Safe Space, by Elayne Riggs
I first came across the concept of "safe spaces" for women when I was in high school. I went to an all-girls religious school (yeshiva) in 9th and 10th grades. The idea didn’t make sense to me at the time, separating boys and girls just when they were beginning to find out about each other, to really relate to one another as fully-realized people. I was convinced then that the segregation could only come to no good, that we’d grow up completely lacking in social skills regarding how to communicate with the opposite sex, and that it was all doomed to end in tears.
And while I think I was partially correct, at least in my case, Bruriah was the first place I remember feeling this inexplicable sense of female safety (at least when the male instructors weren’t around), of proto-feminist solidarity. It even (temporarily) helped me break some bad personal habits, I’m pretty sure that was the first time I stopped biting my nails for an appreciable period. There was just something amazing about having all that support around me that made it seem anything was possible.
At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, I minored in feminism, which at the time was called Women’s Studies. So naturally, everyone assumed, and still does, that I attended not Rutgers College, but the University’s "female auxiliary" affiliate, Douglass. I didn’t go to Douglass, which by that time was trending from all-female to co-ed anyway. But it was still considered a relative safe space for women, and there were a number of Douglass students in my feminism classes. There, we learned that "safety" didn’t just mean shelter from potential violence (rape awareness was a big part of my curriculum, and I never did figure out why more of it wasn’t aimed at the gender that committed the most rapes — i.e., the guilty party — rather than the gender that was raped most often) but from male aggression in general, even when that aggression took the form of vigorous debate. We analyzed how women in co-ed classes and curricula tended to be more withdrawn and reticent than the men, who interrupted far more and were paid more academic (rather than prurient) attention by the instructors. Without so many men around to hog the limelight and make us feel scholastically intimidated, we were able to blossom more into our own diverse personalities.
Safe spaces (for women, gay people, kids) play a big part in feminist and other progressive gatherings to this day, although occasionally they can go overboard (in my opinion). I remember a few years ago there was quite the debate about whether to admit transgendered women to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. But then, I pretty much outgrew neologisms like "womyn" or its apparent singular form "womon" soon after college anyway (although I still confess a great deal of affection for "herstory," which I consider more witty pun than revolutionary language-revision). I have no idea if they still do this, I couldn’t find information about the transgender controversy on the festival’s website, but from a quick perusal of their forums I’d guess this ban is still in effect. And part of me almost understands — many of the regular attendees apparently do not feel safe around anyone who was born male or who currently identifies as such. Although the quote from the 2000 festival producer is telling: "It saddens me that the young womyn we used to call `baby-dykes’ are now growing up questioning the validity of the very concept of being female." One of the first things we learned back in college feminism classes was to question the validity of concepts like this!
But I digress. Leaving the gender fluidity question aside for another column which I’m pitifully under-qualified to write, the idea of getting breathing space away from the gender which is pretty much the societal default everywhere else has great appeal. When I was a day-camp counselor, and even back to when I was a camper myself, "troops" were split up by age and gender, and I think that helped girls come forward a lot more readily than if the groups had been mixed, particularly when it came to sports competition. And I have the tetherball championship trophies to prove it! Well, not any more, but I used to.
I did tons of extracurriculars in high school and college, but not that many contained woman-only spaces. Early NOW meetings were real consciousness-raisers but most of the women there were slightly older than me, and much more comfortable talking about things like speculums. You know, there’s "safe" and then there’s "more than I need to know." I wanted my safe speces defined more by specific interest and hobby rather than gender alone. I’d founded a science fiction club in school, so sf fandom is where I ended up for about a year or so. (In fact, that’s where I first met ComicMix commenter Vinnie Bartilucci and his now-wife Dorian.) At first it seemed like a safe space even though there were guys around. I was unconditionally accepted! It was a blessing from on high to someone who still hadn’t quite honed her social skills, had punk-short hair, was fat and clumsy and brash and awkward and pretty inexperienced. Well, fandom gave me experience, all right. Granted, it was still the pre-AIDS era, but still, it was all too much sexual experimentation for me. Particularly odious was something called the Langdon chart, "a graphical and somewhat convoluted depiction" created by West Coast fanboy Kevin Langdon in the swinging ’60s of which local fans had had sex with which other fans. It was well underway in NY sf fandom in the early ’80s, and at least one fellow fan tried to get me on his version of it. As low as my self-esteem was at the time, I had enough feminist sensibility not to want to be a notch on a bedpost, particularly when this fan suggested, "If you prefer, I won’t even put your name on, you’ll be represented by a number." Just a number, literally!
