When I was younger, my friend group was pretty gender-balanced. I had a lot of male friends that I spent all day with after school, and just as many friends that were girls. I’m not sure how my friend group switched from being gender-balanced to being all women, but at first, I didn’t like it. I took pride in having lots of male friends, because, in a way, hanging around guys made me feel cooler. I wanted their approval, and I wanted the rest of the world to know that I was cool enough to have lots of guy friends. Having the approval of guys meant that you “weren’t like the other girls”, that there was something special about you. Obviously, that has never been true; nevertheless, I went out of my way to make male friends for most of high school at the expense of losing out on friendships with girls. Some of my friendships with boys happened naturally and were really fun, but I was never entirely comfortable around them.
In the same way that I used to seek the approval of men, I find myself going out of my way to seek out safe spaces. The difference is that now I’m looking for solace and understanding. A safe space is generally understood as a place made for people that are open-minded and unprejudiced about folks that are LGBTQ+. To me, a safe space can also be a place that is exclusive to people that identify with a certain gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc., maintaining exclusivity for the sake of comfort.
In Grade 12, two friends and I started a women’s activism committee to spread an understanding of intersectional feminism to our peers, while also learning from them, and to fundraise money for local feminist organizations. At first, our goal was to disseminate knowledge about intersectional feminism, and many cis men—people who were assigned male at birth and grew up identifying with this assignment—would attend our meetings. Most were our friends, so because of their personal attachment to us, they would try harder to understand what we were talking about. We invited them and they respected our boundaries. They listened instead of talking; they offered up anecdotes when they knew they weren’t talking over anyone. It’s not hard for cis men to coexist with women who are trying to learn more about themselves and each other. But every now and then, a cis guy would stop by the meeting just to yell insults in through the door. As the club got bigger, we found that the best and most productive meetings were the ones that were comprised of mostly, or all, cis women and trans folks, because we could speak without fear of our conversations being stepped on by cis men. The purpose of the club slowly shifted from feeling like we had to educate men, to understanding that if they wanted to learn, they could do it on their own—our time was better spent sharing stories, being honest, and opening up without worry.
It took me a long time to realize that discomfort around cis men stems from the fact that the overwhelming majority of them make me feel terrible about myself. They are typically the people who judge my body and put me down when I try to speak out about something important. On micro levels, a single body-shaming or even sexually-charged comment might not seem so bad. Try getting them all the time for years and years, though—it all adds up to something unbearable. The same goes for the amount of times that men have flat-out ridiculed me for having an opinion. Some men grow up to realize that they just can’t do that to people, but honestly, a lot of them never do.
Distancing myself from that did nothing but good for me. The importance of a safe space is so underrated. Separating from the sources of anxiety in your life, and being surrounded by a group of people who have been through the same things you have and who understand your worries, makes the probability of positive self-reflection and growth much higher. You can say things out loud without worrying about how the cis men around you will respond. Empowerment is tough, and it cannot happen in the company of the very forces who cause you to need empowering in the first place; liberation, self-confidence, and compassion are fostered in a space where you can feel unashamed and unafraid. Sometimes, the mere presence of certain people can impede your growth. They can be kind, funny, and smart, but it doesn’t change the fact that they bring privileged attitudes with them that you really need a break from sometimes.
In my experience, cis men have largely been the group of people that make me feel uncomfortable, objectified, and downright disgusted with myself. When enough cis men make you feel that way, you can’t help that those feelings arise reflexively every time one of them talks to you. Before you go crying #NotAllMen, know that I’m not saying that every single man in my life makes me feel insecure, because that is definitely not true. I still consider some men to be my best friends. I’m not even trying to say that I never want to spend time with men again, because that is definitely not true either. I still date men, and I would never cut them out of my life completely, especially considering how I’m able to connect with men of colour and queer men over race and sexuality (which are parts of whole other safe spaces).
Overall, it’s not very important to me to have to have that kind of connection with all my friends. I grew up in a suburban Ontario town, so most of my friends are white, cis, and heterosexual; lots of them are men. For me to grow, learn, and move past my anxieties, however, especially the ones that have to do with my gender and body, I need to distance myself from cis men. When I stopped seeking the validation of men and refused to let them co-opt spaces that were not meant for them, choosing instead to dedicate myself to creative, insightful, and compassionate women, I changed for the better. When I spent more time with girls and women and less with cis men, I found that I was laughing louder, speaking my mind more often, and even sitting more comfortably. I made myself stronger by giving myself a break from exhausting spaces where I’m either stewing in angry and uncomfortable silence or feeling forced to educate people. Now, I find it a lot easier to co-exist with people who have privileges that I lack.
Safe spaces made up of cis women and trans people still constitute big parts of my everyday life, and I’m going to ensure it stays that way. Unlearning all of the shame that was cast on me is a continuous process, but these safe spaces are the places that I feel like myself—beautiful, kind, and motivated; intelligent, confident, creative, and witty.
You are not entitled to every space on Earth, and neither am I. While some trans people are comfortable in spaces with cis women like me, they wouldn’t want me to insert myself into a safe space for trans people—nor would I ever attempt to do so. Even though I am South-Asian and racialised, I would not demand a spot in a safe space for black people, because the experiences of all racialised people cannot be homogenised. I would never co-opt a safe space for people with disabilities under the guise of wanting to learn more about living with a disability—I can do that on my own time. If your argument against safe spaces is “How are privileged people supposed to learn about their privileges?” then you are overlooking the wealth of information that already exists for you to learn from. You can go find it for yourself instead of forcing marginalized people to be your teachers.
Safe spaces are not created to segregate populations; they are created to resist hegemony and foster intra-community empowerment. If I hadn’t made the active decision to resist misogyny in my life by creating a safe space for myself that distanced me from its perpetrators, I wouldn’t be who I am today.