Previously, I’ve written about what I see as the overuse of the word “trigger” – how it has essentially become code word for “something I have a strong negative reaction to” and thus not at all the original intent of the word (which was to label those things that, when present, could cause a person to become a danger to someone or to lose the ability to manage their life for a time). That overuse means that people who feel strongly about some subjects and people who have serious risk to themselves are characterized the same – and that’s a disservice to people who need to explain that, no, this isn’t just something they strongly oppose and have anger about, but is something they can’t be around – not because they don’t like it, but because they’ll lose control.
There’s another term that has morphed over the years: safe space. This term has evolved over the years – I’m going to discuss that evolution and how safe space might be applied by an organization that isn’t only designed to be a safe space, if that organization would want to. I’m going to use the example of a church service for this, but obviously it would apply to other contexts.
Th term, “safe space,” seems to have originated with domestic violence shelters and outreach – the goal was to provide a physical “safe space” where a victim of domestic violence would be safe from their attacker. These spaces might not have well publicized locations (so the abuser can’t find it), would not identify people staying there, would have procedures for people arriving and departing the space without being tracked, might have security staff, and would be understanding that people who have been abused in their home will feel uneasy just about anywhere after their sanctuary was invaded.
Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t make something like a church a “safe space” in this regard – it probably wouldn’t have security personnel, a hidden location, and procedures to keep the identity of attendees secret, nor would other attendees be well-vetted before arriving. They might understand domestic abuse and do what they can to keep a victim physically safe, but a normal Sunday service wouldn’t be a safe-space, no matter how great the church, in the original “safe space” sense, without substantial changes. That said, that doesn’t prevent them from being decent and using some sense – things like child release policies (make sure children in child care are only released to an authorized person, for instance), ensuring that ushers and others know about legal orders or the need to ask certain people to leave (with police help if needed) if they visit the service, and respecting the idea that the victim is in a very vulnerable and hurt state. A church might even offer key sacraments through a visit to a truly safe space. But, regardless, it’s not likely to be able to make the service itself a safe space in the same way as a domestic violence shelter may, no matter how well intentioned or how good the people are.
Later, the term, “safe space,” became used by feminist and LGBT groups. Both used the term to means something different than the space used by the domestic violence safe spaces.
Some women’s groups used the term to mean, “places where we are safe from oppression by men.” This was some of the original intent of women-only (or womyn-only) space – the idea was that, generally, the people oppressing women were men, so without men, there would be less oppression. This greatly simplifies the concept, and it is quite a bit more nuanced than this would imply – and I know that (and you should too before you just repeat this!). However, two things came of this – first, obviously some women can internalize prejudice and thus perpetuate prejudice against themselves and other women. Secondly, creating such a space meant creating a definition of who could be there – and any such definition will be controversial (for instance, is a trans woman allowed? Whether or not she’s had surgery? How about an intersexed person? Or a trans man?). There have been many fights over who is a woman (I’ll also add that women aren’t the only marginalized community to fight over who is part of their community). So this definition has been changing over the years, bringing it more in line with the LGBT definition of safe space.
There’s some purposes served by having a space for a marginalized community – it can be valuable for growing a community, giving people a sense of comfort the outside world lacks, and providing freedom for people to say and do things they might not do in the wider world.
But of course this, too, isn’t a definition of safe space that could be applied to our hypothetical church service – unless the church was to exclude all whites, men, non-disabled, etc, people to make it a safe place in this sense for marginalized populations (such as non-whites, women, disabled people, etc).
That takes us to the LGBT definition. I remember being a kid in school when this started in my area – certain teachers would have a pink triangle (pointed down). I didn’t know the pink triangle had roots in LGBT oppression and was now a symbol of the fight against that oppression, but I was told it symbolized “safe space.” That is, it was a place where an LGB (I suspect most safe spaces weren’t ready for T at the time) student could go if he or she needed someone to talk to. It would be a place where the person’s sexual orientation wouldn’t be challenged, nor would the person be told they were a sinner. There was physical safety as well – the person displaying the triangle wasn’t going to attack someone who discloses homosexuality.
Being older, and with more understanding of the LGBT movement, I now realize that it was meant to be a place of support, to give the student a place to have a shoulder to lean on that wouldn’t be judgmental, wouldn’t gossip about it, and maybe could help the student find ways of dealing with the discrimination they face. There weren’t a lot of places where someone could go without hearing about the old testament or telling someone who might gossip about it. I also learned the LGB safe space concept started not in classrooms, but in corporate America, as a way for allies to show their support in a more practical way.
Other oppressed populations have also adopted this concept (including many women’s rights organizations, replacing the original definitions used by these types of organizations).
I believe this last form of safe space – the LGBT movement’s definition of safe space – is the most common definition of safe space used today. Today, when someone says, “safe space,” what they are probably saying is, “Certain beliefs will not be expressed here, nor will people be judged for certain actions. There’s a community standard in place.” For example, a disability-rights safe space might prohibit blatant ablism and might require people participating to understand the basics of disability rights already (so that each new non-disabled person joining the space wouldn’t need to be taught disability 101 by the disabled people in the space who are likely very, very sick of doing this teaching with people).
Again, with our hypothetical church service, making it this type of safe space can be difficult. Let’s continue with our disability-rights safe space concept. Maybe the church does decide that they will not allow, uncontested, the discussion of why disabled people should be in institutions. That won’t however stop someone from coming off the street and raising the topic until someone stands up and says, “We don’t do that here” (which will probably raise all sorts of other problems, like how the person is disabled themselves or how they have a disabled family member). Yes, hopefully others will step up, but should the person be removed from the church or should they be educated? If educated, that is one of the things that safe space is supposed to protect the marginalized person from having to do – it gets old to have to give disability 101 training to everyone! But of course some people do need disability 101 training. Maybe you can get non-disabled people to do that training, but that training will take time. What do you do in the meantime?
I believe strongly in value of all the types of safe space listed above, and feel that it is important to have these spaces for people. But, at the same time, I also believe it’s important to define exactly what we want out of our safe spaces – particularly when extending this to spaces that aren’t dedicated safe spaces in the way a domestic violence shelter may be (such as our hypothetical church service). How do we make that church service (or anything else) a safe space? What does safe mean? Does it mean physical protection from your abusive husband? A place where people who you won’t run into a person who shares a common characteristic with your most common oppressors? A place where you will not have to listen to people’s “ism’s”, such as racism, ablism, and misogyny (an -ism by another suffix)? Or is it a place where you don’t have to explain to every single new person how to interact decently?
It’s worth having these discussions. And certainly, once people are aware of an issue of oppression or safety, they should consider it in the spaces they have authority in – certainly no ally of the LGBT community, for instance, wants to be part of a place that allows homophobes to spew hate. Or which requires the one person in a commonly oppressed group to have to educate everyone in the organization, continually. Or to allow a domestic abuser to gain access to children he (or she) abused. Nothing is perfect, but we can get better.
At the same time, it’s important to say what we want when we want safe space. What, exactly, are the parameters for our space, and how is this different from just wanting a space where everyone is like us or nobody disagrees with us? It is different, but it’s important to be able to explain why and not just use the code word “safety”. Everyone wants safety, but we all have different ideas of what “safe” means. So we need to be explicit.
In the meantime, we need to keep working to eliminate the -isms, to educate people about different kinds of people, and to make sure abuse victims really are safe from their abusers.