Are sf fan gatherings safer spaces nowadays? Not if you gauge the reactions to the recent Open Source Boob Project, wherein an attendee to the ConFusion convention in Ann Arbor (what is it about Michigan, anyway?) proposed issuing buttons to female con-goers which essentially gave or denied access to complete strangers to grope their breasts. I was gobsmacked, even as I remembered how thrilled I might have been a quarter century ago to have had this type of attention paid to me, even knowing how wrong it was. It was so terrific to see how quickly and almost universally this behavior was condemned, and how much more self-awareness young geek women had nowadays! These gals would never, ever have put up with Langdon charts.
Being online can obliterate safe spaces even more. You might feel secure in your person typing whatever you want into your home computer, but injudicious actions have consequences. Not only must you learn, as some do the hard way, to edit yourself the same way you would in personal conversation, but you need to bear in mind that, even if you’re used to one-to-many communication the way those of us who’ve gone through zines and apas have been, this is on such a higher level that it’s possible millions of people who don’t really know you (including potential employers and suitors) will be privy to all aspects of your life about which you suddenly feel like stream-of-consciousness babbling. While it’s true that women shouldn’t be held responsible for male predation, both men and women ought to be aware enough to think twice about voluntarily forfeiting their own privacy just to get hits or because they can’t come up with anything else to write.
Sometimes, no matter how careful and professional you are, there will be a-holes. Jill Filipovic found this out at NYU, when some of her Flickr uploads were used against her. And just last week, after having attended WisCon, probably the most feminist sf con in existence and one that was around all the way back when I was active in fandom (although I never got a chance to attend it), a rankled female con-goer published online mockery of con attendees who didn’t conform to her particular standards of beauty. When even traditionally safe spaces for women are violated, and by another woman no less, it forces one to rethink the entire concept.
Back when Friends of Lulu was formed, we had a meeting in San Diego to decide whether it was going to be women-only. Some founding mothers felt very strongly that it would be a mistake to admit men, that the atmosphere at gatherings of comics fans warranted a women-only safe space. Having attended a CAPA-Alpha birthday party in a hotel restaurant at which a stripper had been hired (after which I’d been made to feel that my discomfort was my problem and not the responsibility of the men who, with no advance warning, had put me in the position of unwilling spectator and accomplice to female objectification), I could see their point. But throughout my life I’d also known a lot of men whose sympathies, solidarity and intelligence helped make the world better for women, particularly those of us in traditionally male-skewed hobbies. And I was glad when the final vote was to allow men full FoL membership.
Because nowadays, I think the safest space, perhaps the only real safe space, is in our heads. Just as most of us are free to reject the fear-mongering aimed at us these past 7+ years, most of us don’t need to express anything we hold in our minds if we don’t want to. Despite my general openness and trusting nature, I recognize that y’all don’t need or want to know everything about me that there is to know. I’m safe as long as I choose to be judicious, and recognize that as my choice. And hey, the less you know about someone the more of a mysterious enigma they can be, even if they’re as boring as I am! Um, oops.
Elayne Riggs blogs here, and before she had her subject for the week her husband Robin suggested she write another Beatles column, given all the happenings in Liverpool over the weekend. But really, what she does with Sir Paul McCartney in the privacy of her imagination is really her own business, innit?