Originally published by teenVogue on August 25, 2017
Gym Class, Middle School
“Can I sit in the dugout and meditate?” I asked my P.E. coach. “Fine.” he sighed, “But I better see you actually meditating.” “I promise!” I yelled, “I’ll be in full lotus position.” In the shade of the dugout, blocked from the view of my much more boyish classmates, I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do. At nine years old, I didn’t know that I was gay, but I knew I was different than most other boys my age, certainly different from anyone on the kickball field that day. I’m also certain my coach wasn’t aware he had inadvertently introduced me to the concept of a safe space, something that would become important to me for the rest of my life. In the dugout that day, I learned that sometimes, in order to feel most like myself, I needed a space that felt entirely my own, a space where I was free from judgment, and allowed to express everything otherwise misunderstood by those looking in from the outside. Below are just a few ways safe spaces have manifested in my life, both formally and informally.
The “Girls” Table, High School
You can’t always do life in isolation, nor do I want to. In high school, safe spaces manifested in a variety of ways. Some, like Drama Club or yearbook, where I was surrounded by other like-minded creative kids who just wanted to lip-synch "Defying Gravity" with reckless abandon. And other not-so-likely places, like the girls table at lunch. We had a wonderfully symbiotic relationship, I would regale them with stories about all the stupid things boys talked about in the locker room, and in turn, they provided me with a sort of shield from the kind of boys I’d been hiding in the dugout from. Although unintentional, it was my first experience with allyship. I was invited in, both parties had a mutual understanding, and we informally established rules we were all comfortable with.
PRIDE Student Union, College
Later, I came to realize safe spaces for many groups; women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, were not accidentally stumbled upon, so much as they were actual physical entities. My freshmen year, newly out and full of excitement, I walked into my university’s PRIDE Student Union. I was in awe of the beautiful house on the campus of my large public university in northern Florida, a space specifically dedicated to supporting the college’s queer population. I immediately wanted to get involved, and came to learn a new director had recently been appointed, a senior student, a woman who identified as straight. Although still new to my emerging identity, something didn’t sit well with me. How, I wondered, was a straight person supposed to effectively represent the LGBTQ population on campus? While she could be adjacent to and even sometimes deeply involved in the lives of queer students, how could she ever truly understand what it means to be LGBT or Q? In my mind this was allyship done wrong; queer spaces should be by and for LGBTQ folks. While allies are an integral part to every movement, just as it would be strange for a man to even consider heading something like the Women's March, it is out of place for non-LGBTQ voices to be dominant in queer spaces.
On the list of safe spaces for LGBTQ folks, there appears to be a point of contention for many straight allies, if they’re only enough to frequent them; gay bars. Many LGBTQ historians would argue that gay bars are one of the first examples of safe spaces created by and for the queer community, and yet in 2017 there is a heated debate about who should have access to these institutions. Not too long ago, at a gay bar in Washington DC, a woman approached a group my friends, and demanded for “the cute one to take his shirt off.” She was part of a bachelorette party and they wanted to “cut loose.” Uncomfortable, he politely declined. A few weeks later I was walking to the bathroom at a gay bar when out of nowhere a women smacked and then grabbed my butt, “You’re beauuuuuutiful.” she said “You better come back here and dance with me, my boyfriend’s out of town!” Now, far be it from me to block anyone from entering a public establishment, however, I don’t think it’s an outrageous request to ask that, before entering a gay bar, or any LGBTQ centered space, straight cisgender allies consider whether or not their presence is contributing to or detracting from the experience of the queer folks inside.
No safe space is perfect; there is still plenty of work to be done by the community they’re intended for to ensure they are welcoming to the many members of the LGBTQ community, outside of just cis white gay men. There is power in unity and intersectionality. If I expect people to care about my struggles as a queer person, I must also show up for them. Not out of a sense of obligation, but out of the awareness that all our struggles are interconnected; homophobia is sexism is racism is ableism is transphobia is classism, and the list goes on. Allyship is a magnificently wonderful, powerful, and necessary thing. Before deciding that as an ally you have the right to certain spaces or positions, ask if it would be greater allyship to allow LGBTQ people the right to continue to claim those spaces for themselves. A very simple way to think about this is to consider whether or not you would be taking space away from a person for whom a space is intended, whether that is a place in line for a bar, or a seat on the board of an LGBTQ serving institution. If the answer is yes, perhaps it is better to find other means of allyship, or simply wait for an invitation.