4 min

‘Safe space’ mistake

I wandered around Ottawa tonight, rifling through people’s trash, finding broken mirrors, pizza boxes, curtain rods and magazines but still thinking of it as a queer-specific experience. Maybe it was that I was doing it with another queer-identified friend, or that we tried to make art with the treasures of our front-lawn dumpster diving. Perhaps it could be the time in the park we spent smoking cigarettes and talking from a distance, cruising the other random men in the area. It could have had more to do with the way we hid, honestly scared, when we heard people coming, especially that straight couple.

I think, though, that it was more about lacking a sense of respect for the “order” of things, for the way that this city demands we operate, for buying into “the system,” one that is inherently hetero.

It’s something I think about, late at night, when I’m staggering home from a bar: allowing my gaze to linger on another man in passing before turning around to wait and see if he’ll do the same; trawling the chat rooms looking for someone to fuck around with, wondering how many other men in this city, in the world, are doing something similar.

Because I’m a bore I link everything to my own personal politics, and, of course, my promiscuity fits nicely into that. I have had numerous friends, acquaintances, family members, lovers, teachers and strangers feel comfortable in commenting on how I manage my sexual affairs (very well, thank you), often implying that being so blatantly (comfortably) sexual isn’t ethical or isn’t helping the cause, or isn’t worth risking my safety for or, or, or….

I would tend to disagree, and that’s why I was struck by Dale Smith’s news report in Capital Xtra Issue 145 (Sep 8) about the local university queer centres. At the ripe old age of 27 I never feel like an elder in our community, but I do notice a distinction between those who came out when I did, over 10 years ago, and those gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited and questioning youth coming out since.

When I came out, the Gay ’90s were just taking shape in our culture. More major gay characters in television and Hollywood cinema and the creation of gay celebrities allowed a first generation of queer youth an opportunity to come out in a society where there really were a number of queer role models and icons.

My only issue is that they were, and are still, performing a “queer identity” as prescribed to them, and then to us, by mainstream media. I would challenge you to find evidence that the media has historically been supportive of our existence.

So how does this all relate?

In researching what it meant to be gay when I was coming out, I was fortunate enough to find information about our history as a “people” and information about our struggles and triumphs and tragedies. The struggle for Equality For All People, Regardless Of Sexual Orientation is a relatively new concept, but one that is taking hold of our community, potentially, I would say, at our peril. Our struggle historically has been one for queer liberation – not, I would argue, the right to participate equally in an oppressive system that historically has made no space for us (or for many others).

Our struggle continues to be about our sexuality; it is about who we choose to fuck and that’s where the language can get tricky. While we argue against “sexual preference” in favour of the term “sexual orientation,” we often lose sight of the fact that sexuality – having sex – is a matter of self-determination. As queers we choose to have sex or to not; the fact that a number of us choose to do it differently than we’re told to is about our ability to make our own decisions about what fits with our values and what doesn’t. We could, in essence, choose to pass as straight, and many of us still do, with some coming out very late in life or not at all; we can chose to pass as an acceptable version of gay – ie as white, and middle class, able-bodied and as asexual as we can muster. Those choosing this path are responding to an unwritten contract with society: if you can play the game by our rules, we’ll let you on the field.

And that brings me back to the news report in last month’s Capital Xtra. The University Of Ottawa queer group avoids getting political, they say, because they respect all points of view equally and choosing a side of a political issue would create an “unsafe” space for those whose politics are on the other side. So, for instance, they stayed out of the same-sex marriage debate.

I appreciate that the group wants to be inclusive. In fact, I applaud it. My concern lies with the notion that, in creating a safe space, an organization should not motivate and educate around political activity that concerns its community.

The danger is the blessing of safe spaces in queer contexts. We need to have a space to feel welcomed and comforted and, yes, safe. At the same time we need to keep growing and changing as a movement and to understand that our history is on a continuum.

It’s time to find out what our histories and political strategies and big, rowdy organization-destroying arguments were all about.

The history of our activism was a lot sexier before Queer As Folk, and I don’t mean more stylish. Our institutions and our public personalities have been forced to erase the slicked fingers, the drooling assholes and open mouths – the sex of our sexuality. This process was perhaps necessary in the first wave of HIV/AIDS politics, but 20 years later we stand by taking it like a man, so to speak.

Well, I for one am here to take this lying down.