Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Spark of Wisdom: The Importance of Safe Spaces

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

Having just come back from Pride (and still not slept the clock round, which is what I really need to recover from the last 4 days of wonder without sleep) I am going to natter on about the wonder that are safe spaces. 

I am a great fan of safe spaces. Because the heteronormative world is not a pleasant place. It just isn't.  

It has constant little pricks always poking you over and over again. You open a book and there's straight people, you look out the window and there's lots of straight families, you turn on the television and lo, straight folks abound. Adverts are 99.9% straight, television is awash with straightness, the radio's playing yet another boy loves girl song. It's everywhere - and of course, the accompanying little whisper "you're not normal, not normal, not normal, not normal. You don't belong here." Which is damned irritating at times. 

It has a lot of little stabs as well. Those girls there discussing, well, something, which is apparently "so gay." Those kids over there are having an argument, apparently one of them is a "fag". We turn on the television to see a loving homosexual couple! Who have died. Again. But don't worry, straight female lead has a sassy gay friend to make it all better. 

Then of course there are the great big hammers. The fear, the running, the hiding, the hospital visits. We know the badness, I don't need to mention it. 

Living in heteronormative society can be a little like constantly having your eyes poked with sporks. It's irritating, it's painful and can lead to severe injury. 

Then we come to Safe Spaces. In a safe space, the sporks are absent (or at least massively blunted). Safe spaces are places where we do belong, places where we can relax. Places where we don't need to be on guard or afraid or constantly having our eyes sporked. For me, walking into a place I consider a safe Space is like 10 hours of therapy and a very large Bacardi (mock not my drinking habits). It's like taking off your tight shoes and tie after a very long day - except it's a day that has lasted months and the shoes are so tight you can hardly walk and the tie is stopping you from breathing properly. 

Which is why we need to respect people's safe spaces. We need to recognize how important they are. We need to recognise when we are tourists in other people's safe spaces. In short, we need to make sure we don't take sporks with us into the safe spaces. Those eyes get sporked enough. 

Now, so far, I have indulged in saying the bleeding obvious, I rather think. But safe spaces are not just physical. My house is largely a safe space - because I reserve the right to hit people with hammers if they bring sporks into it. But if I turn the television on? Sporks abound. 
Safe spaces in media - and certainly on the internet - are just as vital. Browsing through the internet is infinitely more irritating when the screen throw eye-homing sporks at you. There are parts of the net I won't go near because I know there is a risk of severe eye-sporkage. And many others I enter at my own risk and very carefully.

Safe spaces matter, even on the net. To me, it is vital to know there are places I can go, people I can engage and things I can do where I don't risk a severe eye-sporking. There is information I wish to consume, conversations I wish to be part of, things I want to learn - but I don't want the cost of that to be being pummeled by repeated straight privilege and homophobia. So I love many net safe spaces. I love that there's a huge part of my RSS feed of doom which is nicely labeled "places I can go even when I am feeling vulnerable, hurt, bruised and all kinds of shit, and they won't make it worse."

Sadly, my whole RSS feed isn't in that category. Because we can't hunker in safe spaces and, alas, the world is not a safe place. Instead, I have several other feeds full of blogs I follow but have an increasing chance of eye-sporking me. One of those feeds should only be entered with protective clothing and a very large axe. 

And why do I go to these places? Why do I tolerate even minor sporkage? Because all the information I need, all the things I need to learn, all the conversations I need to witness do not happen in places that are safe for me. I wish they did, but they don't. So I have to venture out, especially if I want to confront my own privileges.

Which comes to the most awkward point of all. Sometimes I will enter into someone else's safe space, someone else talking about a marginalisation. I speak little, learn a lot and hope to go through my own issues - but these places also throw sporks at me. They are safe places for some people, but certainly not for me and mine which leaves me in a conundrum. Part of me wants to speak,. part of me wants to comment "do you realise how grossly straight privileged that was?" Part of me certainly wants to yell when I'm confronted by someone throwing vast stinking homophobia 

But that is their safe space and their topic and their issue being discussed. Even if reasonably motivated and perfectly valid, my criticism, my comment, would be a derail. It would be damaging their safe space, their focus, their goal even the space's reason for being. If this is a place that focuses on race, on sexism or ableism, then running in with a GBLT derail, even a valid one, is going to hurt their conversation, their goal, their space being about them and, ultimately, their safe space. And I may have damn good reasons for speaking up with my heavily-sporked-eye but will I gain anything but hurt? And do I risk sporking other people? 

There is no good answer there - but that's the crap we're left with, with our messed up prejudiced society. 

Do I have a point for this post? Probably not, my sleep deprivation levels are high and I'm not thinking as clearly as I could be. But if I were to draw anything out it would be: respect safe spaces. Respect them as powerful, as necessary, as vital. Respect that everyone needs their safe spaces, their spaces where it is about them, their spaces where they are not other. But that also means respecting other people's spaces - and realising that we can't, alas, stay in our safety zones.