There’s Safety and Safety, Space and Space

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As a queer leader on the SLC campus, I often have confused students ask me what a “safe space” is. Is it a place where you aren’t allowed to say certain things, where a police state of censorship rules? Perhaps more frighteningly, is a safe space somewhere oppressed people go to take refuge from the mobs outside who all want to kill them with pitchforks and torches?

No and no. Let’s be real: SLC isn’t perfect, but it’s not a place where queer students worry on the daily about their physical safety being endangered by other students. Security has a protocol for hate crimes, but to my knowledge has never had to use it. So people often ask me, if people aren’t yelling “Faggot!” at me on the pathways or trying to beat me up like they did in high school, why do we need a safe space?

Safety needs to go beyond the obvious because violence goes beyond the obvious.

Every time I’m in a conversation at SLC and someone refers to someone whose gender they can’t understand as “it.”

Every time someone asks me what the “real” gender of one of my trans friends is.

Every time someone refers to gay men being “scared of pussy” or “hating the vag.” (Thanks, but I’m a gay man who has one of those.)

Every time someone talks about “men who want to be women” or “women who want to be men.”

I completely freeze. Every time. I’m very good at not showing it, though, because I came out five years ago, and I’ve been having these conversations for five years. With friends, with family, with professors, with people I’ve known for the space of an evening party, with fake-ass therapists, with gay activists, with strangers.

Queers can never assume safety. We have to constantly educate the people around us on how to treat us like human beings. A safe space is the only place where this isn’t true.

In a safe space, everyone entering it has done the minimal amount of self-education they need to do for everyone else to feel safe there. If the safe space is designated for trans people, cis allies entering it will have already learned to check their cis privilege and to respect the genders of their trans comrades. If the safe space is designated for people of color, white allies entering it will already be engaged in the process of dismantling their whiteness and unpacking their white privilege.

So please, come to the safe spaces–to Common Ground, to the Teahaus during QVC or Trans Action, to AWARA! It’s not a censorship thing, it’s a kindness thing. Sometimes queers need somewhere to go at the end of the day, breathe out, and know that everyone there is thinking actively about keeping them safe.

Stephen Ira is a queer activist whose poetry and fiction have been published in 365 Tomorrows and Spot Literary Magazine. He co-chairs Sarah Lawrence's trans identity group, Trans Action, and keeps a blog as the Super-Mattachine, queer anti-oppression avenger, at supermattachine.wordpress.com. As David Foster Wallace would say, he does things like get into a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it!" He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.

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