Queer Theory is Sexy

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A few thoughts on Safe Spaces

(Mild trigger warning: This post makes occasional references to rape and sexual violence, as well as other forms of oppression)

I’ve been thinking a lot about safe spaces lately, their purpose and use, strategies for building them, and the notion that we can ever hope to maintain them. I started thinking about this after reading an article on anarchalibrary which discusses strategies for dealing with rape within radical communities (I’ve been following a lot of anarchist—especially queer anarchist—literature lately, not because I’m an anarchist, but because I appreciate people with radical ideas, even if I don’t agree with them). I’m not sure how I feel about the overall argument, but I am not a rape survivor and I still have a lot of thinking to do about this one. However, there were a lot of really cogent points made, and I’d like to take a look at one in particular:

I really want to emphasize: there is no such thing as safe space under patriarchy or capitalism in light of all the sexist, hetero-normative, racist, classist (etc) domination that we live under. The more we try and pretend safety can exist at a community level the more disappointed and betrayed our friends, and lovers will be when they experience violence and do not get supported. Right now we’ve been talking a good game but the results are not adding up.

The thing about the kind of safe spaces you see at university-run LGBT workshops, or in stickers on people’s offices or in a religious center, is that these safe spaces are only able to exist in a necessarily and precisely delimited way. These spaces are temporary and comparatively small; they require a whole orchestration of community and individual effort to set up and to maintain. And the process of creating a safe space is never completed. The notion of setting up a safe space necessarily entails that the area outside the specific temporal-spatial boundaries that constitute the space is inherently unsafe. Safe spaces exist and are created because our society isn’t safe. And our attempts to make society safe are never going to be complete.

Let me explain: legislation to give queer folk the rights they deserve, punishing hate crimes and sexual violence, or having queer people in tv shows do not create a safe space. They are hugely important steps towards a healthier society, yes, but that’s not what a safe space is. A safe space is where everyone is always respected and treated in a way that is thoughtful and cautious towards who they are and how they see themselves. A safe space is where everyone involved acknowledges the rules of the discourse. A safe space is where the discourse itself is imbedded in a context in which it is assumed that breach of this ethic will be corrected immediately. Sexual violence, queer-erasure, and oppressive attitudes are just not socially possible (for all intents and purposes) within safe spaces. Safe spaces make mutual respect and tolerance the norm, whereas everywhere else the exact opposite is the norm.

I don’t care if you live in San Francisco or Tel Aviv (the friendliest place for LGBT people in the whole world). Not every person living in these places has to sign a “I promise not to be a douchebag” form upon establishing residence in said queer haven. We just can’t, as a society, force a queer-friendly ethos onto people, nor can we legislate away all the cultural things that cause anti-queer (and patriarchical) attitudes and violence (although we can fight against their manifestation in the legislation itself).

I’m not just talking about gender norms, rape culture, transphobia, slut shaming and people disowning their gay kids (although I most certainly am talking about those things). The one thing that has convinced me above all others that a societal or community safe space is impossible is this: queer peoples’ seemingly universal willingness to oppress and erase or otherwise neglect the identities of other queer people. Whether it’s bi-erasure or refusing to acknowledge genderqueer people, whether it’s racism or sexism or ableism or some other form of douchebaggery, queer people just seem to love employing the tools of heteronormative, patriarchical, privileged society against each other. These are the same forms of oppression (heteronormativity being an integrated, coherent conceptual system whose individual aspects are mutually-enforcing) that have been used for decades to minimize, sexualize, or dismiss queer identities. Our willingness to segregate queer people into camps of “good queers” and “bad queers” makes impossible the notion of a safe space that isn’t just safe for certain privileged categories of queerness.

What I’m saying is that we could have a city made up entirely of queer people, and that wouldn’t make it a safe space. Safe spaces require constant effort to maintain, the kind of constant effort that is not conducive to longevity or universality. The thing is, we want to create these kinds of macro safe spaces because we want to believe that we can control the forms of oppression that are constantly unleashed upon us, or at least take steps to bring them under our control. But to do that we’d have to control the minds of the people who perpetuate them. The thing that is so terrifying about social and physical violence is that there is literally nothing we can do to stop it short of locking ourselves in our basements and cutting off all contact with other people. Making beating up queer people a hate crime doesn’t prevent people from doing so, it just ensures that there will be consequences for those that do. We have to realize that there are people out there who hate us so much that no amount of consequences will deter them from doing everything in their power to take our power away from us, hurt us, or erase us. And even if these attitudes decline, I don’t think that would mean that things are suddenly safe for queer people. We’ve come to realize how much oppression and erasure are unintentional, unconscious, and passive processes. The nice thing about anyone who has a privileged identity is that there is no active impetus for them to change, there is no reason for them to acknowledge their privilege or to to combat their own role in perpetuating socially violent hierarchies. As long as privileged status exists, there will be no safe space. And even if we remove structural hierarchies, that in no way prevents individuals to maintain personal notions of superiority, or to create new forms of xenophobia based on group and collective identity.

In other words, the notion of a society-wide safe space is as utopian as the notion that we can live in a world without crime, or war, or hatred, or poverty. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to lessen these effects and to protect people. But anyone who believes that such a thing as a universal safe space invokes the mythical narrative of historical progress. Queer liberation is not a linear process; it is never complete and it is not something that can be measured by such benchmarks as marriage legalization (although these can give us an idea of where we stand). Heteronormativity plays out as an incredibly complex series of personal interactions, and its disentanglement will happen primarily on this level. Some of these interactions will be hateful, violent, or otherwise problematic. Pretending that we can prevent that, indeed, anything short of acknowledging that we can’t control how other people think, is an inadequate strategy of liberation.

Filed under safe space safe spaces queer gay lesbian bisexual bisexuality trans theory

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