Rethinking Safe Spaces

The concept of “safe spaces” is often the subject of debate in the blogosphere. Is it ever possible to create a completely safe space for everyone? Can we avoid triggers? Can we eliminate hate and ignorance?

I first became acquainted with the idea of safe spaces as physical spaces during my freshman year of college, when a letter published in our student paper endorsed a secret court from the 1920s that investigated and expelled several students suspected of homosexual behavior. (I can highly recommend William Wright’s Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals. It’s quite a read.)

Campus reaction to the letter was swift, and heated. The main queer organization on campus, then called the BGLTSA, responded by distributing Safe Space signs across campus, which are now a staple of materials distributed for occasions like National Coming Out Day.

But do they work?

Harvard didn’t invent safe space markers, of course, and proponents acknowledge that they’re mostly symbolic–it’s a way for allies and advocates to publicly display their commitment to queer issues, and their desire for public (and private) spaces where harassment and derision are unwelcome.

Although I call out homophobic language in the library and maintain a collection (fiction in particular) relevant to LGBTQ concerns, I don’t have visible safe space markers anywhere in the physical space.

And I’ll be honest: I have, at times, felt unsafe in my own library.

A major case in point would be last week, when several students were openly discussing the reasons they consider homosexuality immoral.

Did I feel physically threatened by the students? No. Were they ever directly addressing me? No, although the conversation took place mere feet from where I was sitting. Did I feel like my identity, indeed my very being, was being derided and disrespected? Absolutely.

And therein lies the rub. Can I keep my students safe from direct harassment or physical threats when they’re in my library? I’d like to think so, yes, and I think to some degree I’ve created a culture here where it’s clear that kind of behavior isn’t okay. But I can’t protect my students (or myself, apparently!) from the ignorance and disapproval of others–which is arguably a good thing.

After all, a good chunk of the world still believes we’re immoral, or inferior, or unqualified to teach and work and live our lives publicly. I’d like to think we can work on those beliefs, but they’re still out there. Pretending they don’t exist does our kids a disservice.

3 Responses to Rethinking Safe Spaces

  1. quenouille says:

    Interesting, I have to say I like the thought of these negative, unfriendly, even hostile ideas being allowed in safe spaces (as long as they are just that–ideas). It’s important to have a place to be yourself, but also to learn to cope with the fact that much of the world doesn’t like this part of your identity. Safe spaces were a new concept when I got to college and while it was wonderful to be able to be myself in those places, my closeted high school years taught me a lot as well.

  2. Clarisse says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot — it figured heavily in the final post in a masculinity series I wrote last year, because one thing that always comes up when we talk about making feminism more inclusive for men is safe spaces. And justifiably so.

    It’s true that there’s got to be a way to make sure people are exposed to different ideas, but it’s also true that people really need places where they feel like they can be themselves without worrying about judgment or misunderstanding. I think that my opinion on this matter has come down to this:

    1) Public spaces (for example, any that receive tax dollars) should never be defined as safe spaces of any kind (except in the most basic ways, eg you don’t want fistfights breaking out at the public library).

    2) In fact, safe spaces should only be privately owned and operated spaces.

    3) … but within that limitation, I don’t see any reason to allow safe spaces to be as closed as they want — though they may lose out on adherents, that’s their call.

    Another way to put it might be that I think “big” spaces should be inclusive, while “small” spaces can be exclusive. It’s good for people to be exposed to new stuff, but they need to be able to go home and sleep well at night.

  3. Clarisse says:

    3) … but within that limitation, I don’t see any reason to allow safe spaces to be as closed as they want — though they may lose out on adherents, that’s their call.

    Er, this should have read:

    3) … but within that limitation, I don’t see any reason not to allow safe spaces to be as closed as they want — though they may lose out on adherents, that’s their call.

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