What Are Safe Spaces For?

Recently I have noticed a trend of sanitising some LGBT+ spaces, both online and in real life. Specifically, there is a trend of making these spaces inhospitable to any difficult discussions. As shown in the picture below (from the Leeds University Union LGBT+ Society Facebook page), this can include sex, kink, race, religion, politics, and any mention of hate speech. I’ve seen this in a number of places, but most notably in my university LGBT+ society. Before I go further I should admit to a couple of biases:

  • Kink, sex, and (to a lesser extent) politics are central parts of my identity (shocking I know, the rest of my blog is so innocent and squeaky clean). To me kink and sex are a beautiful and important form of self-expression. Naturally I am opposed to them becoming stigmatised.
  • The LGBT+ society was the first time I felt part of a queer community, I even used to be a committee member, being made to feel unwelcome in those spaces is always going to be personally painful.


A common justification for sanitising LGBT+ spaces is to combat the perceived over-sexualisation of the LGBT+ community, making it more welcoming to people who are uncomfortable around these topics. I understand where this idea comes from. Kink and sex are central parts of my life, but I recognise that this isn’t true of everyone. I have plenty of asexual and vanilla friends who are uncomfortable with (or simply have no interest in) these topics, and sadly I have many others living with sexual or kink-related trauma.


I want the LGBT+ community to have inclusive spaces. But I don’t think the way to build these spaces is to outright ban topics of conversation. Other spaces (namely my local kink scene) I engage with address difficult topics by building a loving, supportive community prepared to listen to and respect each other. Silencing disagreements serves only to drive these divisions underground as well as stigmatising important topics which affect members of the LGBT+ community.


I recognise that this is an idealised view, if de-sexualised, de-racialised, de-politicised, areligious spaces are necessary, then it must be in addition to spaces open to spaces which allow for these topics to be discussed. In the LGBT+ society referred to in this post, this does not happen. In addition to feeding into stigma, this also limits what the society is able to do, as it stops people from sharing experiences or develop strategies to support each other.


This attempt to protect members by isolating them from anything that might make them uncomfortable is essentially treating them as children. Allowing people to hide from issues which directly affect them or other people in the community is also not helpful in the long run, as it does not build strategies to deal with it. The way these decisions are made can also be disempowering. For example, I personally know ace people who are uncomfortable being used as the excuse for censorship without being asked for their input at any point.


The central issue around using censorship to build safe spaces is it feeds into the existing stigmatisation of these topics. By extension this can feed into the oppression of people who feel that these issues are central to their identity. I personally no longer felt welcome in the society as kink and sexuality are central to my identity. Having to constantly watch what I said, feeling that a central part of my identity was taboo, made me feel uncomfortable existing in what was supposedly a safe space for all LGBT+ people. Below I’ve briefly broken down the specific intersections of the banned topics and the LGBT+ community.

  • Sexual expression and kink – queer sexuality and kink are already heavily stigmatised. Asking people to keep quiet about it can (unintentionally) sends the message that LGBT+ sexuality is shameful, further stigmatising non-normative sexual preferences.
  • Hate speech – depressingly this is part of many people’s experience as LGBT+ people. It’s certainly something I’ve dealt with as an AMAB person who sometimes presents as femme. Having a space to talk about it is vital for many people to process and develop ways of dealing with this.
  • Race – there is a huge issue of racism, and white people’s experiences dominating LGBT+ spaces. As a white person myself I don’t feel comfortable speaking on this in any detail, but I don’t think that banning people from speaking about race is going to help address this issue.
  • Religion – the relationship between LGBT+ identities and religion is often difficult. But many LGBT+ people are religious and need spaces to discuss and reconcile these identities.
  • Politics – identifying as LGBT+ is often seen as inherently political. While I don’t necessarily agree with this, there are many queer people who are highly political. LGBT+ issues are also often political in nature, as the political system is often designed to deny our rights.


This policy also has the potential to bias the space against people who consider the banned topics to be part of their identity. To be clear I’m not talking about myself, I have supportive friends and family and spaces I feel comfortable exploring my identity and expressing myself in. I’m talking about myself aged 18, alone in a new city, scared and confused about my identity. At that time, I really needed the supportive space the LGBT+ Society served as, what worries me is I don’t know where people in that position would turn to now. I know many queer women who have turned to the university feminist society as their community, I don’t know where men can go for that.


The removal of race, religion, and politics as topics of conversation has other worrying connotations. It feels akin to the people who claim “I don’t see race”, to avoid talking about it. Silencing these discussion naturally supports those privileged in these dimensions (i.e. white, not strongly religious, and those financially and socially secure enough to not be dependent on progressive governments to support their rights and lives). People are less likely to engage with communities which don’t allow for discussion of issues central to their identity or experience, either finding alternative spaces or (more worryingly) not having a space they feel comfortable talking about these issues at all.


So am I opposed to safe spaces? No.

Do I disagree with the methods I see used to build them? Yes.

In the most basic form, a safe space is a place where people with a particular thing in common can come together to share experiences and feel mutually supported (e.g. feminist spaces, LGBT+ spaces, POC spaces). Of course, people who are propagating hate speech and acting in a discriminatory way must be curtailed to protect the space. But there is a difference between that and banning entire topics of conversation. This is likely to build resentment, alienate members of the community, and potentially result in people rebelling against this policing of their speech. A more productive way to approach this might be moderating the tone of discussion, and in the long run working to build an empathetic, loving, and mutually supportive community. This does take more effort and rely more heavily on personal judgement to begin with, but in the long run building a supportive culture is more sustainable than enforcing a restrictive set of rules. It can be done, I have seen it done in other spaces, and it is those spaces I will turn to when I need support.


Ultimately banning these topics prioritises the needs of some by restricting the needs of others. Any space which chooses to rule out certain topics of conversation to maintain the appearance of being safe and friendly, is not providing support to the community. Support means putting in hard work. It means addressing difficult truths. It means listening to unpleasant topics because they are part of the queer experience. And I will always choose the hard path, I will always prioritise support over maintaining peace.


Since I started writing this (and following the online response to these rules) the LGBT+ society has started to take steps to provide spaces which allow some of these topics to be discussed (as well as deleting the original post). I hope this is more than just a way to mitigate a publicity problem, I really do, maybe it will be the society turning a corner. But the actions of the society over the past year do not give me much reason to be optimistic.


LUU LGBT Censorship

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