Safe Spaces

Consider this a follow-up of sorts to my post on privilege and the tumblr crap that’s been going on lately. Most of what I was going to add to that post I already said in the comments, but I want to highlight one part of the discussion. Jay, who showed up in that post to uh, “defend” the Privilege-Denying Asexuals tumblr (but actually ended up just proving the point of my post), said this:

It’s pretty obvious that you didn’t, as you say, follow the debate on tumblr, because *several* people shared their experiences of asexuals in LGB+ spaces expressing disgust at sexual displays (like kissing) and making the spaces uncomfortable in other ways. Ridiculous as that might seem to *you*.

To which I responded:

You and the other people who have met people like that would do well to keep in mind that not all asexuals are like that, and attacking all of us is unwarranted. I also hope you keep in mind that there are LOTS of people who are NOT asexual who also bring hostile attitudes into queer communities. I’ve encountered tons of biphobia, transphobia, and even blatant homophobia within queer settings. But the gay people who denounce trans people are not excluded from the group on the basis of not being queer. They are still assumed to have a history with and understanding of both queerness and prejudice, and yet they turn around and spread that vileness themselves. The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone, despite our lofty goals. It is at best a very loose coalition of people who may or may not be supportive of one another, and often undermine one another instead of doing anything useful. My experiences with local communities is so bad I just gave up on them, personally, and none of that had anything to do with their acceptance of asexuality at all. I don’t see why problems with asexual members of the group are any different from problems with any other members in that regard.

Let me repeat that: The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone.

There is not even one “queer community” to begin with. Talking about it like it’s a monolithic entity is hugely inaccurate. We refer to it like there is one for simplicity’s sake, but in reality it’s just a bunch of related groups with vaguely similar goals. Sort of. Actually, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Each queer group needs to specifically delineate its goals and guidelines so that members know what to expect, and most of them (at least in my experience) fail to do so.

So take any given queer group, and then ask yourself: what is this group for? What purpose does it serve? Is it supposed to be a group that takes political action? Is it supposed to be a support group where people can go to feel safe and accepted? Those are two VERY different goals, and they can be at odds. Taking political action often requires people to be out, and exposed to public discourse in a way that threatens the sense of safeness and acceptance that would come from a more support-oriented community. This is especially true when there is pressure from the group to present yourself in a certain way to the media so that your message would be likely to be more palatable to the majority. These are common problems with establishing the safeness of spaces in queer groups of any kind, even the groups who focus on one single letter of the alphabetsmoosh.

Let me give you an example. Say a group is tabling for some political goal or another, like encouraging people to vote down something like Prop 8. But the group’s leaders are concerned that they will appear threatening to straight people, so they tell you that you can only approach people of the “opposite” sex. Girls approach guys, guys approach girls, and that’s it. Doesn’t that intrinsically send a homophobic message to the members of the group, who are supposed to be safe and protected by that group’s leaders? That’s not even mentioning the complete erasure of the trans members of the group. So, is this group a safe space? Not really. (This is a real-world example, by the way; it actually happened, and in a group that was supposedly more oriented towards support, at that.)

Now, obviously expressions of disgust at sexual displays would be bad for a group that’s specifically designed to be a safe space to express sexuality. But then the question is, has that group specifically delineated such a goal for its members? If the group is actually meant to serve some other purpose, especially if that purpose is more of a professional one in nature, then it could be argued that any member (including members who aren’t asexual) might find it unprofessional and tasteless to do more than maybe a quick peck on the lips in that setting. Context really matters, here. It could be that someone just finds public displays of affection of any kind inappropriate, and it’s especially likely that they would think that if they are from a country/culture where PDA is discouraged. Jay’s comment seems to imply, however, that the people who experienced that assumed that their sexual orientation is what caused the disgusted reaction, and not the person’s feelings on PDA in general. Whether they actually know the reason or not, it seems to have emotional resonance with the idea that they are disgusting and bad, because same-sex desires are disgusting and bad. I’d say that these people were triggered by that reaction, in the parlance of PTSD/survivor-type language; in other words, they have internalized messages that they are bad/disgusting because of their sexual orientation, and the negative reaction to PDA caused them to be reminded of those messages, whether or not that reaction has anything to do with their sexual orientation at all.

If the group actually is supposed to be a support-oriented safe space, then ground rules need to be established that take these concerns into consideration. I’ve done group therapy, and let me tell you, ground rules are incredibly important in order to help everyone feel safe and avoid triggers. It should explicitly be established that people should suppress their negative reactions to PDA, or refrain from showing PDA, depending on what the group decides on. And yes, different groups may need to form to cater to different individuals’ needs with regard to feeling safe. There is nothing wrong with coming together for political action with one group, and having different groups (or sub-groups) for supporting different kinds of people. It’s not at all uncommon to have a support group (or two) just for trans people, or just for lesbians, or whatever. What’s wrong is to try to force every queer community to be everything to everybody at the same time, as if there is just one thing called “the queer community” that has whatever goals you say it has… and then use that as an excuse to exclude people you don’t like.

Jay’s comments do not demonstrate any understanding of the complexity both of goals and of composition of the various queer communities, or even that we have more than one queer community for good reasons in the first place. I suspect that the people who have had experiences with asexuals triggering them in that way simply assumed that the group was supposed to be a safe space, and even if it was specifically stated that it was supposed to be a safe space, I doubt that much consideration went into planning ground rules designed to make it safe. If there had been such consideration, the offending member would simply have been asked to stop what they were doing or leave, because they were violating the ground rules. A good response in a support group where that issue unexpectedly came up would be to talk about what happened, why it made some members feel unsafe, and decide what action should be taken so that such an issue wouldn’t come up again. That may include coming up with a new ground rule about it, or even a member leaving because that particular group doesn’t really fulfill their needs.

A good response to this issue does not, however, involve deciding that because some members’ needs are in conflict, therefore only such-and-such group of people is queer, and the rest do not get to call themselves that or be involved with ANY queer group (except as an “ally”) because then they would be “appropriating” space. There’s plenty of conflict between members of groups traditionally considered queer all the time, and also between groups composed only of people of the same letter that try to fulfill different goals at the same time as well. There is no monolithic space to appropriate. There are only individual spaces belonging to different communities, each with different goals (that ideally should be clearly delineated).