“Safe Space” and the LGBT Community

Many people, when they talk about LGBT older adults, say we need “safe space.”  In practice, this is often defined as LGBT (only) space, where participants can be assured they won’t be confronted with homophobia, bias, or violence.

 If only that were so!

Although it can surprise non-LGBT people, the fact is that bias and prejudice is common within the LGBT community.  I was vividly reminded of that this weekend when GrayPrideParade got a long message from “Connie” or “Priss Cullen,” a “retired psychologist” who says she has seen me at many conferences.   She spent two full pages enumerating my faults, all of which boiled down to this: my “toxic gender identity ideas” are an “attack on same-sex-loving, self-identified, bio-birth women and men.”  In other words, it is absolutely not possible in her world to support transgender people’s right to change or re-define their gender AND support (non-transgender, presumably) lesbians and gay men; if I’m doing the one, I must be attacking the other.  “I have had it with you,” she writes, “Stop.”

Her email brought to mind a crisis that recently engulfed a long-established LGBT aging group.  Struggling with personnel and financial issues, the Board of Directors fired the only staff member and tried to run the organization without staff and without much income.  Within months, the Board was down to only 4 people, two of whom were heterosexual businesspeople who were so saddened and confused by the “attacks” they got by email from members – some of whom claimed “everyone” was saying the same thing – charging them with not representing the membership.  So the Board announced they were all resigning, a decision that would cause the organization to fold if no one stepped forward.  Thankfully, some did, but the Board lost two very dedicated leaders who did – and would have continued doing – much good for the organization.  Too late, I realized that part of the problem was that these heterosexual board members simply hadn’t been that involved in LGBT organizations in the past, and had no idea of the vehemence with which we LGBT people often attack those who dare to step into leadership roles.

The irony is that both Connie and the LGBT aging organization’s critics – despite being interested in the same things as those they were criticizing (Connie’s been attending the same conferences I have, and apparently sought out GrayPrideParade) – were willing to kill off an organization or effort because they disagreed with some aspect of the leadership.   These are examples of how firmly people can clutch their own worldviews: they’re willing to damage their interests to keep those views unsullied.

Like Connie, I’m sure my beliefs color what I see in the world, but to me, it isn’t identity that provides safety.  Safety resides in how we behave and what we say to one another.  That’s why the curriculum designers for the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging added two long segments on teaching people skills in addressing bias.  One curriculum is for aging services providers who want to serve LGBT older adults; the other curriculum is for LGBT organizations themselves.  Sadly, we badly need this skills training in order to establish and maintain even LGBT-only organizations in which all participants are free from biased attacks.

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