“I caught myself assuming gender, sexuality, etc. That made me really uncomfortable…”
We have a friend at FEM. She volunteered to be interviewed for this story. Our friend is queer, she’s newly out, and she’s had an epiphany about what it means to exist in a safe space. Living her whole life under the guise of being straight, she never really had a personal understanding of what it meant for a person to need a safe space. Except for the many roadblocks she bumped up against as a female-identifying person, our FEM friend felt she could navigate the world pretty freely--she is white, she is able-bodied--without consciously worrying about whether or not the people around her would accept or acknowledge her.
Here’s our friend’s story. “As someone who has recently come out and has spent the majority of their life distancing themselves from the part of them that is non normative, I didn't experience a truly safe space until a few months ago when I attended a late night fundraiser at a LGBTQ+ coffee shop called Cuties. My girlfriend saw an advertisement on social media and suggested we go. As I walked into the space, I was hesitant to let my guard down, as I had never been in a queer space where everyone around me felt dedicated to keeping it safe and accepting. Taking in my surroundings was one of the most overwhelming parts of the night for me. I consider myself to be an accepting person, but when I looked around the room and took it all in, I caught myself assuming gender, sexuality, etc. That made me really uncomfortable and embarrassed. At first everything around me felt really scary. I felt really out of place and clung onto my girlfriend for dear life. But then we sat down and started drawing in these cool queer coloring books, and I started to feel more at ease. I suddenly felt like I was back in kindergarten. I sat next to someone who was coloring a person’s skin green, and I thought, “Huh, that’s interesting. What if I color in my person blue, or whatever color I want.” Over time, looking around and getting used to the space, I started to realize that even though I usually felt weird being affectionate with my girlfriend outside of my home, here at this Cuties event/thing, I felt completely normal holding my girlfriend’s hand, kissing her on the cheek. I didn’t feel stared at. And I never thought I would be able to experience something like that, where random people didn’t look at us like animals in a zoo. Ever since that night at cuties, I’ve thought a lot about the value of “safe spaces” and the profound impact one can have on anyone regardless of who they are. Lately I’ve been walking down the street with more ease. I know there are more people out there like me, and I want to share and celebrate that.”
Essentially, a safe space is an intentional space, where people in a given community or location agree to affirm and encourage individual identity. Obviously, the world is not a designated safe space. And we don’t think it should be, not entirely. Conflict and difference of opinion foster environments of collaboration, opportunities for change. But we also are aware that not everyone experiences the world through the same lens. For some, the world feels safer than it does for others, and it’s our collective responsibility to take a step back and look at how the world might be experienced differently for other people depending on their bodies, their race, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their gender, and so much more.
Not everyone is on board with designated safe spaces. Van Jones, former advisor to President Barrack Obama, spoke at the University of Chicago about a year ago, and in his speech he insisted that some safe spaces are detrimental to an individual’s ability to deal with adversity. The gist of his argument is: If you never have to deal with anything hard, how are you going to exist out in the real world? He has a point. Completely sheltering ourselves from what’s going on in the world, turning blindly away from the images that disturb us--that’s only going to get in the way of our ability to stand up for ourselves and for others. But Van Jones’ argument goes farther. Speaking to an audience of students and faculty at UChicago, Jones asserts, “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset and then to learn how to speak back.”To Jones, the only “safe spaces” on campus that mattered were the ones that kept students “physically safe”--so spaces in which individuals are “not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse.” He continues “I don’t want you (students) to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong.” Here’s our question: Is the difference between physical safety and emotional safety that easy to identify?
Again, we’re not arguing that the world should be a designated safe space. Freedom of speech is important and necessary. But no sanctioned institution--such as a school, a university, a workplace, a local business--should be able to violate the physical or emotional safety of the people it interacts with. These institutions have a responsibility to create spaces in which the people who move through them don’t feel “othered” or unwelcome or outcasted. For example, classrooms are places where young people can both learn and unlearn their value; they’re places where students can be encouraged to express themselves or discover that their voices are not wanted. Impressionable youth who feel “different” because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic situation etc deserve a space where they feel valued and heard. Likewise, office spaces can be places where women and other marginalized groups can feel empowered and heard, but they can also foster an exclusive atmosphere that feels more like a “boy’s club” than a professional setting.
It’s time that we start asking ourselves--am I taking part in creating spaces that make others feel unsafe, unwanted? What can I do to change that?