Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Safe Space

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ ~Luke 9:57-58

I've been thinking about "safe space" for most of my life. A few years ago I wrote this poem as part of a paper for grad school:
"A Reverie"

Once when I was small,
I stumbled home 
broken and bruised and weeping.
It was not the first time nor the last.

At a moment, 
perfectly balanced 
between him and home,
I stopped and began to laugh.
At that moment, perfectly balanced,
I perceived with my six-year-old mind that I could think.

A space big enough for me, 
but too small for him,
opened in my body and I crawled in.
I stayed there for twenty years
until I was sure he was gone.

I was six when I realized there was no such thing as safe space. People have a habit of confirming this insight on a fairly regular basis. The spaces that are supposed to be safest often turn out to be the most dangerous. While I was sexually assaulted once by a stranger, the most egregious offenses have come from a family member, a lover, a friend. Even the stranger was a friend of a friend. This is not to say that there is no stranger danger, just that we are more often betrayed within what we consider to be safe spaces.

A few years ago, before I decided to live openly as a queer woman, I was part of an email group for queer seminarians. This group was private. It was to be a safe space. Nobody was part of the email group unless they were queer. All agreed that our emails would stay within the group, never to be shared beyond the group. We agreed not to share who else was in the group. Private. Safe. Space. 

About five weeks before my ordination an email thread started about clergy robes. Caught up in this safe space I overshared a bit in an email. The story I shared was humorous, and one of the women in the group replied all and then forwarded her reply (with my original text) to two other email groups she was part of. Both of those groups were connected to lgbtq activism in some way, but not all of the people in those groups were queer. More to the point, according to our group covenant my email was never to be shared beyond our original group. Five weeks before ordination in a denomination that is hostile to queer folk, and I had been outed by another queer woman who thought nothing of her actions. She reassured me that all of her contacts were trustworthy and I needn't worry. Two women from the outside groups rushed in with their own emails informing me that they were trustworthy and so was everyone in their extended groups. All I knew was that I had been outed--by someone who promised they wouldn't do that.

I reflected hard that weekend on the concept of safe space. I was furious, frankly. But at about the same time I met a few trans women on twitter. We began a conversation about "women only space" which typically means "cis women only" space. Many groups set up for women only exclude trans women (although interesting, often trans men are welcome). This gave me pause, as the women I met on twitter are women I would want in any women only space I inhabited. These women had my back on a no good lousy day. These women struggled with many of the same issues I do. When I learned they were routinely excluded from "safe spaces," I was forced again to think through the concept of safe space.

Last year the Outlaw Preachers held a reunion weekend at which a speaker who is anti-lgbtq was invited to speak. We are still arguing over whether that reunion was therefore still safe space, if he should have been welcomed, if the queer folk who objected are overly sensitive, if the people who invited the guy place certain abstract Christian ideals over the physical and emotional safety and comfort of queer folk, etc. 

Safe space comes at a cost.We know that--even we liberal/progressive/bleeding heart/commie-pinko/pie-in-the-sky/dreamers know that. We have invasive airport security because we have decided as a nation/culture that the creation of safe space is worth the invasion of people's bodies, racial profiling, a ton of money, and boatloads of time. I'm not saying airport security is right or wrong (conservative blog trolls may stand down). I'm saying that the creation of safe space costs and it is very difficult to maintain. I'm saying that the creation of safe space requires one to wield power and privilege. I'm saying that the creation of safe space requires "othering" and sometimes spiritual or physical violence to the other in order to maintain.

Sometimes the creation of safe spaces is essential to life. Domestic violence shelters are very careful about who they let in the door. They are very careful about who even knows where the door is. No doubt that these shelters are essential and that their boundaries are necessary. Yet many of the shelters will not provide services to men. Further, many women's programs refuse to shelter trans women, who are some of the most vulnerable women on the planet. What is the cost of this refusal? What further violence do we perpetrate by the creation of safe space for some at the expense of other vulnerable individuals? What should we expect from such spaces? If we shelter our own bodies and souls while others around us lack safety, what have we become?

I acknowledge the right of individuals and groups to create limited spaces for themselves. Such groups provide desperately needed space for healing, organizing, and strengthening for vulnerable individuals and groups. At my seminary a group of queer folk gathered deliberately without straight folk twice a month, in addition to our regular joint meetings. This was essential to our growth as individuals. Not all queer folk wanted the space. But some of us needed it. A group of women of color gathered periodically for fellowship, literary discussion, organizing, sharing. I was not welcome and never would have asked. That circle overlapped with a group which met periodically to discuss intimate violence, which overlapped with a literary discussion group where men were also welcome...and on it goes with circle after circle attempting to provide safety and space outside of the gaze of power where the vulnerable might find strength to push back. These spaces matter.

Yet I've come to question the word "safe," because the circles are only safe around certain axes. A women's group may be "safe" from the presence of men, but it may be rife with deep-seated racism, cissexism, and heterosexism. A queer group may pledge to be anti-racist and completely miss the fact that its leadership structure is patriarchal.

