Lately, you might have come across the term ‘safe space’ in connection with an online group or a community organisation. The idea is to explicitly and consciously provide a place where marginalised people can find refuge or respite, away from the hostility of the outside world.
Gay bars are an example of safe spaces. No-one can deny that the discrimination and violence faced by gay and bisexual men was and is real. At the height of the HIV/AIDS media hysteria in the 1980s and 1990s there were many cases of men being chucked out of pubs, losing jobs, being disowned by their families, and just generally being socially ostracised due to a mass fear that they may infect or corrupt those around them.
Bars owned by and run for gay men were therefore incredibly important, as they provided a space for socialising and romance outside of the prejudice and even violence of the majority of other pubs and alcoholic establishments. The gay bars offered a very real safety, even if they were sometimes raided by police, bombed, or broken into. An individual bar might not be completely safe, but to have even the illusion of or attempt at safety was more than much of the outside world offered.
Gay men are not the only marginalised group in society, and they’re not the only people who want to feel safe. Next time you hear the term ‘safe space’ it may be worth remembering that our everyday environments are incredibly hostile to certain subsections of the population, and it is fair to seek refuge and respite. And while safe spaces are only ever an aim or ideal, as safety cannot be guaranteed by anyone, maybe one day we won’t need them at all – because the world will be a safe place for everyone.
Words: Ana Hine