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Does Call for Safety Prevent Learning Experience?

Amophrast's picture

Since I didn't make a post for this week yet, I was looking at the talking notes for tonight and I want to respond to the two quotes pulled from the forum:

* AmyMay: I would suggest a "trigger warning" before bringing up such a personal issue in class.  This would allow people to decide in advance if the topic is something they are prepared to discuss openly in the presence of others. Personally, these are issues I want to talk about, and that I want other people to talk about.  It was very powerful for me to hear things that I feel deeply personally about come from many of the people in our class (in the "in response to __ we propose __" portion).  It was one of the few times I've felt truely understood, like my voice was being heard without me having to try to find the words.  Many of you got it.  That means more to me than I could ever say.  Though it was emotionally exhausting, by the end I felt we were bodies in alliance.

* Kaye: I too have been thinking a lot about Tues night's class and wonder if trigger event warnings would have prevented the powerful learning that took place. do we need to meet each other in our precarity if we are to have real conversations and relationships. If people knew it what we were going to do, they might not have come to class or have built up their defenses so only part of them was there.

This sort of situation has come up for me a few times:

The Need for a "Safe Space"

Does the need for a safe space undermine progress?

During OUTWeek here at Bryn Mawr, there was a student and faculty discussion about ways of being out. One of the rules for the discussion was the typical "safe space" message: nothing said here leaves this room, you should feel free to express your thoughts and opinions without being attacked, etc. Ironically, barely any of the students spoke up, quite contrary to an ordinary Rainbow Alliance meeting. One of the professors addressed the safe space dilemma directly. I don't remember her exact words, but ideally we would not have a "safe space"--sexuality should not be treated as something that needs to be kept secret, and that the concept of a safe space perpetuates the taboo surrounding gender/sexuality (if I was way off on quoting this, I am so sorry!) On the one hand, I agreed with this. We talked a lot about coming out as being political, and while some of the students didn't seem to see it as political, almost all the professors did. The opinion that I shared with the group was that it depended on the context I came out in. If I was coming out to someone (or in general) at Bryn Mawr, nobody would give me a second glance (well, debatable, haha) if I said that I am queer. But if I was to come out to my family as a queer heterosexual panromantic fluid cisgender woman who likes to genderfuck, first off, I'm not sure they'd understand. Therefore, it'd be a great opportunity for a learning experience. This is the sort of the I would see as political.

On another end of the spectrum, Rainbow Alliance is part of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition (PSEC). PSEC had a Youth Action Conference (YAC) that happened during our fall break. In one of the sessions I attended, we talked about how to make our organizations a safe space for closeted students. This was very interesting considering that although this doesn't seem to be too much of an issue at Bryn Mawr (or is it?) there were many schools represented from across PA in which this was an incredibly huge issue. Surprisingly, one of the suggested solutions was parties. However, instead of "Anne and Kaye's Big Gay Party", it would be more like "Anne and Kaye's Party that happens to have some queers". This way it's not polarizing and seemingly trying to out everyone who attends the party. There was also talk of having alcohol as a cushion at such parties, in order to create a safe environment for people to feel comfortable in, so that if they wanted (or needed) to, they could attribute their coming out at the party to the alcohol. While I think that in some ways this may hurt the need of what I can only view as the greater good or the quuer community, it may be necessary for an individual to do so for their own protection, whether that is physical, mental, emotional, from themselves, from others.

Trans* Education in Elementary School (2008)

Here's a positive spin on the situation:

News article:

But basically, in Chatham Park Elementary school, one of four (five?) elementary schools in the Haverford School District (where I live, yes, just a couple of miles away), a third grader let their parents know that they wanted to start using female pronouns and dressing like a girl. Her parents were very supportive and approached the school to have some sort of learning experience for her classmates to make her transition more comfortable. The school district didn't handle it all too well at the time. What I have gathered from a 80+ page forum online (no longer active/online) is that one day there was an assembly or a teaching experience for only third graders and parents got a letter explaining the situation the day before the assembly happened. There was practically no option for parents to prep their children for what they were about to learn about or experience (for better or for worse), and similarly, no chance for parents to keep their children home from school that day. The online forum consisted of a LOT of transphobic remarks from many parents (some of who called others out on their lack of trans education) and a LOT of anger. And a lot of emoticons >:(

While I agree that the parents should have had the right to prepare and educate their children on the assembly before it happened, I'm terrified at the prospect that many parents might have kept their kids at home. I honestly think it would have been just as beneficial to have a meeting for all the parents--but at the same time, I'm sure that those who needed the education the most would probably not have shown up to it.

