Safe Space

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In educational institutions, safe-space (or safer-space or positive space) originally were terms used to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. The term safe space has been extended to refer to a space for individuals who are marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus. It has been criticized for being contrary to freedom of speech.

In the U.S. the concept originated in the women’s movement, where it ‘implies a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength, and generate strategies for resistance…a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but also a space created by the coming together of women searching for community.’ The first safe spaces were gay bars and consciousness raising groups. Positive Space initiatives are prevalent in post-secondary institutions across Canada including McGill University and the University of Toronto.

In 1989, ‘Gay & Lesbian Urban Explorers’ (GLUE), a gay Urbex group, developed a safe spaces program. During their events including diversity-training sessions and antihomophobia workshops, they passed out magnets with an inverted pink triangle, ‘ACT UP’s…symbol,’ surrounded by a green circle to, ‘symbolize universal acceptance,’ and asked, ‘allies to display the magnets to show support for gay rights and to designate their work spaces free from homophobia.’

‘Advocates for Youth,’ a nonprofit organization and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., United States, dedicated to sexuality education, states on their website that a safe-space is ‘A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.’

In general these may be individuals or institutions which support a safe space for LGBT students and employees. They may offer or mandate staff training on diversity, include being a safe space in the organization’s mission statement, develop and post a value statement in the organization’s office, online, or on printed documents, or, if part of a coalition, encourage the coalition to include being a safe space in its mission and values.

In early 2015 the increasing adoption of safe spaces in UK universities aroused controversy due to accusations that they were used to stifle free speech and differing political views. In April 2016, a member of the Edinburgh University Students’ Union was subject to a vote on whether to be expelled from a meeting within a safe-space for violating rules about making gestures of disagreement; the vote went in her favor. She had raised her hand to disagree with a claim made against her by another speaker. In September 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May hit out at universities for implementing ‘safe space’ policies amid concerns that self-censorship is curtailing freedom of speech on campuses. The Prime Minister said it was ‘quite extraordinary’ for universities to ban the discussion of certain topics which could cause offense. She warned that stifling free speech could have a negative impact on Britain’s economic and social success.

Writing for ‘The New York Times,’ journalist Judith Shulevitz distinguished between meetings where participants mutually consent to provide a safe space, and attempts to make entire dormitories or student newspapers safe spaces. According to Shulevitz, the latter is a logical consequence of the former: ‘Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.’ The same article gave the following example of a safe space at Brown University, when libertarian Wendy McElroy, who was known for criticizing the term ‘rape culture,’ was coming to give a speech: ‘The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.’

Conservative and libertarian critics accused the college of treating the students like babies. Journalist Conor Friedersdorf criticized the use of outdoor safe spaces to block press coverage of student protests. According to Friedersdorf, such uses reverse the intent of safe spaces: ‘This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.’ British actor Stephen Fry has criticized safe spaces and trigger warnings as infantilising and possibly eroding free speech.

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