The Queer Take: In making themselves devoid of the sexual, safe spaces are inherently limited
Those in the queer community most likely to pass off as straight are less preoccupied with safety than those like me who don’t pass easily, or at all. Safety is an issue for those of us with physical presentations that cause pause, that demand a retake, that bleed from the cutting questions | Joshua Muyiwa writes in 'The Queer Take'
Safety is an issue for those of us with physical presentations that cause pause, that demand a retake, that bleed from the cutting questions
In constructing safe spaces, the sexual is the first thing kept out
Why are safe and sexual on the opposite ends of the spectrum of activism, of community building?
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
As a queer femme person, I’m forced to reevaluate my idea of safety – not just on the daily but on the hour, every hour. Having spent all of September away from my home-town of Bangalore in the cities of Bombay and Delhi, I have also begun to grapple with the fact that safety isn’t just a problem of the everyday, it is an exhausting, endless and elastic one. I’ve come to see that those in the LGBTQ community most likely to pass off as straight are less preoccupied with this concept than those like me who don’t pass easily, or at all. Safety is an issue for those of us with physical presentations that cause pause, that demand a retake, that bleed from the cutting questions.
In the early days of taking this plunge into queerness, I thought I would find this fuzzy, warm feeling in “queer safe spaces” and I did (for some time). In these spaces, it felt lux, liberating and lovely simply because they were removed of heterosexuals. It seemed like other routes to the pleasures of living were available to each one of us, we didn’t have any predestined plans. Life didn’t have to be just one thing. And my sentiments seemed to find resonance in a oft-repeated sentiment in these safe spaces, someone would always admit, ‘that this is the one place where I can be myself’.
On first hearing someone say that sentence, I felt this tug in my chest, like they had articulated something for me. In time, I began to feel the room to make mistakes, openness to differences was becoming narrower. (Or maybe I was the kind of sapling that needs to be reared in a pot but once ready, it needed to be replanted in the field, among the others?) And very quickly, this utterance – that this is the one place where I can be myself – seemed to seal the very purpose of these spaces, it seemed to allow for it to pat its own back. It became apparent that queer safe spaces don’t feel safe for everyone eventually.
I suppose this is the way of all groupings, radical or not. In the course of time, the mist of this-is-the-way-things-are-done-in-this-forum settles down, it takes deep root. In hindsight, this wasn’t the thing that truly bothered me about these queer safe spaces. It was that while we were able to unpack, unmake and undo other dominant ideas of the world and society through our conversations, the idea of safety itself was already predetermined for the group. And this idea of safety was something pure. In constructing these safe spaces, the sexual is the first thing kept out. In my understanding of this reasoning, it is because support spaces didn’t want to play to the perverse imagination of a society that would think these were sex clubs. The party line being: we already had enough bad press, we didn’t need anymore of it.
But: in truth, the sexual was the thing that took the longest to sit right – at least for me. There’s so much shame, disgust and confusion regarding these pleasure practices that I would’ve liked a “queer safe space” to experiment, explain and exhume. I’ve come to see while my mind was expanded in these safe spaces to be able to hold two (or more) stances at the same time, my body wasn’t offered the same possibilities of gymnastics to achieve limberness. I’m not saying all gatherings should turn into orgies, I’m not saying they shouldn’t either. (There should be possibility as opposed to none, right?) And I’m asking, and hoping to eventually find answers to the questions: What does safety look like along with the sexual, the accommodating, desiring body? What kinds of practices run parallel between these two places? Why are safe and sexual on the opposite ends of the spectrum of activism, of community building? Why can’t the sexual still want the succour of safety? What does safety mean devoid of the sexual subject?
In time, I’ve also wanted to participate in the maintaining of my own safety. I don’t want to be taken care of, I’d like to decide, dictate and demand the terms of that offer, that guarantee, that consensus. And this new need to negotiate for myself has stopped seeming silly to me. I’ve realised waiting doesn’t always pay off. Maybe just like shame, safety is supposed to be something that tingles in the background. Maybe just like shame, safety is supposed to appear and disappear, and in doing so, it makes us alive to its existence. Maybe shame is a result of too much safety, and shamelessness is a threat to it. Maybe spaces can be more than one thing: safe and sexual. Maybe we won’t find a fix. But I’d like to think we at least set out to make things anew, even something as new as safety. I’d like to think that on the way to interrogate this idea, we could find something that actually doesn’t make safety something that I, or you, have to think about on the daily, on the hour, every hour.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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