In defense of safe spaces

This started out as a response to a pointless LiveJournal argument, but I thought it warranted doing more with it.

I've long been a defender of [blank]-only spaces in general. Most of the safe spaces that are created for any reason other than "to make a point" accomplish some pretty great things. I don't even agree with the argument that their creation should be limited to minority-only or oppressed-only groups, as long as there's a thoughtful reason behind why the space was started. For instance, I would support a forum provided for white individuals to talk about issues of race. There are certain things that can be said and done in such a group that can't happen in a mixed group (or worse, in a group that ends up with whites greatly outnumbering people of color). I wouldn't of course support a whites-only country club or somesuch, for obvious reasons.

I also don't think that the organizers of said safe space should have hard-and-fast rules regarding who gets to define as eligible, or should personally determine who is [whatever]-enough to qualify. A friend, who is biracial, once told me about being in a people-of-color meeting in college, seeing a white-appearing woman come into the back of the room to use some journals, and seeing the group leader tell her "sorry, this is people-of-color-only space right now." I don't think that sort of thing is appropriate, because it isn't the place for the leader to assume that the woman couldn't be biracial, or white Hispanic, or have some other entirely respectful reason for being there. I could understand if the woman had come in at the beginning and maybe looked confused about which meeting it was, that someone in the group might approach her apologetically, explaining that they didn't want to assume or to define her, but wanted to make sure she was where she intended to be. After that, it isn't up to anyone else to decide that she isn't "of color enough" to be there (Michigan Formerly Transphobic Womyn's Music Festival, anyone?). Unless, of course, she's coming in and explicitly stating that she's white, doesn't identify as being a person of color in any way, but still feels she should be included. Which brings us to my main reason for defending safe spaces:

Someone who's never drunk alcohol and never thought about doing so wouldn't be kicked out of an alcoholics-only AA meeting, but most of us would wonder why exactly they were there and/or implying that they define as an alcoholic. If they're sitting there stating that they never drink alcohol but just want to make a point that AA is discriminatory, others are surely going to feel that they don't have much of a place in an alcoholics-helping-other-alcoholics meeting, and might feel offended and violated. Not because non-alcoholics are bad or unsafe people, but because you gotta question why someone would want to come to an alcoholics-only meeting and state that they don't drink and don't intend to. If the person is just interested in helping alcoholics, they can become a counselor or volunteer at a detox. If for whatever reason they wanted to just sit quietly and listen and be supportive and state that they're an alcholic but not share anything more than that, no one's going to mind. But if they insist on stating that they don't drink, they're really kind of violating the space that alcoholics have created for themselves.

Same with someone who goes to a queers-helping-queers program. If they want to explore the queer community and are comfortable stating that they identify as queer but not sharing much else, that's fine. They won't even be asked why specifically they're queer -- just being there and being respectful is all that's expected. If they feel that they're queer because they sometimes have thoughts of feeling not-manly-enough or whatever, no one's going to tell them they aren't "queer enough." But if they go into a queers-helping-queers program and tell everyone that "hey, I'm not queer, and I want to make sure everyone knows this, but I want to be part of your queers-helping-queers program anyway," you gotta wonder why. If they just want to help queers, they can become a counselor specializing in working with queer people or they can volunteer for a civil rights group or GLSEN or something.

(Please note that this is not in any way to imply that being queer is analogous to a disorder -- just an attempt to explain why many creators of safe space view it as creepy to violate it in certain ways.)


Craig said...

Just stumbled across your blog while Googling for something else.

Of course, Alcoholics Anonymous offers both open and closed meetings. Anyone can go to an open meeting. At a closed meeting, some people are too polite to ask a non-alcoholic to leave (but I'm not -- the point being that if I wanted to go to an open meeting, I wouldn't be at a closed one).

There are also a few meetings that identify themselves as "Alcoholics Only" or "Drunks Only." Usually they name themselves such not to guide outsiders as much to tell AA members that sharing about any other addictions they might have -- drugs, food, gambling, etc. -- will not be welcome at that particular meeting.

I'm not sure it's primarily an issue of safety, but at least in my case of not wanting to waste my hour listening to people drone on about some tangent that is of no interest to me or most of the folks who have gathered there to discuss the one problem we each have in common.


eeka said...

Hi Craig, thanks for the comment. Yes, I definitely agree regarding being able to set limits in terms of "we're gathered here for X, and we'd really like to stick to X." Which doesn't have to place any judgment on Y -- just that this place is focused on X right now, so please respect that. And yes, I think that if I were in a closed meeting (I'm not a fellow 12-step traveler, but there are other support groups that ask similarly that everyone be X identified), and someone were making it clear that they're not part of the identified demographic, I'd explain to them that this is an X-only space, and could they find somewhere else. But I also wouldn't go around checking people's credentials before anyone was allowed to talk. If they were able to sit there and not take away from the X-ness of the group, then hey, whatever. Not my place to insist they define themselves.

In a lot of cases I think that a "safe space" isn't just used by people who actually fear harassment or being outed or whatnot. This is certainly the case for some folks in some safe spaces, sure. But I tend to think of it as "safe" in the way that people come to the space knowing they can let down their guard and be able to talk frankly without having to deal with people who don't "get it." For instance, I have many straight friends, I'm perfectly comfortable around straight people, and actually, I spend most of my day with a group of mostly-straight people. But sometimes I need to go somewhere where everyone is queer and "gets" things that one can only get from having lived the experience. I don't want to hear the defensiveness or excuses that even the most well-meaning people just can't help having (and which I'm sure I have in regards to demographics where I'm not a minority). And sometimes, I just don't want to hear straight people complain about how much their taxes or health insurance or whatever sucks, when I'm stuck here with second-class citizen status in those areas. But I also don't want to come across as if their problems aren't valid, because they are entirely valid -- they're just maybe not something I want to hear at certain times. If I retreat into queer-only space when I feel the need, I know I'm not going to hear about how much someone's federally recognized marriage sure does suck.

Craig said...

Sure. I doubt I'd have gay friends if it weren't for AA. It's not like I'm stamp collecting and think I need a black one and a gay one and an Asian one and a fat one and my collection is complete! Those that became social friendships beyond AA -- dining at our home, etc. -- evolved organically with us relating on basic human levels before I was aware of their sexual orientation (I'm dense that way). I'm aware that there are certain aspects of their lives that they'd be uncomfortable talking to me about in any depth. But then most straight/straight friendships lack that level of intimacy as well. I'm not about to discuss my sex life in detail with friends of any kind because my wife, and the girlfriends before here, each deserved her privacy. It's not gentlemanly, in my opinion.

There are gay AA meetings and I understand why, but I'm glad not all gay recovering alcoholics choose to segregate themselves all the time. My life would be poorer if they did. Two people who went out their way to be helpful to me in early sobriety were a couple of women who turned out to be, well, a couple. And when I moved to NYC there was a meeting in the theater district that was not a gay meeting, but gays were clearly in the majority and I think the attitude was that if the straight folks didn't "get it," it was our problem and not theirs. In that environment people were pretty matter-of-fact about it, no big deal. I ran into a friend tonight -- we're in the suburbs now, he's older and closeted -- and we'll have lunch next month and I doubt his gayness or my straightness will be among the topics on the agenda. He may or may not talk about it with somebody, but it probably won't be me, not that it would make a hell of a lot of difference to me either way.