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.