Most students who frequent locations like the Womyn’s Center, Rose City Coffee Co-op or even specific dorm rooms or houses have discovered the importance of safe, intentional spaces that are run and used by the student body of Earlham. Whether these spaces serve to amplify marginalized voices or to open spaces for collaboration of all students, they allow for much needed dialogue on campus that usually cannot be found in classrooms.
One cannot claim and inhabit a safe space without some sort of criticism because the very nature of safe spaces directly confronts dominant environments as unsafe and/or hostile. I have heard many people take issue with both the existence of and the closed-gender policy of the Womyn’s Center. It is important to mention that these critiques almost always come from male-bodied, male-identified who do not have a lived experience of sexism. They do not understand the necessity of a closed space because they benefit daily from male privilege. The Womyn’s Center’s existence as a safe, closed space for transgender people, gender nonconforming folks and female-bodied women allows for conversations and actions that sometimes would not come to fruition with the presence of cis-gender1 men. This is not to say that cis-gender men are inherently bad or oppressive; in fact, their voices are appreciated when asked for since they too are confined by broader systems of sexism.
However, because of the nature of male-privilege, male voices have the tendency to dominate conversations, even the ones on sexism. The very nature of privilege is the ability to take up more space and power than necessary. To see physical, everyday evidence of this, just notice who talks most in class and who doesn’t; regardless of the subject matter, the culprits are almost always white men. This becomes the most problematic in classes focusing on experiences other than white men’s (i.e. African and African American Studies classes, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies classes, Middle Eastern Studies classes, etc). The position of those in the privileged group in these classes (white people, men, and/or citizens of the United States) should be first and foremost to listen, not to define, “understand” or simplify experiences other than their own. But as stated before, students in positions of power usually do not just listen, which is why safe spaces that explicitly stress the importance of marginalized voices are crucial on campus.
Just because a space is deemed safe does not always guarantee safety for everyone who uses the space. The Womyn’s Center may be good at addressing gender and sexism, but not always race and racism or sexuality and heterosexism; Rose City might be an amazing space for some radical action efforts on campus but not others. Because of these inconsistencies, constant efforts are necessary to maintain inclusivity through community input and personal accountability to keep these spaces safer.