The Misnomer Of Safe Space

by Samantha Curley

The majority of life boils down to one of two relational spaces. There’s the surface-level presentation of self, best reserved for exchanging pleasantries with the man next to you in the grocery line or during the meet and greet at church. I like your necklace and did you see the game last week? How’s your mom doing? Where does your son go to school?

Then there is the deeper space that happens at dinner parties with friends. Work is stressful but the good kind of stress. I’m busy, but not too busy. The holidays are coming up and we are traveling and school is… dot, dot, dot.

We scroll through the bullet points, acknowledging the difficult and ugly for the sake of vulnerability and community. 

But even big events like a death or illness in the family, brought up with seeming and well-intentioned sincerity, are passed over without emotion. We have mastered the art of reporting about our lives.

Stop for a minute and think about the last time you occupied a relational space different from one of these two alternatives—surface-level or reporting. Now try to remember the last time you really felt safe.

Safe to be yourself. To ask a stupid question or say the wrong thing. To misuse a label or term. Safe to look small-minded in an honest attempt to understand someone else and her life. Safe to say things are not going well, full stop. Safe to express genuine fear or misgiving about a person, a relationship, a choice you’re making or have made. Safe to say you aren’t sure. Safe to be questioned and pushed back against.

The reality is that there are no safe spaces. The unspoken script of all our relational spaces, especially in the church, tells us to be pleasantly deep. Deep enough to not be shallow, but shallow enough to not be complicated. Then we attach labels like accountability or small group or discipleship and pat ourselves on the back for being good Christians—for being real with one another.

Other spaces don’t exist because true safe space requires mutually dependent risk across our differences.

One person must risk saying the wrong thing, even an offensive thing, to another person who may be offended. And that other person must expose herself to offense while risking the benefit of the doubt. Safe space only occurs when two parties are willing to expose themselves, each person dependent on the other. Safe space requires risk.

My job with an organization called Level Ground entails using art to create safe space for dialogue about faith, gender, and sexuality. As a straight, cis-gender woman, I need safe spaces to talk about what my own “straightness” means in relation to another person’s “gayness” and what my own female identity means in relation to another person’s female or male identity. I need safe spaces to ask questions and encounter difference. And all of that in relation to my identity as someone trying to love and follow Jesus. 

But this kind of space does not exist unless and until I am willing to admit my own inexperience, my own fears and assumptions, about sexuality and gender. This is the first step. I must risk not knowing, risk looking stupid or offending someone, and risk feeling uncomfortable.

The second step is that there must be someone in the LGBTQ community who is willing to receive my inexperience with kindness and grace.

Someone who is willing to hear my fears and my offensive, uneducated language, and walk with me as I genuinely try to learn and humbly receive correction. Both steps are difficult. No one gets the easy way out. It is no wonder that ‘safe space’ is a rare and coveted relational realm. There is a lot at stake, a lot of risk, involved.

If it weren’t for two specific friends in the LGBTQ community who were willing to hear my questions, my fears, and my poorly used language coupled with my own desire to listen, learn, and lead with vulnerable and inquisitive kindness, the LGBTQ community would remain an unreachable, “otherized” group of people.

This is true of any relational spaces where we encounter difference: race, religion, socioeconomic status, culture, sexuality, etc. etc. etc. And because these spaces are difficult, risky, and therefore rare, we end up going the most deep with people who are just like us. But that is not safe space—that is comfortable space.

And what has the church become if not homogeneously comfortable? 

Safe space is integral for transforming how we see each other and create a world of peace and civility together. But safe space is a misnomer. The only safe space that is real is the space we intentionally create by learning to lead with our fears and assumptions, followed by our willingness to gently correct one another without shame or guilt. 

Level Ground is the world’s first festival experience exploring the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality. Level Ground’s second annual film festival will be held in Southern California in Spring 2014. Click here to learn more!

Photo via Level Ground

Comments (1)

Becky C

Thanks. Just joining the
Thanks. Just joining the conversation.

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