Safe Spaces, and Safety

I’m in the chair again talking about safe spaces, and safety. And no surprises, I’m a little bitter! Well, it’s hard to be positive all week long!


November is Movember. Or No-Shave November. Where men don’t shave their faces to raise awareness of the crisis happening with men’s health in the UK (namely prostate and testicular cancer, and suicide).

My evil day job is not encouraging of participation. Because scruff looks…well, scruffy.


On 8 November, I was assaulted on my way to a kickboxing class. A man grabbed me in a dark street, and screamed, “What are you?” in my face at the top of his lungs.

On 9 November, Donald Trump was announced to have become the President-Elect of the United States of America, and my boss told me – despite the rules at work – not to shave. “You’ll be safer when you go over there,” he said. “Nobody will figure you out if you have a beard.”

On 10 November, a transgender woman was seriously assaulted outside a nightclub not far from where I live – and one of the attackers was a member of staff.

I am not safe.

And I don’t need safe spaces.

Safe spaces are – in theory – places where a member of a minority group can do to be safe from the hostile outside world. In reality, what they are most of the time is a place where safe language is in practice, and ideas challenging who we are or what we believe are not permitted.

I first ran into safe spaces at university. The LGBT Lounge was justified by being a safe space for LGBT students. Except that at this particular university, LGBT students – myself among them – could loudly, drunkenly and obnoxiously talk sex, relationships and queer politics in the student bar at 11pm at night, and nobody would bat an eyelash. And we did. Often.

The Lounge was also locked after 9pm at night. Just when the campus nightclubs were starting up. Just when LGBT students were at their most vulnerable.

The reality of this safe space was that you couldn’t utter challenging ideas within its walls. You couldn’t say – no matter how politely – that you believed being gay was a choice, for example. Meanwhile, you could be violently assaulted outside its locked door at 10pm.

As I got older and started publishing, the same thing kept happening. I could attend conferences where I was assured of their commitment to providing safe spaces…only to put on nightclub entertainment with gendered and badly maintained toilets. Surefire way to get outed as a trans man? Toilets with no cubicle doors, and you don’t stand to piss. And from experience, cisgender men in gay bars are no more likely to welcome you into their toilets than their straight counterparts. I’ve had my legal name or ID demanded by other authors – what’s the harm, it’s just a pseudonym, I won’t tell. Only, you know, my neighbours know my name. And not the contents of my shorts. I’d like, really, not to wake up dead.

I do not trust safe spaces.

Because they are promoting safety from something that is way down my list of priorities. I don’t care if everyone at the panel uses my correct pronouns, if I’m going to get attacked for needing to pee after dinner. I don’t care if nobody will ask intrusive questions about my genitals when I’m working out the route home with the least risk of being grabbed by a stranger. I do not care about whether or not the next convention is being held in a boring city – I care about whether I’m going to be arrested for using a public toilet.

Safe spaces, to me, speaks of a privilege. Which sounds like a huge contradiction in terms. And it should be.

But in my experience, it’s not.

And why not?

Because the fiction community doesn’t understand, I think, that danger is not an exaggeration. That safety is not only emotional and mental. That people – and trans people disproportionately so – die. And it’s not words that kill them.

The fiction community is so – and understandably – sunk in words and language and how that can be hurtful, that it misses, forgets or outright ignores that some of us aren’t at a place where language is even a blip on the radar yet. And gay rights has marched so far ahead of transgender rights that even the LGB folks among us mistake our comfort for our physical safety.

Sure. Being misgendered sucks. Colleagues avoiding me because I’m a freak is crap. Authors insisting I can’t be Matthew at conventions because of my appearance is shit. But my comfort and my safety are not the same thing.

Who cares if the EDL thug next door calls you a freak?

I care about the petrol bomb he’s throwing at my house.