always working towards inclusiveness.

“Actively including people in community initiatives takes more than ‘hey, come here and join us,’ it takes work to unlearn the things that many don’t even realize they participate in, like racism, transphobia and ableism,” says Passey. “The dream is to make the space accessible for all, which is easier said than done, but I think we are all willing to put in the work needed,” they add.

This active recruitment includes a visioning meeting coming up in March, where it’s hoped people will come out and participate in the planning process and really work towards shaping what Cootie Club is, because it’s so new.

In the meantime, Cootie Club is hosting their third showcase at the Purple Room this Friday, Feb 13th. The space is accessible — the building owners built a wheelchair ramp especially for the events, and the washrooms are gender neutral. Ladybug the Rambler, Queen Tite, the Psychics and ATLAAS will perform, and the suggested admission donation is $5.



Sara is in a committed relationship with Winnipeg. They fight, and sometimes need to take a break, but they always come back to each other. You can follow her on twitter.