O’CONNELL: Creating safe spaces

I recently mentioned to a freshman that, when I came to Yale, I identified as straight. He laughed out loud. It was an entertaining moment — but not because I was joking.

I wasn’t joking. I, like many other Yalies, came to Yale “in the closet” about my queerness, though in my case it only took three weeks at Yale to leave the proverbial closet. For the first time, I found myself in an environment where I felt safe and respected with regard to my sexuality. Two years later, as the current Coordinator of the LGBTQ Co-op, the idea that I ever struggled with my identity seems like a joke to people who meet me.

Many of us are privileged enough to experience Yale as a safe space for our expressions of identity, be it our sexuality, gender or any other identity. What I did not realize as a first-year is this: Some are not so lucky.

Despite our alleged commitment to equal opportunity and open dialogue, we have failed to create an environment in which all individuals and identities are equally valued. And what’s worse is that we don’t talk about our failings — many of us on campus don’t even notice them.

When Yale’s healthcare policy excludes medically necessary gender-related surgeries; when we welcome back ROTC in violation of our own Equal Opportunity Statement; when we invite speakers to campus (Rick Santorum, Anthony Esolen and Harvey Mansfield, among others) who deny the existence of real same-sex love and reinforce heteronormative notions of gender; when our healthcare providers are insufficiently trained in LGBTQ issues to provide us with adequate counsel; when members of our community deny the existence of rape culture — we cannot in good conscience say that we have created a safe space which values equally the well-being of all members of our community.

The Yale Presidential Search committee’s recent “Presidential Search Statement” declares that “at its core, Yale is more than an academic environment; Yale is a living and learning community…”. Today, on National Coming Out Day, we are invited to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we are working as hard as we can to make our communities, Yale and beyond, safe spaces where everyone may live and learn to the fullest of their potential. We are asked, in short, to become better allies to one another.

Allyship is neither unilateral nor confined to the concerns of straight people for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer compatriots. Nor is allyship passive, or confined to acceptance of our friends’ identities. Allyship is active participation in the creation of safe spaces. I urge us, the student body, faculty and staff and other members of the Yale community, to come out as allies to one another, and to commit ourselves to advocating for safe spaces, whether as small as our dorm rooms or as large as our campus.

When will we know if we have succeeded? The reality is that there is no end to critical dialogue — safety is not static. Our success lies not in stasis, but in the capacity for and commitment to dynamism.

We cannot continue to promote tolerance and acceptance as the end goals of activism. LGBTQ people should already expect to be treated like worthwhile human beings when we arrive on this campus. To expect an institution to “accept” our identities and penalize only overt acts of violence, harassment and discrimination towards LGBTQ individuals (or any other group) is to expect a bare minimum of decency. Our allyship must go beyond that. As scholars, we do not set an end goal to our education: We value education as a process, and commit ourselves to learning as a lifelong endeavor. The creation of safe space, too, is a process. It must begin, but cannot end, with tolerance.

Hilary O’Connell is junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at hilary.oconnell@yale.edu.

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