Years ago, I was the president of a Gay-Straight Alliance (later changed to Gender & Sexuality Alliance, per some activism) at my local community college. I met people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, abilities, socio-economic backgrounds, and education levels. The only thing we had in common was that we were all under the LGBTQ+ umbrella together. This created contention amongst the members. Some members would come back because of the deep connections they made to other LGBTQ+ people like them, some would never come back because someone said something problematic at their first meeting, and some would come just to argue.
My goal as the leader of the group was to find a way to unify these people and get them to respect one another so that we could all share the space. I learned a lot about intersectionality and interpersonal communication during my time with the GSA. Mostly, we had small squabbles, differences of opinion, that had little to no effect on people’s wellbeing and were resolved in a day or two.
However, when our school faced a lawsuit from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the Young Americans for Liberty chapter on our campus rose up and began to “fight for free speech,” and we faced quite a bit of infiltration from opposing, sometimes hostile people. Sometimes it was the way they looked at us when we tabled in the quad, or sometimes it was the way they talked about us in their classes, but mostly, it was the way they came to our meetings to disrupt us. They entered our space and said and did things that made us all feel unsafe. As much as we wanted to stop them, our school’s rules said we couldn’t exclude anyone from our club. For them, we were no more than that day’s fun argument. For us, well, our whole lives felt magnified, exposed, and unsafe.
Here’s the thing--they came to our meetings to fight about rhetoric and theory. They walked in with the goal of proving us wrong and themselves right. They went to GSA meetings and student government meetings, came up to us at our booth on club days, wrote about us on their Facebook groups, and the list goes on and on. For them, this was nothing more than an argument to win. For us, it was about our quality of life.
It was then that I realized the importance of safe spaces. But what exactly was a safe space? Who can enter it? What defines it? Is it safe if not everyone can say anything they want? I really started to think about the differences in spaces and what that meant to me, a queer person.
I approached the Advisor of Student Life and asked her if we could get a Pride Center or a resource center of some sort. She said, “They will never fund something like that… but let’s make them see why they need to.” We started working on a presentation to give to the faculty and staff and we recruited two other faculty members to assist us. The research was extensive and time consuming, but we were passionate about educating others on LGBTQ+ issues and making our educational institution a safer space for all people. We received permission to give our presentation as a Flex Day workshop, where faculty and staff could opt to come to our workshop and learn. We also held a student-run panel at the end of the presentation. That presentation has since been updated and reworked to be given to businesses and other educational institutions. Now, with the help of our board’s President, Jessica Amaya, I go across Los Angeles County and educate others on LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
There are a few different types of spaces I have encountered over my years of academia and social activism; safe space, healing space, and segregated space. These are often conflated, but they are actually very different. Many people are ill-informed about the differences and only see that a certain group is all together in a space. This causes people to think that some groups of people are “self-segregating”.
Segregated space is a space designated for a specific group of people who have been placed there and forced to be there, by a ruling force. This can be social or legal. The key word when defining segregated space is “forced”. When a group is forced to be isolated in a space and not allowed to venture outside of it in any way, that denotes segregation. Nobody wants to be in a segregated space. Some examples of segregated spaces throughout history include concentration camps, internment camps, Jewish ghettos in Europe, Jim Crow laws in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa. Many modern-day refugee camps are also segregated spaces.
Safe space is a space created for people in a marginalized group and is typically maintained by them. In a safe space all are welcome to enter, as long as they are allies of those marginalized people that the space is for. In short, being an ally means being responsible for whatever you bring into the space, including privileges. For example, if the safe space is for QTPOC, and you enter the space as a white LGBTQ+ person, regardless of your other identities, you should remain conscious and respectful of the space, limit how much space you take up (not just physically, but also in an emotional and social sense), and maintain an anti-racist stance. For the space to remain safe, all should feel safe and welcome. An important thing to remember is that safe spaces are open environments where many people from different backgrounds gather, and respect for one another is an ongoing learning experience. Typically, safe spaces include learning opportunities like workshops or discussion groups, so that the learning continues. In a safe space, those that occupy it might expect to have to do a little educating of their own, as everyone is attempting to unlearn systematically harmful behavior. Group norms and communication guidelines should be stated clearly and if possible, posted, so that each person entering the space can engage appropriately.
There is also a version of safe spaces that are closed off to people outside of the marginalized group; closed safe spaces. Those spaces are for people that identify as the specific identity that the group caters to, and only for those people. It is closed to ensure complete safety and comfortability to the marginalized persons.
Healing spaces are often closed. They are very specific spaces for those that need healing, and are designed to create a form of community around a shared experience or oppression. Very commonly I have seen healing spaces held after rallies and demonstrations, where the emotional turmoil of protesting and fighting can be difficult on individuals. A group usually comes together to support one another and share their experiences at an organization’s location or a person’s home. Many ways of healing are demonstrated: sharing, drum circles, barbecues, yoga, meditation, crystal healing, etc. These spaces are used to heal from recently received trauma as a community.
Now that you’re more familiar with different variations of spaces, you can determine which spaces work for you and when they work for you. You can create those spaces for yourself and others. If you feel that you or your staff may be ill-equipped to form a safe space, The Center offers a safe zone training that covers statistical information on LGBTQ suicide rates and substance abuse, LGBTQ educational statistics, basic LGBTQ language and terminology, and ways to practice allyship. After completing the workshop, each attendee receives a certificate indicating that they are a safe zone ally, as well as supplementary materials.
For more information regarding a safe zone training, or if you wish to invite Sara and Jessica to speak at your institution, please contact Sara at email@example.com.