Safe Spaces

Many things have come together today to make me think about the relationship between identity and space. The first prompting of these thoughts was in an article that I was reading (Bell, David, et al. "All Hyped Up And No Place To Go." Gender, Place and Culture (1994): 31-47.), and then another was in a discussion with a friend who is concerned about his difference from what he perceives as the norms of society around him.

The only true safe space is in a private space, but I’m not even sure that is certain. “Safe” is entirely relative when it comes to identity presentation.

When I think about the many aspects of my own identity and how I present them at various times and various places I realize that a large amount of who I am is kept in silence and not revealed outwardly. Around my hometown I feel as though I must present myself in a very straight way, I cannot show affection to my boyfriend or allow any hint of my sexuality to be detected. I do not attempt to enact a form of heterosexual drag as some people may feel they need to, but I also do not present myself in my true form. I am a silent queer when I am in general public. When I am on campus things are a bit different. I feel comfortable displaying affection and generally allowing myself to be gay, I don’t have any fear of what anyone might say or do. I know of very few acts of hate-related violence on the campus and in general I feel safe on campus. I do however still reserve parts of my identity that I might classify as “kinky”. Those are not safe for public display or public acknowledgement yet. However, that is dramatically different when I am in the sociology office or am interacting with my cohort. I suppose you could say that I am as out as is possible (including some T.M.I. details in some cases) with that group. I grew close to them very quickly and they made their acceptance of different identities known.  This is not particularly common though, as I have been in classes and environments where I did not feel safe to be myself at all in a small group situation. Classes outside of sociology and gender studies I find myself in mixed company and while the overall attitude of the campus is fairly accepting I just cannot convince myself to be open when it is a group that I will have to have frequent interactions with. The strongest examples of this were my courses in cognitive science last spring where I was in a mixed group of psychology and computer science students. Oddly, I was more comfortable in HCI than the more interdisciplinary Intro to CogSci class.

It concerns me that I do not have a clear conception of how each “space” that I interact with becomes “safe” or “unsafe”. Many of my judgments are not based on any sort of empirical data, just a vague concept of the beliefs and attitudes in those spaces.

An interesting thought from the paper I mentioned before, by default all spaces are constructed as being heterosexual until such time as they are queered and become something other than heterosexual (Bell, David, I’m not sure I completely agree that all spaces are constructed as sexualized, as there are some spaces that are constructed as completely asexual and any perversion therein causes great social discomfort for all involved (public restrooms is a key example). Whereas there are some spaces I agree fully that they are sexualized and that they are strongly heterosexual, regardless of numerous attempts to queer them and appropriate the spaces for homosexual or homoerotic purposes (such as men’s locker rooms).  I think of spaces such as classrooms as sexually agnostic by default. Their sexualization is based upon whoever inhabits the room at a given time. If a classroom is inhabited by a Baptist-lead bible club on Friday, but is inhabited by an LGBT class on Tuesday, the space is itself not defined for either group until such time as that group collects in the room and asserts a particular social atmosphere for the space. That being said, there is no guarantee that the classroom is a true safe space when inhabited by the LGBT class, in my experience such classrooms can become very unsafe for heterosexuals. If the heterosexuals in the space are not physically unsafe, then they are still at risk of marginalization and violent deconstruction of their very existence in that space. A true safe space must by definition be a space where anyone, regardless of identity can be themselves without fear of persecution or radical social violence. 

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