So what is the right course of action?

What I had not realized at the time of reading the article is that the school contacted TYFA. I think that was a good move. I think it also might have been helpful at the time if groups like my high school's GSA wrote a letter of support addressed to the family and/or the child. The vaguely more upsetting thing to me (though probably good for the child) is that I don't know what happened with this situation past the initial interest. I don't know if she is safely enjoying middle school in Havertown or if she has transferred to another school in order to feel safe and like herself.

Sexual Assault/Abuse

One of the first (if not the first) issues of the college news this semester was a call for an end to rape culture, victim blaming, and slut shaming. In it some students chose to share stories about what happened to them. I remember one of the students was in one of my classes when an incident happened last semester. It suddenly struck me--that's why she hadn't been in class that often. Putting a name, a face to these statistics is one way to personalize them, to make them affect people so much more.

But at the same time, I don't know if there was fallout for her. I don't know if people approached her about her article, if they treated her differently, etc. I think that coming out of a safe space is definitely a dangerous and risky move. I don't know in what cases I would decide to do it.


This sort of safety vs. learning situation also brings to mind the following quote from Harvey Milk:

Gay brothers and sisters,... You must come out. Come out... to your parents... I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives... come out to your friends... if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors... to your fellow workers... to the people who work where you eat and shop... come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.

He addresses the fact that this learning is important specifically in terms of a political context, but I think it applies just as well to social contexts.There have been so many times when I have heard (or even thought) "Oh, I don't know anyone like that." When the fact is, you probably do... you're just not sure. Through Bryn Mawr I have talked to international students and heard them say, "Oh, there are gay people here? There's no one gay where I'm from." It brings to mind this political cartoon I've seen once--"There's no gays in Iraq." A noose hangs in the background.

Knowing that someone identifies with a minority group, or knowing that something horrible happened to someone close to you--it has the power to completely change your opinion on the topic. Or even just knowing people who are involved in activism on the topic. I have heard a lot of stories about parents of queer-identifying kids who will say something along the lines of well, it wasn't something I was too concenred about, but because it is something my child is involved in this, I am going to learn about it. I have also heard a lot of stories about parents of queer-identifying kids disowning their kids or kicking them out of their house.

So are we moving towards working for a community or for the individual?

I think that individuals should definitely be aware that they have rights and know that these rights can and will be protected. And while it's definitely impossible to avoid triggering incidents or topics for the rest of your life, I think it is a courteous thing to consider, on the same level as text-captioned pictures for text to speech readers. In some ways, I think the fact that the talking notes are posted online before class starts is a primary step of doing this. Honestly, one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the individual's rights is some relatively recent mental health activism that I have watched and participated in around me. An individual's mental health is very important to me. But at the same time, could speaking up and changing the community affect the situation at large for other individuals' mental health? For instance, it is because of the changing times, changing communities, changing aspects of the social sphere that I participate in that have changed in the past that allow me to feel comfortable being out, even if at the moment that is only at school. I can attribute this to what has happened in the past. Think about Bryn Mawr, in a racial context. Today we boast about how diverse each graduating class is by citing the percentage of international students (I believe it's ~30% for the class of 2014?). However, it wasn't so long ago that it was rare for a woman of color to attend Bryn Mawr. It wasn't so long ago that Bryn Mawr students were performing plays in blackface makeup. I have heard that M. Carey Thomas herself was not the most tolerant of people.

So is coming out in the present helping those come out in the future?

Ultimately, I'm not sure if this post clarified anything for a reader or even for myself.


Kaye's picture

thank you...

...for this rich, entangled, and informative post!  You've encouraged me to return to Barad's lecture on "Ma(r)king Time" and to consider how our current actions can make different futures possible.  How, though, do we discern what we might do in any particular situation?  What risks are we willing to, able to, take when we can't even be sure of the present, much less the future?  And, as questioned by Sharon Welch, when do we give up our cultural predisposition for control?  Much to ponder....