A few months ago, in the small New Jersey town where I live, three rainbow flags—one of which flew on a religious congregation’s flag pole—were stolen. Most of the residents here fancy themselves progressive, so once people realized what had happened, shock and outrage flooded our local Facebook page. “How could something like this happen in our town?” many demanded. Everyone, it seemed, was surprised to learn that our streets had been crossed by people whose disdain for the LGBTQ community was so acute that they had stooped to criminality.
As an LGBTQ resident, I felt only minimally comforted by the fact that such disdain resides within a meager minority of our town’s population. After the hate crime, my partner and I became much more hesitant to hold hands in our town. What if we walk past the people who stole the flags? If they hate people like us so much that they scaled a flag pole, stole from a congregation, and committed a prosecutable offense in order to express their hatred, what would keep those people from attacking my partner or me for holding hands on the sidewalk? All it would take is one person….
Thanks to donations, the congregation quickly purchased another rainbow flag (along with security equipment), and two weeks later they hosted a flag dedication service, at which I spoke. A spirit of triumphant defiance pulsed through the packed room, and our town’s pro-LGBTQ ethos was powerfully displayed. At the same time, though, my spirit felt deflated by the sobering lesson of this hate crime: no matter how tolerant you think your town is, no matter how safe your space seems, it can always be infiltrated by haters. No space, however progressive, is impermeable to bigotry. That doesn’t mean we stop working to make spaces safer; it just means that we are only kidding ourselves when we think “That would never happen here.”
We all know it, but many of us keep forgetting: bigotry roams. It does not stay put in the places where you expect it to be, the places many of us learned to avoid long ago. Bigotry never settles down. It is always on the move, and it could always be around any corner. (My trans friends know this far better than I do.)
Even when bigotry doesn’t find a way into our spaces, it is never too far away.
I came awfully close to inhabiting a safe space last year, when I joined a group called Queering Faith on Princeton University’s campus. During each of our meetings, the ten or so of us regular attendees shared our experiences, listened earnestly, affirmed each other, grew closer to each other and to our truth. One evening, a young man entered our space for the first time. He spoke kindly, smiled warmly, and seemed genuinely interested. Then he pulled out a Bible and started reading Romans 1 and asked us to respond, and suddenly what was supposed to be a safe space for queer people of faith became a battlefield, with only one person wielding weapons. And one person is all it takes. (The loved ones of the Charleston Nine know this far better than I do.)
Even when bigotry doesn’t find a way into our spaces, it is never too far away. Two years ago, I attended my first Pride, and despite feeling giddy and free for much of the day, I couldn’t stop glancing at the protestors on the other side of the fence. When I left the enclosed event space, it wasn’t two minutes before a man with a megaphone pointed directly at me and called me a filthy dog headed for hell.
My sister was next to me. It was her first time, too. Despite her lack of familiarity with the panoply of Pride, she was as enthusiastic as she could be about supporting her brother. Once the immediate shock of the heckler’s cruelty subsided, she turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll just have to bring my own megaphone next year!”
Although there is no such thing as a safe space (i.e., a space that is impervious to those who are against us and who would do us harm), there is such a thing as safe people.
That’s what we need most: people we trust who will show up, walk alongside us, and fight with us when—not if—necessary.
And really, that’s what we need most: people we trust who will show up, walk alongside us, and fight with us when—not if—necessary. Whether or not we succeed in making various physical spaces safer, each of us can intentionally share space with safe people, and each of us can strive to be a safe space ourselves.
One of my friends and mentors, Rev. Micah Bucey, speaks often about being a sanctuary: offering our bodies as safe spaces who protect and sustain the vulnerable. In our overwhelmingly unsafe world, we need every sanctuary we can get. In an unsafe situation, one person may be all it takes.
And no one knows this better than I do.