Monday, March 9, 2009

Refried Musings on safer spaces

In between recent bouts of studying for the LSATs I have been reading Trans/Forming Feminisms edited by Kristen Scott-Dixon. The essays within are exactly the kind of stimulating debates that I feel are left out of my new preocuppying battles against assimilation and normalization in LGBT progressive movements. The essays don't agree with each other, in fact they are often contradictory - but they disagree in a respectful way. The section that affected my advocacy ideas the most was a selection of essays from scholars, lawyers, and advocates around transgender issues at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF) and the case of Kimberly Nixon vs. Rape Relief.

The debates over MWMF are debates I am interested in and concerned about - however I have heard so many different arguments from so many different people that I have yet to form a consistent and definitive opinion on any specific course of action. I'm not entirely worried however, as I am confidant that my opinion as a man - albeit a genderqueer transsexual man - is not the voice missing from these debates. The essays, however, have re-sparked my interest, mostly because one essay in particular reminded me of the tribulations that faced the Queer Union at Macalester.

My senior year a proposal was made to allow the Info Shop - a project of the student group Macalester Peace & Justice Coalition (MPJC) - to reside inside the on-campus room assigned to the student group Queer Union. Three student groups on campus had been given access to private rooms: Feminists In Action (FIA) and Students Together Against Rape And Sexual Assault (STARSA) got together to create the Womens' and Gender Resource Center across the hall from the Queer Union Lounge, which was managed by Queer Union. Notably, no other groups had private or safe spaces to meet although semi-public spaces such as the Multicultural Resource Center and the Cultural House were available for the majority of groups.

The debate centered around the issue that queer students at Macalester had petitioned for usage of the space and received it based on the merit of their need for safer and confidential access to information that was not widely available in other Macalester locations. While it may seem that an organization dedicated to peace and justice would be dedicated to queer liberation enough of us had faced transphobia, homophobia, and heteronormativity in peace-based organizations to know that the two tracks didn't necessarily correlate. Moreover Queen Union was dedicated to consciousness-raising and members were concerned that MPJC might not be truly dedicated to eradicating heteronormativity and gender binaries. After all, no MPJC members regularly attended QU meetings except self-identified queer members - there was no MPJC ally visibility.

While QU members were not opposed to the idea, there were some reservations that MPJC's presence might make the Queer Union Lounge no longer safe. To counter this, however, it was raised that safe is a relevant term and that no member of QU felt safe at every moment of every meeting. After all, the QU/MPJC members were on a more revolutionary model of progressive liberation and their views were often held as contemptible by the LGBT Democrats present, and the few Republican members. Students of color often encountered racial profiling about their sexuality, open minded attitude, or even the legitimacy of maintaining multiple identities. The voices of women and gender variant people were often silenced or unheard from. These same members pointed out that we needed to differentiate between what is a challenging feeling, and what is an unsafe feeling (I feel this is analogous to a person who exercises distinguishing between the discomfort of stretching new muscles and the pain of hurting a muscle).

QU members supportive of the proposal also brought up that MPJC members were often of more diverse socio-economic backgrounds than QU members and the group was often strongly persecuted. The President of the college and multiple Professors wrote statements against their actions, and during the year in question their budget was sliced in half. In particular funding for the alternative zine The Hegemon was lost completely as was any additional funding for the Info Shop after student government decried the buying of a book about dildos.

In the end, Queer Union gave the Info Shop permission to share the space and gave MPJC permission to hold meetings. However, Queer Union also decided that no MPJC activities could take place during QU time periods – i.e. MPJC members couldn’t access the Info Shop during a QU meeting of any type, unless they were present for the QU meeting. The secondary decision came from a clear desire to mark the space as predominantly queer, although that ultimately failed as MPJC members used, decorated, and partied in the space much more than any QU members.

This walk down memory lane isn’t just for fun, as I read from so many authors about the idea of “safe space” in the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival I became very aware that the greatest debate about safe space that I publicly participated in was one where the more obvious issue of safety (that of queer students) wasn’t necessarily the population that needed to be in a safer space. With a college administration that was terrified of the radical acts of MPJC the MPJC students, of all sexualities, were more persecuted than queer students even though queer students were not respected either. This flip-flopping of ideas about oppression took a long time to make sense for the majority of QU members, as did the idea that just being queer didn’t mean we had each other’s backs. The amount of fighting, flippantly thought of as “drama” was assumed to be normative and it wasn’t until the MPJC/QU student pointed out how un-safe the space was that many of us were aware that the “drama” wasn’t a precondition – that we had the power to address it and treat the issues as serious.

I have never been to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – nor do I want to ever go. I have no interest in an event that practices such blatant discrimination. But my partner tells me that when she went many years ago she noticed it was a highly divided space and she spent the majority of her time in the Womyn of Color tent. Likewise, there is an S&M area and other identity-divided spaces. Which makes one ask how much of a community is really present? Like Queer Union, if MWMF is already divided by identity than how safe is the space? And how much is it about “women” anyway? Or is it more about hanging out with a very specific group of people within a narrowly defined definition of women? How do you build community in that way?

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