Exclusive Spaces Primer
January 7, 2013 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I want to know more about the theory and practice of exclusive spaces for groups perceived as oppressed or subaltern, as in exclusively gay spaces, exclusively racialized spaces, trans only spaces, women only spaces, etc.

I am specifically looking for:

• Texts that justify/refute the need for and efficacy of exclusive spaces (could be theory-heavy or insightful journalistic pieces, essays, blog posts, etc);
• Your personal, direct, first-hand experience.

If there's some sort of canonical literature about this, I'd love if you could point me in that direction.

[I am not interested in learning more about exclusive spaces for groups in position of power, like exclusively white spaces or spaces for men only, and so on. I am not interested in hear-say or speculative opinion]

posted by TheGoodBlood to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In terms of queer spaces, which I have the most direct experience with, it can be very personally empowering to be in a space where I am not the minority, but where my identity/experience is the norm.

Also, though I definitely know some super fabulous straight/cisgender allies, it's not uncommon for allies to derail the conversations to their own experiences, or to want/need education when that's not the purpose of the meeting. This is especially relevant with regards to conversations about queer communities -- an example is a dialogue on my campus last spring regarding racism within the queer community that was closed to straight and cisgender allies.

Also, racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. comments are still really, really common, even among those with good intentions. In addition to experiencing them myself, I can easily think of a few inadvertently racist/sexist comments I've made somewhat recently that I'm grateful that my friends have called me out on, and I really try to think and educate myself about this stuff a lot. Dealing with these comments, whether it's through calling someone out, or just hearing them, is emotionally draining, and it can be really necessary to have spaces where you don't have to worry about it as much.

This is something I think about a decent amount, and I'm sure I have some links about it somewhere, so I'll try and pop back later with more thoughts/resources if I can!
posted by kylej at 8:26 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for, but this page by Amy Ray has transcripts of her 2005 interviews with "women on both sides of the (Michigan Womyn's Festival) controversy and Michigan Womyn's Festival co-founder, Lisa Vogel." (The controversy is over the Festival's status as a separatist space that favors women who are born women.)
posted by Wordwoman at 11:01 PM on January 7, 2013

This thread, which links to several articles on lesbian communities, might be helpful.
posted by ostro at 11:07 PM on January 7, 2013

I belonged to a women's gym for a while -- an upscale one, not the strip mall Curves type. It was the most pleasant gym-going experience of my life. It was nicely decorated, so while it was still definitely a gym it was still a nice place to come spend time. There were of course no men to hit on any of us, but there was also no sense that any women were there in order to be hit on -- and that changes the atmosphere. I never had to deal with any man condescendingly asking if I needed help with how a machine worked or some advice or anything like that. It all felt very no-judgement, regardless of how judgey co-ed gyms really are. Plus, as I work in a heavily male-dominated industry, it was nice to have a couple of hours each week surrounded by women just doing their thing with cozy towels and nice hand lotion in the locker rooms.

[Side note: this resulted in my favorite conversation ever with my younger brother. At the time he belonged to a gym in an area undergoing gay gentrification and thus there were quite a few openly gay men at his gym. He mentioned that he always made sure he has a straight workout buddy he could ask for a spot because he didn't want the gay men "looking at him" and hitting on him. I responded that this is exactly why I liked the all women gym, because I didn't have to worry about men hitting on me or staring at my boobs. He said "But when I'm at the gym I'm there to work out. I'm not looking for girls to hit on." "Exactly," I said. Then a lot of things dawned on him all at once.]

