Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Character of Spaces

Two weeks ago, Barnard College held its annual “Queer Issues Forum” during which students, administrators, and staff are invited to discuss concerns, problems, etc. of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) and Allied students. I’ve attended this forum for the past three years, and have found that certain issues are raised repeatedly, such as the school’s policy for transgender students, first-year housing concerns, and, always, “safe” spaces or “queer” spaces on campus. The last of those, “safe” space, had always seemed a simple concept to me, until this semester, when my Landscape Archaeology class brought up questions I had never before thought to ask: What makes a space “safe” or “queer” or “gay-friendly”? Is it the presence of a rainbow flag? Is it the people who occupy it? Is it something physical or ephemeral? And, more generally, what give spaces their character, beyond just the architecture, shape, or look of the place?

It is not unusual for a campus to have a dedicated lounge or resource space for LGBT students. I was surprised to find that Barnard College has no such lounge, and that Columbia barely does either. Columbia’s Stephen Donaldson Lounge is located in the basement of a Columbia dorm building, and is named for a former student who was a gay rights activist and the founder of Columbia’s first LGBTQ organization, The Columbia Student Homophile League (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/gables/comnews/5.1-1996-09/cn_6.html). The Columbia Queer Alliance Website, the space was “reclaimed” by Donaldson a number of years ago. According to campus legend, the room was a janitor’s closet or previous office space, when it fell into disuse. Donaldson, having decided the campus needed a queer lounge, camped out in the room until the administration surrendered the space, a method reminiscent of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. Though the space is small and cramped, frequently locked, and inaccessible to students not living in Columbia dorms (Barnard students, graduate students, off-campus students, commuter students, etc), it is embraced by the LGBT student population. (Side note: I will post pictures soon, but as I am a Barnard student, I have not yet been able to get into the space to take such photos). While I appreciate the space, I find the symbolism to be somewhat striking: literally, although perhaps not figuratively, the nexus of LGBT campus life is “back in the closet.”

It has always seemed somewhat of a travesty for a school with a history of gay rights activism, in a city that is a bastion of gay culture, not to have been given a more suitable queer space. Particularly so for Barnard, as it opened its large new student center only a few years ago. And though this has been brought up year after year at the Queer Issues Forum, no headway has been made. One administrator said this year, (to paraphrase): ‘I don’t like the notion that there need to be designated safe spaces, because that implies that the campus is not safe. The whole campus should be a safe space.’

For me, this raises the question: What makes a space “safe” or “unsafe”? In Manhattan, this is an issue that recurs frequently, and has been mentioned in previous blog posts on this site. Columbia and Barnard’s Campuses, gated and guarded at all times, certainly seem to be protective of the physical safety of those within, but what of other types of safety? Certainly, there are clear markers of certain types of safety, symbols we’re trained to understand through a lifelong cultural education. Dark alley= bad, manicured lawns=good. But is it so simple? What symbols do we interpret subconsciously, without a second thought? There’s something intriguing and ephemeral to spaces that give them an ambience, greater, in my opinion, than the sum of its parts.

And so, tied in with the question is the one I brought up at the beginning of this post: What makes a space “queer-friendly” or simply, “queer”? I would argue that although I have found most people on campus to be accepting of me and my sexuality, there are certainly places I feel more comfortable being open about it and places where I do not. Barnard and Columbia student groups have sought to introduce visual signifiers to campus spaces, such as the flier depicted below.

This flier is slid under each dorm room door at the beginning of the semester, with directions to post it on your window if you support LGBT students. This year, living in the Barnard Quad for the first time, I was shocked to see how many windows had these fliers posted. Seeing these fliers go up gave my dorm, the quad, and to some extent, the entire campus, an entirely new ambience for me. While I’d never felt excluded, I somehow felt freer to express myself of campus. Nothing about the architecture or manicured lawns had changed, but my perception of the space was drastically altered by those simple pink fliers.

These issues are not simply related to LGBT experiences. As a queer, Jewish woman, I am constantly (sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously) gauging how accepting a space, a group of people, or an individual is to the various aspects of my identity, based largely on visual signifiers. I still can’t quite explain what makes some spaces feel more or less “safe”, but I do know that the iconographic signifiers within a space influence my understanding and experience of the location. Beyond those symbols even, what makes a space feel “welcoming,” “cold”, “elite”, or “relaxed”? Sometimes the people inside, sometimes the décor, sometimes the architecture, and perhaps also something else entirely- a feeling, a gut reaction, something impossible to describe.


nasser said...

Hi Jenn,
Nice pose - enhanced by your personal story. I wonder whether the paucity of LGBT safe spaces is precisely because, as you mention, the university and the city in general has a tradition of promoting gay rights. Perhaps this isn't such a charged issue in this particular "landscape." Although I do think Barnard would make for an interesting case study on this issue, because there are all sorts of perspectives and intentions to consider, not least including the parents of students. It's interesting that one of the arguments in favor of the "Ground Zero Mosque" was that, in such a charged environment, the building of the mosque would represent our tradition of tolerance. Who advocates such positions and tracing the networks of different perspectives on such spaces would be beneficial to our understanding.
See you in class.

nasser said...