When the Shield Charms Break

On June 1st, we launched Protego — our first ever transgender rights and safe spaces campaign, named after the shield charm used in the Harry Potter universe. The charm is scattered throughout the later books, but appears most notably and frequently during the climactic Battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows, when the school said to be the safest place in the world was under siege.

Spells penetrating the protego maxima charm cast on Hogwarts during the Battle in Deathly Hallows. (Source: http://nathanielemmett.tumblr.com/)

Of course, Hogwarts was dangerous long before that — long before Harry, Ron, and Hermione fought off trolls or basilisks or dementors, even. Within those walls, students died on campus and many authority figures misused their power. Still, no matter what danger lurked there, Hogwarts remained a place that for some reason felt safe to its students — and to us.

In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, we are left grappling with what safe spaces really are. Before this, tragic shootings have played out in places of worship, movie theaters, live music venues, and schools — spaces that should be safe by their very nature. This weekend, the attack was on a space designated safe by necessity: LGBTQ bars and clubs are places of community, but also of refuge. Places like Pulse are necessary not just because marginalized communities need and deserve places to gather and celebrate, but also because the world at large remains a dangerous place for those communities. Places like Pulse are not just designated spaces defiantly carved into that world, but also shelter from it.

The devastating reality is that no space can promise us physical or emotional safety. Each senseless tragedy drives this point deeper. It’s on all of us to work to change that, as Hannah Hart laid out in her video about Orlando.

Where does this leave safe spaces, though? If there is as much danger within their walls as outside of them — and sometimes more — is there any point in keeping them around? Is there sense in seeking them out? Is there anything they provide that’s worth the risk?

We think there is.

In the end, Hogwarts couldn’t guarantee its students’ safety and often seemed to work against it. But no matter how many times he and his friends almost died there, Harry was always desperate to go back. Despite the powerful magic that made 4 Privet Drive impenetrable to Voldemort or Death Eaters, literally guaranteeing Harry couldn’t die there, it wasn’t a safe space for him. Hogwarts was.

At Hogwarts, Harry had a close circle of good friends, a set of fierce — if imperfect — mentors, and a sense of belonging. He wasn’t locked away in a cupboard or terrorized or forbidden from acknowledging who he was. Hogwarts had Snape and Umbridge and occasional mortal peril, yes, but it also had Ron and Hermione and Hagrid. This school, with all its risk and darkness, was where Harry could rebuild himself, leaning on those around him, happily trading Privet Drive’s protection for a home.

When the shield charms shattered and Hogwarts buckled under the series’ final battle, it was every bit as safe as Hagrid told Harry it was on their first trip into the wizarding world, if in different ways. No damage or destruction could undo the years students had spent there, learning magic, growing as wizards and as people, surrounded by their friends and mentors.

Maybe, on the most literal level, the term safe spaces is a misnomer — a misguiding stand-in for compassionate spaces, transformative spaces, healing spaces, spaces for open and honest communication, spaces to share with people like you and people who will fight beside you. Maybe safe spaces are not spaces at all, but the people in them. Whatever they are or are not, they still exist and there is still need for them. Now, more than ever, it’s vital that we keep believing in safe spaces — and building them.

We asked some of our volunteer staff what safe spaces meant to them:

TK: “To me safe spaces mean places you can go where the people who work there or run the event are inclusive of everyone. They welcome everyone and let us know that their space is one where we are free to be ourselves. So to me when safe spaces get attacked, I still consider them safe spaces by that definition. Obviously it’s no longer literal. I love seeing safe spaces all over the place, in schools, community centers, churches, because to me it symbolizes someone who is willing to talk to and welcome people in the [queer] community. It shows that there are people and places all over the world who respect and acknowledge us as people.”

Camille: “For me, a safe space is a space that people claim as their own and as a shared space (so it’s for the individual and for the community). You feel like you can be yourself in this space; you don’t feel ashamed or afraid of letting yourself open up or of letting others in. You feel empowered to share your story or to listen to others’ stories. Safe spaces are places for growth, dialogue, respect, and love. You may not necessarily believe in the same thing or agree on the same subject — but you listen to each other anyway.”

Lori: “As a queer woman with a school-aged child, I can tell you that safety is in the eye of the beholder. What I may think as a safe place, my child may or may not. For her, right now, she feels safest at home when both of her parents are there. Her school has done a good job at scheduling lock down drills without scaring the heck out of the kids, so she feels pretty safe there as well. But after the shooting at Pulse we talked to her about it, and she was afraid that the killer would come try to kill her parents. We did reassure her that that we are safe, and it was an unusual incident.”

What do safe spaces mean to you in the wake of Orlando? How will you work to keep building them? Use #Protego to continue the discussion; we look forward to hearing your thoughts, and we’ll add them here.

If you would like to support Protego, you can learn more about the campaign and actions you can take here.

If you would like to support Orlando and the broader communities impacted by this tragedy, check out list of resources and actions here.