Are You Listening?: In Defense of Habitable Spaces

Many conversations and discourses around diversity and inclusion in academia mention making spaces (often classroom-focused but more importantly, all spaces on campus) more habitable, or “safe.” Habitable spaces are spaces that allow for anyone, particularly those from historically oppressed, marginalized, and underrepresented groups, to be able to exist without the threat of violence. Habitable spaces allow for students and ideas to flourish. To be happy. They allow for students to feel comfortable and to accomplish their work without feeling shame.

Moments of violence are not always easily apparent to those who are enacting the violence or are bystanders. For example, if one has spent one’s entire life with one’s sexuality being affirmed by every social institution, the state, and even random strangers (i.e. how marriage is visibly reaffirmed as a monogamous-heterosexual relationship), one may not recognize a comment such as “I understand that gay people are and can be in relationships, but why do they have to flaunt it in public? […] I am not being homophobic; I am also uncomfortable by straight couples showing affection in public, I don’t even like kissing my partner in public” as violent, but the statement instantly notifies myself and any other queer person in the room, despite the intentions of comment, that the space is not habitable for us as a queer person. (This is a real quote said during a class here at Westminster. But Westminster is open to people’s “sexual preferences,” right? [sarcasm intended])

There is a very old and tired stereotype of queer folk—specifically the image which is depicted by heterosexuals is usually of gay men (and, for the record, this is an act of erasure of other queers), but it is often still applied to all queers in various ways—as flaunting their sexuality or expression by simply existing in public spaces. This stereotype has many origins but most notable is the origins of Pride parades and the very public heterosexual response; and for clarity, I am not critiquing the origins of Pride parades, as they were riots, functioning as for and by queer people, and are an example of “queering” public spaces which did not allow for queer people to exist without a violent response. As opposed to now, whereas the parades serve the function of reassuring well-meaning allies (whether individuals or groups of folk) for being allies. Instead, the critique I am making is of how heterosexuals reacted to the origins of Pride parades. The absolute grandest of all ironies is Westminster continuous participation in the Pride Parade to appear inclusive but the college’s reluctance to institute habitable spaces.

This comment (which a majority of the class visibly nodded in, what I assume, was agreement) is violent because queer folk in this space know that this person and the class, again, regardless of intention, view queer folk, or more notably, queer expressions of love and affection, as deviant. Something that is more appropriate in private. And this notion reproduces not only a history queer marginalization but also both physical and verbal violence against queer folk. As a queer person, I then know, that in this space, this notion is used to discredit, ignore, marginalize, and, at its worst, invalidate my existence in the space. The space is no longer habitable. And let’s be clear, non-habitable spaces on campus are a Title IX violation.

Habitable spaces are not, as has been implied by multiple individuals on campus, restrictions to one’s freedom of speech or not allowing a critique of one’s beliefs or assumptions. As is often pointed out by detractors of habitable spaces, college and all institutions of higher education should challenge students to think critically and challenge their views and assumptions. However, those who benefit for being able to exist with spaces already being habitable to them are not the one’s critically analyzing their assumptions. My existence as a queer person is not an assumption or belief. One’s belief that I should be able to or obliged to negate my experience as a queer person in academia is an assumption that has not historically been challenged by the majority or institutions.

One of the things which unites all marginalized folk is the fact that the majority has made us undesirable. Deviant. Sub-human. This is used to justify a history of atrocities and oppression. By demanding habitable spaces, we are not even demanding retribution, we are demanding the right to be human. The right to exist and flourish without the threat of violence.