As far as groups for women, not just spaces for women, I've been involved with various groups and societies for women engineers. These can really vary in attitude, even within the same umbrella organization. Some are full of women baking cookies and knitting and chatting about life -- just sort of, like my gym example above, a chance to be feminine in a group of other women because the rest of your life is full of dealing with men all day every day where you can't wear a skirt instead of pants one day without inviting comment and speculation. Some offer that social outlet but also direct that energy into outreach and volunteer work, so you get a little bit of a chance to bitch about "Yeah, it sucks, amirite" in the context of being a woman among men, but also to try to do something about it. (as kylej says above -- it can be nice to spend some time among people where your experiences are the norm) Others spend the vast majority of the time on the bitching and discussion of the injustice. I am less a fan of those, but they have their place -- they make a lot of noise for change, and noise is needed for change. And here, the (often) exclusion of men is less about the social aspect and more about shared experiences.
posted by olinerd at 2:49 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a fair bit of research and literature on single-gender classrooms, and some kids definitely seem to do better in single-gender environments. In particular, women/girls are more likely to speak up and verbally participate in single-sex environments from elementary school up through college. In mixed-gender environments, there's often a "gateway girl" who will be more likely to participate, and once one girl has spoken up, more are likely to do so as well. I also remember reading about an elementary school classroom that was all boys that had slightly different rules for behavior than the other classrooms there (you didn't have to sit at your desk and could walk around, maybe?).

Right now, my immediate working environment is the least diverse I've been in since I left the construction trades and it occasionally bums me out. (The larger organization is much more diverse, but in the big room full of cubes that is my immediate working area it's me and about a dozen middle-aged (evidently) straight white guys).

I also belong to a women-only gym (I assume the same chain as olinerd), and it provides a nice counterbalance to the sausage-fest at work. I'm a bit conflicted about my gym, though - on the one hand, I recognize the inherent sexism involved in a women-only establishment (although I feel a bit better about that now that they have hired a few male trainers and staff), but on the other hand, as a self-conscious fat chick, I'm less comfortable in mixed-gender gyms. So, um, *flaily-muppet-arms*.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:27 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another area to look at are same-sex Catholic high schools, of which there are fewer and fewer. I don't know enough to say whether it's mostly due to monetary issues (historically all-girls schools just don't have the well-off alumni base from which to get donations and endowments), or if it's a sign of changing times in the church, or what.

When I graduated Catholic grade school in 1977 (Chicago), I had three all-girls Catholic high schools to choose from, all within a bus ride from my house. Now, I think there may be only a handful left in the entire metro area.

My high school started admitted boys with my freshman class. What was once a community of artsy, hippy nuns teaching the next generations of feminists focused on social justice* turned into a stereotypical suburban high school with stereotypical interests** within the space of a generation.

*Our gym leaked giant puddles and the building literally listed to one side, but we had another entire building dedicated to one of the nuns' kiln, and we had not one, but TWO fire circles on our lovely wooded campus.

**They knocked down the arts buildings and paved over half the woods to build a football stadium and parking lots.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:29 AM on January 8, 2013

I think that the reason the space exists is an important factor. I went to an all-girls' elementary and high school because in the (religious) community that I (and the school) were part of, it was almost unthinkable to have mixing of the sexes in that kind of environment, not for any of the standard reasons for all-girls schools. The school board was all male, as were the principals. I remember a male teacher (a rabbi) whom I felt was easier on us academically because we were women. It did not feel particularly empowering--it was just how things were.

Going from that world into the queer world where I've heard people speak glowingly of all-female spaces (Wellesley, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, lesbian separatist groups) has been an adjustment, and it's taken time for me to appreciate those spaces.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:39 AM on January 8, 2013

Response by poster: Great answers so far. Anything about racialized spaces (basically a space where Caucasians are not allowed)?
Kylej, it would be wonderful to get hoses links!
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:58 AM on January 8, 2013

This is an issue that came up every year while I was at college since many of our student affinity groups were "closed" (only people who identified as ______ could attend).

I'm not sure how it got started, but comparing the groups that I was active in (LGBT and Asian) it was both easier and more difficult for the queer group. Everyone understood the need for confidentiality for the LGBT students group, but since being a queer ally is super "in" there was a lot of frustration with having the main queer group be "closed" to non-LGBTs.

For the Asian/Asian-American group, there were people once in a while who were really interested in Asia (not the point, folks) who wanted to come.

It came down to the multiple functions that these kinds of groups served. They serve a support purpose (safe spaces from racism, homophobia), a community purpose (getting similarly-identified people together), and an advocacy/activism purpose, and the need (or lack of need) for a closed space is different for each one.
posted by polexa at 5:27 PM on January 8, 2013

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