There are safe spaces, and then there are entire segregated social spheres. The first are places where members of a marginalized group can come together in the midst of busy lives to talk together openly, and the second are more like a way of life. One might be a community center on a campus that LGBT students can drop into for a support group, and the other looks more like, say, an LGBT-only dorm -- an idea that has popped up at a smattering of universities. One is a good, even necessary, idea. The other is not.
Birmingham University is currently the only university to offer a LGBT-only living space in Great Britain, and only a handful of colleges and universities offer the option of LGBT-only living spaces on campus in the United States as well. Response from other students, campus administrators and legislators to the concept has been overwhelmingly negative. Most American universities want to ensure the safety of their LGBT student population, and these spaces that create further segregation from the rest of the non-LGBT student population would ultimately create more divide and friction.
Safety is often cited as the central defense of the LGBT-designated living quarters on college campuses. But safety is such dorms’ greatest drawback. An LGBT-only living arrangement would heighten the risk of targeted violence or vandalism. Everyone who passes through the structure’s doors would be forced to come out in a potentially very public way -- a risk that students might not be considering in the moment they sign up for what they hope will be a perfectly safe living environment. The Guardian quoted Simon Thompson, the director of a website about student living, who voiced a similar concern: “Segregation will only lead to more victimization; it will not solve any problems,” he said. “I believe this is the view of a very small minority.”
I hope it goes without saying that I long for a world in which there is no risk associated with publicly announcing oneself as LGBT. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in that world. Does establishing separate lives, homes and social circles for people who do and don’t identify as LGBT help us closer to that world we all hope for? I suspect not.
As a social equity scholar and human rights activist, I have been researching and teaching in the area of LGBT issues for 15 years. My latest publication is entitled “Leadership and Racing Toward the Arc of Freedom by African-American Gay and Bisexual Men” (a chapter in African-American Males in Higher Education Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities, from Peter Lang). Here I argue that gay and bisexual African-American men and other men of color are routinely left out of the LGBT conversation as a whole, except when it comes down to closeted and/or predatory sexual behavior. I am proud to act as an advocate for all of my students on campus at the University of San Francisco, and I take great pride in being someone who many LGBT college students turn to for advice when they look to make important life decisions.
The long, painful, but ultimately promising mainstreaming of acceptance of LGBT rights happens to have come alongside the dispersing of LGBT communities, even historically well-established ones like in San Francisco. I’m doubtful that the correlation between stronger public support of LGBT folks and lower concentration of LGBT communities is incidental.
How can the segregation of our college campuses contribute to the continuing progress that must happen in our society? In the same Guardian piece cited above, Lily Robinson, a 22-year-old student in Great Britain who identifies as transgender, worried that “rather than tackling the problem by making it clear homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other discrimination aren’t acceptable, separate living or schooling means we are running away from the problem.”
It’s important to stress here that while I’m leery of LGBT-only living situations at universities, I do wholeheartedly support the development and protection of safe LGBT spaces like support groups and gay bars. Safe spaces usually have clearly defined, collectively maintained codes of behavior that help LGBT folks feel less vulnerable to the possibility of discrimination. In my mind, the important difference here is that community centers and bars are places where people spend just a fraction of their time (although certainly an important fraction -- one that may prove crucial for their social and mental well-being). A person who frequents a gay bar will probably find plenty of other opportunities in their day to establish relationships with people of diverse identities. In contrast, while an especially social person who lives in an LGBT-designated dorm could conceivably do the same, it would also be easy to restrict most social effort to the living space.
My position is not that we should expect LGBT students, or anyone else, to act as though homophobia and discrimination are things of the past. They are not, and it would not serve anyone to pretend otherwise. In the spirit of fighting for safer, more inclusive spaces everywhere, perhaps we could all advocate for more laws like the one passed in California, which protects LGBT students from discrimination at private universities. But let’s continue fighting for inclusion and equality on all fronts, rather than retreating into segregated social spheres.