Safe spaces

Last Wednesday (running a bit behind in my blogging here, as in so many other areas of my work…) I attended "Safe Space sticker training." This is a program sponsored by the campus life department and the GLBTA (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered-Ally) center, the point of which was to certify the participants as providers of a safe space within which people can explore their sexuality. For participating we got a nifty rainbow sticker, which is a concrete designation of wherever we post it as a "safe space."

The training was interesting. The central exercise was a group discussion about sexuality, but not one in which people necessarily had to speak from their own experiences. Instead, everyone had to assume the identity of a GLBT person, and try to speak from that place. The instructions were to think about how our own lives might be affected if we had that identity; for those of us who were GLBT individuals, we had the option of speaking from our own actual lives, and for those of us who were not, we should think about how our lives might have been different if we were. [And people who were GLBT individuals were also given the option of adopting a different GLBT identity than the one the enact in their everyday lives.] The point, I think was two-fold: to get non-GLBT people (those who would be "A"s) to really confront what it would be like to struggle with those issues, and to give GLBT folks an opportunity so safely talk about their experiences under the cover of "I might be just playing a role here."

The exercise worked very well; having never really had an opportunity to ask a self-identified transgendered person what kinds of challenges they faced, it was nice to be able to do that in such a setting. There was another, perhaps unintended result of the exercise: by placing all of us in a position where our enacted roles bore no necessary relationship to our actual life experiences, it raised the opportunity to wonder who was "telling the truth" and who was "making things up." I was surprised to see how much I was wondering about the stories that people were telling during the discussion, and whether they were "true" or not. This was surprising to me both because it didn't matter to the exercise, and because it illustrated how central certain notions -- like the "true identity" -- are to our everyday practices of relating to one another.

It was particularly odd at a session devoted to creating safe spaces for the exploration of various sexual and gender identities to find myself so internally insistent on knowing whether the stories that people were telling were true. It wasn't as if knowing whether someone was gay or a lesbian or whatever would have caused me (or anyone else in the session) to dismiss them; the whole point of the exercise, after all, was to create a safe space! But it was almost as if the ambiguity of the situation was itself uncomfortable. Intellectually, I'm not surprised, but emotionally it was odd to confront that uncomfortability in myself.

Indeed, in a "safe space" of the sort that my office will now be labelled as, there needs to be tolerance for precisely that kind of ambiguity. In that way it's different than a classroom space, where my pedagogical reaction to ambiguity is to push students to clarify and to commit and to stake out claims. Classrooms should be safe, I think, but safe for something different: safe for arguing positions, safe for trying out ideas, safe for speaking your mind with the understanding that you will have to defend what you claim. As long as the differences between the spaces are kept clear, I think, there's no problem.

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