Is this a safe place?

I’ve said before that I’m pretty fortunate to mostly exist in spaces and circles where I am out and open and it’s not a big deal. So much so that I occasionally take it for granted. I think this is pretty common human experience, and I also think it is the force behind the attitude that many allies have that just because they don’t think being gay is a big deal that nobody thinks its a big deal either. If they, like me, mostly surround themselves with other like-minded people it’s easy to get that impression. But with that impression it can be easy to get complacent about the fight for equality in our laws and our policies. And that is dangerous.

This was all brought home to me through an encounter I’ve had yesterday when a friend from my Lesbian Reading Group came into the library where I work. I wasn’t able to do the group last semester so I hadn’t seen her in quite a while. We greeted each other and chatted a bit and then she asked if I was coming on Sunday. “Sunday?” I asked. She said, “It’s the last summer meeting for…” and here she paused and glanced over at my boss who was standing nearby. She looked back at me questioningly and finished, “…reading group.”

The silent message was clear. “Is this a safe place?” She didn’t want to out me or make trouble at my workplace. And I appreciate that. It wasn’t necessary since my boss is very cool and very liberal and I am fully out at work, but this friend of mine didn’t know that. I asked what the book was (“Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World” which I cannot wait to read) and as she told me about it and I looked up the reviews on Goodreads my boss came and joined the conversation. By asking about the book I had sent the message, “Yes, this is a safe place.”

It’s the nature of privilege that non-queer people forget that we (that is, queer folk) must ask ourselves and others this simple question in every new situation. New people are not necessarily to be trusted and group dynamics must be examined before speaking. Somebody brought a new friend to the group outing – is he safe? I stop by my friend’s work while I’m at the mall – is it safe to ask about her wife? I join a new book group with people I don’t know- is it a safe place? It’s constant. It’s all the time. And we don’t even realize that we’re doing it.

And the problem with not realizing that we’re doing it, and those around us not realizing that we’re doing it is that it makes it easy for people to forget. Forget that some awesome, but small, victories don’t mean that everything is fine now. Forget that every day there are too many people for whom the answer to the question “is this a safe place?” is —

“No.”

 

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