In Defense of Safe Spaces

I was eating lunch in the cafeteria. Nearby is a pool table, which seems to be the gathering place of choice for the louder, more loudly masculine types on campus. Generally speaking, this amounts to little more than mild irritation, and you deal with it. But this day was different; their typically aggressively heterosexual posturing this time was peppered with extreme misogyny and homophobia. The word “faggot” was used at least once, and I distinctly recall hearing the question posed by the winning party to his competitor: “How does my dick feel in your mouth?” Followed shortly with“It’s getting soft!” As a queer individual, I felt unsafe. And judging by another student’s assertion that “that was unnecessary,” they very possibly felt unsafe, too.
And I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt my physical well-being was threatened, but I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go. The professors with Safe Space stickers on their doors weren’t in their offices at the time (they weren’t scheduled to be). So I ended up finding a secluded corner of campus where I sat by myself, trying to avoid hyperventilating while chain smoking — which, incidentally, is not an easy feat. In retrospect, there are such spaces on campus, and I later was able to discuss the incident with classmates, but, in that moment, those options didn’t occur to me.

(This is where I acknowledge my privilege: I generally don’t experience this sort of thing on campus, and it wasn’t directed to me personally. I also don’t have any sort of mental disorder directly associated with violence; if I did, this sort of speech would be, yes, massively triggering.)
Regardless of my handling of the situation, and my inability to think to go to other areas of campus that might be helpful, that doesn’t erase the need for such spaces. The chief argument against safe spaces is that they can needlessly encumber discourse and stifle disagreement. And, if every square foot of college campuses are expected to be safe spaces, where no one is confronted with things that make them uncomfortable or opinions with which they disagree, this is a valid criticism. But that is not the case; L. V. Anderson at Slate points out that “‘safe spaces’ on campus typically describe extracurricular groups that are intended to be havens for historically marginalized students.” That is, these discussions don’t usually pertain to actual class time, despite what the criticism suggests. During class, debate is — usually — related to class material and is mediated by authority figures in the form of professors. And if things do get heated to the extent of the possibility of violence, there are usually very specific security procedures in place.
And I have disagreed with many, many people in class discussions, on a myriad of issues: whether or not to consider comic books “literature” (I said I did); whether or not individuals’ decisions to come out of the closet should be subject to scrutiny (I said they shouldn’t); whether cis privilege is really a thing (I said it is); whether or not sexual orientation and the identities associated with them are a “choice” or inherent to an individual’s very being (I said it was both). What is important here is that these things were specifically associated with coursework assigned in class. And, in each situation, the professors involved proved effective mediators to these disagreements. I never felt as though my safety was at risk. I was irritated and frustrated and in some cases offended, but never actually frightened.
That particular day in the cafeteria, though, I was scared. I felt as though my physical well-being was at risk. And homophobic slurs and suggestions of rape are not discourse. They are hateful and violent, not academic. Not even a little bit. This wasn’t the first time I felt my safety was threatened on basis of my sexual orientation and gender expression, and it won’t be the last. But the difference is that, when they occur at the gas station or Wal-Mart, there is very little that can be done about it. But there is something that can be done about it in this situation. There are spaces that can be carved out on campus where students who belong to marginalized groups can feel like they can breathe. And, if higher education is truly about more than education, about having an “experience,” as the admissions offices would like us to believe, they should at least try to make those experiences good ones.

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