Why do we need safe spaces?
Text by Shannon Novak, Founder and Director of the Safe Space Alliance.
I live in New Zealand, a country that is relatively progressive in terms of LGBTQI+ rights. We have almost all the same rights as everyone outside the LGBTQI+ community. You would think then it’s a pretty safe country and that there probably isn’t a great need for safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community. This is a common misconception. Having rights doesn’t necessarily mean or guarantee acceptance.
There will be individuals and groups out there who, regardless of what the law says, do not accept the LGBTQI+ community for various reasons. This may result in implicitly or explicitly hostile spaces.
For example, a workplace might have a policy that does not allow for the discrimination of LGBTQI+ employees. This doesn’t automatically create a safe space for those employees as there will be other employees who disagree with the policy. Those who disagree may consciously or unconsciously create unsafe spaces through actions like not wanting to talk or hear about the partner and life outside work of a LGBTQI+ employee.
In short, there is absolutely a need for safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community regardless of how progressive a country/place in the world is in terms of LGBTQI+ rights.
When thinking about the need for safe space there are many considerations to make. I suggest the following a good starting point:
- Rights: what rights the LGBTQI+ community in your area don’t have and its impact on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
- Acceptance: global acceptance levels of the LGBTQI+ community regardless of legislation (as having legislation doesn’t necessarily equate to acceptance) and its impact on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
- Well-being: the general well-being of the LGBTQI+ community and its impact on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
- History: how those in the LGBTQI+ community who have lived through a period without rights and acceptance feel (e.g. ingrained uncertainty, fear, and a lack of trust) and its impact on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
- Technology: the ability of technologies like the internet to ignore geographical boundaries and laws, facilitating violence, bullying, or hate speech towards the LGBTQI+ community and the impact of this on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
- Visitors: people (inside and outside the LGBTQI+ community) visiting your area who may not know what rights your local LGBTQI+ community has and/or how accepting your area is and its impact on safety in the LGBTQI+ community.
Each year, ILGA World (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) publishes a map of sexual orientation laws in the world. This breaks the world into three key categories:
- Protected areas: areas in the world that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- Criminalised areas: areas in the world that criminalise consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults.
- Indifferent areas: areas of the world that don’t protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or criminalise consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults.
The need for safe space in criminalised areas is clear, as is the need for safe space in indifferent areas where there is no protection.
Protected areas have varying degrees of protection. Some have limited protection and some have broad protection. Regardless, not every LGBTQI+ right may be protected. This lack of protection whether small or large may lead to members of the LGBTQI+ community feeling unsafe therefore driving the need for safe spaces. It’s also worth noting that having rights can generate resentment and aggression towards the LGBTQI+ community from anti-LGBTQI+ individuals and groups.
LGBTQI+ rights may fluctuate over time whether regressing or advancing, something I call “legislative flux”. It can be unsettling having certain rights one year, then having those taken away another year, and exacerbates feeling unsafe. You can see examples of this using the interactive world maps on Spartacus Gay Travel Index and moving the slider between years to see the colours change (green being good and red being bad). You can also hover over specific countries/locations to see how rights may regress or fluctuate over time.
Regardless of how many LGBTQI+ rights a place in the world has this doesn’t necessarily equate to acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community. As mentioned in the introduction, there are individuals and groups out there who will refuse to accept the LGBTQI+ community for various reasons. This means people in the LGBTQI+ community may have to guess how accepting a space is before they act accordingly.
For example, I live in New Zealand, a relatively progressive part of the world in terms of LGBTQI+ rights. Regardless, I still don’t feel comfortable holding my partners hand in public spaces unless I know for sure that space is safe. It’s a risk otherwise, and a risk I’d rather not take given people in the LGBTQI+ community are still physically assaulted in public here despite the law.
Then there are acceptance levels. If a place is accepting, how accepting is it? Can I do one thing but not another? Can I hold my partners hand but not kiss him? What are the limits? What are the boundaries?
So there is a need not only for safe spaces due to varying acceptance levels, but safe spaces that visibly identify as safe spaces and therefore indicate acceptance for the LGBTQI+ community (i.e. are visibly supportive). This could be as simple as putting a rainbow flag sticker on a window, web page, or social media channel along with a supporting public policy/statement.
Given a lack in rights and/or acceptance, big or small, and the fact being part of the LGBTQI+ community is illegal and even punishable by death in some areas of the world has to have some impact on the general well-being of the LGBTQI+ community regardless of location. It can manifest as feeling wrong or invalid as a human being which in turn may lead to anxiety, depression, and/or suicide.
For example, someone from the LGBTQI+ community may live in an area of the world with almost all rights and high levels of acceptance, but still experience anxiety or depression as they see and/or hear about others in the LGBTQI+ community being killed in other areas around the world.
By having safe spaces, we support the well-being of the LGBTQI+ community by saying we accept you, we celebrate you, and we value you. I would encourage you to research statistics/reports in regards to the well-being of your local LGBTQI+ community to see what the challenges are and how you might be able to help negate these challenges.
Many LGBTQI+ rights are relatively young. There are people in the LGBTQI+ community who have lived through a period without certain rights and as a result have been impacted negatively in some way. Damage may have been done, and healing takes time. There may be ingrained uncertainty, fear, and a lack of trust in people and spaces. So even if an area in the world has many LGBTQI+ rights, there may be people in the LGBTQI+ community that need time to heal from what they couldn’t do in the past before they celebrate what they can do in the present.
This means people in the LGBTQI+ community may still be afraid (despite it being legal) to do things like hold hands in public, kiss in public, and/or identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community. This highlights the need for safe spaces as havens to help people in the LGBTQI+ community grow confidence and ultimately heal from time.
Since the birth of technologies like the internet we have become more interconnected. Geographical boundaries have lessened and as a result almost anyone can contact anyone else with a mobile device. There have been many benefits to this connectedness, but it has also instigated many challenges such as cyberbullying (bullying online). This means that anti-LGBTQI+ individuals and groups from anywhere in the world can anonymously intimidate almost anyone online from the global LGBTQI+ community.
For example, a student at school is continually cyberbullied by other people at school (or beyond) causing the student to withdraw from physical space where the motives of people in those spaces are unclear. Safe spaces can offer a place of refuge for those being hurt, a place to talk, a place to feel accepted.
The need for safe spaces extends beyond physical spaces into online spaces. For some areas in the world where it is illegal to belong to the LGBTQI+ community, online space may be the only type of safe space the LGBTQI+ community has. It’s also worth considering the safety of any online spaces you manage like Facebook, Instagram, or online discussion forums and how discriminatory content (e.g. user comments) is moderated.
There may be times we think solely in terms of the bubble we operate in and nothing beyond that. One might live in a place in the world where being part of the LGBTQI+ community is highly accepted therefore assume the need for safe spaces isn’t a high priority. Here we must remember people from the LGBTQI+ community visit our bubble from other places in the world, places where acceptance may not be as high or may be very low. They may not know how safe it is in our bubble, what the laws are, and by default simply hide who they are. Clearly identifiable safe spaces help remove the guesswork here for LGBTQI+ visitors and help them feel accepted.
This is also relevant to anti-LGBTQI+ visitors who may come from an area in the world where being part of the LGBTQI+ community is illegal. If a space is not clearly identifiable as a safe space, they may openly abuse people in that space from the LGBTQI+ community.