Why We Need Safe Spaces

By Keith Orr

My husband and I are the owners of the \aut\ BAR, a gay bar and cafe. We work hard to provide good food and drink. We strive to provide good, or even exceptional, customer service. In general we are pretty successful at achieving those goals. Any bar and cafe should strive to achieve these things. It's how you survive. And we have survived for 30 years. So we must be doing something right.

But that is not our mission. First and foremost, our mission is to provide a safe space for the LGBT community.

We live in a bubble called Ann Arbor. This is one of the most progressive cities in the country. We had the first openly gay elected official in the nation. Local ordinances protect us across the LGBT spectrum.

The last few years have brought acceptance of LGBT Americans in the armed forces across the country. We have achieved marriage equality. We have openly gay members of Congress.

Our mission was beginning to sound rather quaint.

I recently had a customer arrive directly from the hospital. He was hungry and came in for the good food and drink. He had spent the day at the VA hospital, as he had been attacked the night before at a TGI Fridays by a Trump supporter. I am neither knocking nor endorsing TGI Fridays, just pointing out that "safe space for the LGBT Community" is not part of their mission statement.

One of the owners of another business in our little courtyard was attacked in front of her house. She was attacked because she still had her Hillary sign up. The rainbow flag was probably a further provocation. Rainbow flags are being destroyed and threatening notes are being left on cars and on front doors. We have been hearing reports across the country of similar incidents.

Suddenly the idea of a safe space doesn't seem so quaint.

I often say we are a neighborhood bar, except that our neighborhood is demographic, not geographic. We try and build community and strengthen our political position: locally, statewide and nationally. We are even a footnote in LGBT history for our response to the late Fred Phelps and the wackos from Westboro. We have fundraised and lobbied. We have marched and protested.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

That arc is not a smooth arc. Look at the gays who celebrated their great gay life during the Weimar Republic. Within a couple of years, the Nazi party sent them to concentration camps. They went from cabarets to wearing the badge of the pink triangle. Many did not survive.

Swastikas are showing up across this country. The white nationalist movement believes this election was a mandate ... not a mandate for the business magnate Donald Trump, but for their white nationalist aspirations.

People are afraid and have good reason to be.

A day or two after the election I found myself in a small, cozy and very warm room. I wondered if it would be possible to hibernate in that little space for, say, four years.

Many of my friends report similar urges. Finding a safe space is a natural response to fear. But hiding in those safe spaces does not contribute to Dr. King's long moral arc.

To quote Elie Wiesel, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented".

Action is required. We are all struggling to find positive ways to react. In these early days we are giving money to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other groups who can help. We are calling Congress regarding appointments and issues. In the future, we may have to put ourselves into more dangerous positions such as signing up for Muslim Registries in solidarity and other means of civil disobedience.

The Underground Railroad was resistance to the most brutal and dehumanizing American experience: human slavery. Over the long course of its existence, between 25,000 and 100,000 people escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad. The journey was composed of points of safe spaces connected by perilous journeys.

It is both a metaphor and a model for us to follow. We need to be ready to put ourselves on the line for the defense of civil liberties for all races, genders, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations. That will mean perilous journeys.

Support those organizations which will organize and fight: ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Equality Michigan and Democracy for America. We need our safe spaces more than ever. Support your local community centers, Planned Parenthood, open and affirming churches, mosques, temples, and your local LGBT businesses.

Here's a very important point about the Underground Railroad: it could not exist without allies willing to risk everything. We need allies in our struggles. And we need to be allies to others. There are many of us who have suffered prejudice in the past: gays, lesbians, transgender people, queers, Muslims, women, African-Americans, Latinx, to name a few. Since the election, the acts of prejudice have not just increased, they have transformed into something more openly hateful and violent.

When a woman wearing a hijab is being harassed, we need to step forward and be an ally. When someone starts spouting racist crap publicly, we need to be the first voice that says, "Sit down and shut up." And when some jerk dude starts telling a woman that we live in "Trump's America" now, we need to let the jerk know that America belongs to all of us.

None of us can predict the future. But to ensure that Dr. King's long moral arc is sustained, we will need the courage to stand up for what is right, and to protect the security of our safe spaces.


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