Quite a few years ago, a friend and I wanted to stage a one-day get-together for female-born, male-identified (language has changed since then – this is the language we used at the time) individuals living in Colorado.
Our purpose was three-fold: to get as many of us together as possible to find out overall needs throughout the state; to try to determine the numbers of us throughout the state; and to reach out to those in rural areas who might not be receiving services or who might need connections.
This was going to be a small event, with perhaps three or four “workshops” and a main gathering area for guys to meet and have conversations and discussion. We wanted to make it free and accessible. We had a concept, but we needed an organizing committee, because even a brief event requires volunteers and planners to make it come to fruition.
When we got our committee together, we had the inevitable disagreements on what the thing should look like. But the biggest problem was with inclusion. One committee member suggested that, in order to be inclusive, we needed a space for significant others, and this seemed logical. We could have a private room and maybe have a couple of SOs who would set up some kind of programming, or just have peer-led discussions.
Another member suggested that, in order to be inclusive, we needed to invite those who were female-born but did not necessarily identify as male. Another suggested that, in order to be inclusive, we really needed to invite male-born, female-identified people as well. And, of course, we would need to invite family members, allies, and so on, plus we needed to have programming for all.
By the time we had our inclusive attendee demographics identified, we were basically having an event for everyone. It was a full-scale conference that we had neither the time or the finances to provide, let alone the human power to bring it all together. Our desire for inclusivity had basically grounded our gathering before it left the runway.
It also left us with an event that was not for the original intended audience at all and would not have served the original identified purposes. There was no real space for female-born, male-identified individuals to gather and form community. Now, the community was everyone.
This is just one example of the difficulties inherent in the concept of inclusivity, and it brings up quite a few questions that seem to be on the rise as various groups plan events, and as the number of different groups and events increases every year.
Those questions are: What does it mean to be truly “inclusive”? Does targeting a particular group for an event, or even a workshop at a conference, constitute exclusion? If an event is not open to everyone, is it automatically exclusionary? And what about “safe space”? Is that an exclusionary concept in and of itself?
I don’t know the answers. I have opinions, and my opinions sometimes change and they sometimes can be changed, based on the argument presented. But even though I have opinions, I still struggle with these questions, along with what is right, wrong, and most beneficial to all involved. At the time that I am writing this, these are my current thoughts:
> An oppressed group has the right to remove itself from its oppressor, at any time and for any reason. (An oppressor group, in my opinion, does not have this same right – to remove itself from the oppressed.) An oppressed group denying entrance to its oppressor is not being exclusionary. It is creating safe space.
I have been to conferences where I have seen workshops that I wanted to attend, and I was disappointed when I saw that they were for people of color only or for working-class people only. However, I did not feel excluded – just disappointed, because I was interested in the topic. But these workshops were not for me, and I would have been attending as a member of an oppressor group or privileged group. I have no right to demand or expect to enter this space.
> The concepts of oppressor and oppressed apply differently in different circumstances. One can be a member of both oppressor groups and oppressed groups, and one oppression does not equal another. A person has to be able to identify under what circumstances he or she is the oppressor and under what circumstances he or she is oppressed.
As a trans person, I do not feel exclusionary attending a trans-only workshop or even a trans-men-only workshop. I believe that this is a safe space for an oppressed group of which I am a member. But I am white, and in this case, I am a member of an oppressor group and a privileged group in the United States, and my oppression as a trans person does not “transfer over.” There are some events or activities that I cannot attend in order to allow a safe space for others.
> “Safe space” has to be defined by the people who are creating it, and they have to be very clear about who is and who is not considered welcome in that space. You can’t create something and then define parameters only when you don’t like who has chosen to be there.
I seen nothing wrong with support or social groups targeted toward a specific population – for example, transitioned men who have been living as men for five years or more, genderqueer individuals who do not identify within the binary gender system, women who are just beginning transition and in need of peer support – as long as those target parameters are clearly identified. If these groups are being offered by a nonprofit organization, such as a gender center, a variety of groups needs to be made available to accommodate all those using or covered by the organization’s services.
> Anyone utilizing public funds, public accommodations, or public property that is paid for by taxpayer money, or anyone running a business that is open to the public, must be inclusive. Those utilizing private spaces and private funds can exclude whoever they want to. There are exceptions to this, obviously, as there are exceptions to all of the above.
> The difference between “exclusion” and “safe space” is validity. The reasons for establishing safe space should be valid, such as removing oneself from one’s oppressors or defining a population that is at risk of being oppressed or overpowered if those outside of the group are allowed access. Simply wanting to talk about a particular issue that only certain individuals have experienced and will understand is also a valid reason for creating safe space. But again, there are always exceptions.
Overall, I don’t think “safe space” is exclusionary, and I don’t think “inclusion” has to mean that everyone should be included in everything all the time. There will be those who are exclusionary, but who hide behind a “safe space” banner in order to covertly discriminate. There will be those who support complete inclusivity at all times, with no exceptions, who end up intentionally or unintentionally encroaching on safe space. And there will be those who are criticized for establishing safe spaces and those who are criticized for not establishing them.
Common sense, reason, maturity, and understanding – as well as the law, in some situations – have to be the keys. Is there a reason why some people should not access this particular space? In many cases, there is. Is there a reason why no one should be denied access to this particular space? In many cases, there is. Is your argument for safe space or for inclusivity valid? Then go for it.
Readers, what do you think?