Thursday, March 29, 2012

Safe Spaces

Where do you feel safe? How unsafe do you have to feel in a place to avoid it? To refuse to go? Do you only need to be physically unsafe, or are rude comments, staring, and similar enough? What if it’s someplace you like or used to like?

These aren’t entirely rhetorical questions; I hope to generate some conversation in the comments. I’ve been thinking about the concept of safe vs. unsafe places a lot more lately since one of my close friends has been bringing it up more in relation to herself.

As a ciswoman, I have been trained to think about safe spaces my whole life in a way, at least in regards to physical safety. I have been told not to be in dark places late at night, not to be alone with men I don’t know very well, and on and on. After discovering feminism and becoming more conscious of gender issues, I have also become much less comfortable with sexist comments and environments where I might be leered at or verbally harassed. As I became more aware of sexism, the list of places and people that I felt safe around shrank, simply because going there risked psychological pain.

My aforementioned friend came out to both herself and her friends as trans very recently (not so much the typical trans narrative). Before she came to this self-realization, she identified as a gay man. During that time, she frequently adopted a female gender presentation, or an eclectic mix of very femme and very butch items (make up, long skirt, combat boots, and mohawk, for instance). Now, she pretty much wears the same things, but is slightly more consistent in wearing women’s clothing day-to-day.

I remember last summer when the two of us spent a lot of time together, and she identified as a gay man—wearing a lot of makeup and women’s clothing—she was very fearless in her gender expression in regard to where she was and who saw her (except for this one bar in Huntsville, but I think we were all pretty uncomfortable there). To me, it seemed almost overnight that caution took over alongside the change of identity. I’m perfectly happy to only patronize restaurants and shops where she’s comfortable, but I was intrigued by how quickly previously safe spaces became unsafe, given that her outward appearance was the same. I was also not sure if maybe the distinction was all in my head.

So I decided to ask her! She agreed there had been a sudden shift and gave me a lot of food for thought. Here were the three main reasons she described:

trigger warning for point number 2, sexual assault related

1. Seeing the world through a new lens. Basically, the sudden shift in privilege and identity from gay man to transwoman made her feel more often endangered. Although her outward appearance was the same, her inner identity was in a more vulnerable place, both in that she is a woman now, and that she is trans now. For her, being a gay man playing with female gender presentation felt much safer than being a transwoman.

2. The second reason is harder to explain. Although she previously identified as a man, there were parts of herself that she thought of as female. She is a sexual assault survivor, and she told me during our discussion that she always relegated her victimhood to the (at the time secondary) female segments of herself. She said that now that she identifies first and foremost as a woman, she feels closer to her past., and sometimes, that connection makes her feel unsafe.

3. She has very recently started taking hormones. Luckily, she was able to obtain them very quickly after her shift in identity. She told me that part of her recent change from feeling generally safe to sometimes unsafe is an anticipation of the physical affects of the hormones setting in in a few weeks. She says soon her appearance will be more confusing for people, and that she really will be more at risk for harassment then, so she’s both consciously practicing caution that may be necessary in several weeks and subconsciously feeling that impending change now.

Talking to her was very enlightening. I don’t know to what extent these reasons might apply to other trans folks, but I enjoyed learning more about my friend. Reason #1 was the only one I particularly expected, so I have a lot to think about. Whether you are cis, trans, a woman or a man, white or a person of color, what are your reasons—if you’re comfortable sharing—for feeling safe or unsafe in certain spaces?

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