More intimately, while a group may claim itself as safe space, individuals within the group can and do perpetrate against one another. I remember many thanksgiving dinners where the man who raped me as a child pontificated for hours on the need to protect women and children. In the places we consider safest, we are most vulnerable, and therefore exposed more fully to the violence of others when they choose to betray our trust. Safe spaces have great difficulty maintaining themselves as safe spaces, and often are unable to see the abuses which take place.

I suppose that could lead pretty quickly to the X-Files' maxim: "Trust no one." But that leads one to a very lonely life. We are wired for interdependence and trust--we need human contact. We all need the places and people with whom we can lay down our guard. While I believe efforts to make the world safer need to continue (although I disagree with many on the extent of those efforts and the means used), I believe we need to simultaneously cultivate two other characteristics: the ability to function well in situations we do not fully trust and the resilience to survive and thrive when our trust is betrayed. 

Safe space is not always possible and is not always offered. I attended the Early Ministry Institute the last two years. EMI is a three year training program for new Presbyterian pastors in the Synod of the Northeast. It is intended as a safe place for newly minted pastors to share with one another, build friendships, speak deeply of our struggles, etc. It is not, however, a particularly safe space for queer folk. I lost track of the number of times I shared meals with pastors who believed homosexuality is a sin and felt comfortable dishing that out with the oatmeal breakfast. I still go, but I know the limitations of that space. I know the energy it costs me to be there. I set my boundaries accordingly. One of those boundaries is limiting the number of other conferences I attend that are not queer friendly. I can only take so much. Still, it is important to thrive in that space, even though it is not safe.

Lastly, the temptation to crawl back into that space in my mind created by six-year-old me is sometimes unbearably strong. I am exhausted by the lack of safe space in this world, by the need to constantly be on guard. When I find what I think is safe space, only to discover that I am betrayed, I am tempted to never trust again.

But more and more I find myself unwilling to close off from others for the sake of safety. I long for connection and understanding--is there anything more wonderful than naked vulnerability with a lover you trust? What is better than a glass of wine and good food with a friend who understands you? How much joy can be found in a moment of reconciliation between individuals who have been at odds? These things are worth the risk of vulnerability. They are worth the risk of death even. We cannot be fully human if we are fully safe (for an excellent analysis of how far we will go to secure safety at other's expense, see Jasbir Puar's book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times).

This means to me that the pursuit of safe space is not my ultimate goal. But while that may be true, know that if the space you provide is clearly not safe, I may choose to avoid it. And if you claim that your space is safe when it obviously isn't, I will be thinking of those Thanksgiving dinners as I decline the opportunity to be skewered within your walls. If I show up anyway, despite the risk, it's because I decided that you were worth the cost. Act accordingly.

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; 
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’


  1. excellent food for thought on a difficult topic

  2. Katie, thank you for this, for adding light and perspective to this illusion and reality of safe space. This is helping me reflect on several (at least) personal situations with new eyes. Peace be with you.

  3. Wow! Thank you for exploring this topic.

  4. We must have been sharing a brain cell. I was talking to my partner about this very topic. Thank you.

  5. "If I show up anyway, despite the risk, it's because I decided that you were worth the cost."

    AMEN and AMEN.

    Everyone has a secret that they don't want aired.


  6. Wow Katie. this is a very moving, thought provoking essay. I hope our SLPW group can be a safe space.


  7. I learned a long time ago a safe space is only as good as the persons involved. My personal safe space is in the middle of my own mind. As a Minister of a different faith, the only safe point I can provide to those I aid, is the safety of my mind when I listen to their words. And this space is sacrosanct to my Goddess and me. It is also where I "hid" when I was him. He's deceased, and I live because of that space. Your writing here is a wealth of peace in a dismal world when one needs a point of safety. May our respective Deity's bless you for your words of timely wisdom. Be safe, sister of the Universe. Leynda

  8. I think this is the most intelligent rendering of this topic I have read. A lot to ponder and a challenge ahead.

  9. Inspired by this...thank you for your honesty and holding up so many tensions...and for not taking the easy route. I feel like you articulated much of what I struggle with too - how to negotiate all this in various communities while maintaining identity and agency but making space. It's sad that we have come to qualifying the word 'space' - my idealism longs for it to connote something positive and necessary but I know this is not practical or wise. But thank you for talking about the risks you take in committing to that process - it's encouraging.

  10. Thank you Katie. I have been thinking about the masks that each one of us uses and how much time and energy it takes to have or sustain relationships with others. Thanks again for your reflection and blessings on your ministry.

  11. This is a really interesting piece full of truth and love. My thought was that mothers always are worrying about providing safe spaces for their children - from the womb until they grow up and after too. It is scary sometimes finding those safe spaces where they can grow and flourish (sp?). May you find safe spaces for yourself and for your children as they grow up.

  12. Thank you! May you continue to find space where you are respected. May I and others continue to be welcomed into your brilliant and caring space. Thank you for the invitation from time to time.

  13. Katie, this is so right on. This is actually giving folks at my church a lot to think about on many levels. Grateful for your candor and wisdom.

  14. You mention the X-Files maxim: "Trust No One". I am reminded of the other X-Files maxim, which seems so paradoxical to the first: "I Want To Believe" (it's on a poster in Mulder's office). Food for thought.

  15. Thank you. This is beautifully written and I'm glad I found it. <3


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